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The Jump Artist, Austin Ratner

May 2, 2012

10 september 1928, the Zillertal, Austria.
Eduard Severin Maria, One of the elder princes of Auersperg, led a hunt that day in the valley. His horse fell and was later found beheaded in the grass.

I knew nothing of Austin Ratner, or of The Jump Artist, when I picked up this book. It was also a review copy, and as such had barely any blurb, just lots of rave reviews. I found out, though, that it was the story of Latvian celebrity photographer Philippe Halsmann, or the story of his past before he became the photographer of Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and all those other shiny, myth-encased names of black-and-white beauty.

I had just finished Tom Bullough’s Konstantin. Like Konstantin, The Jump Artist was part of the treasure retrieved at the Penguin Book bloggers night, and like Konstantin, it was the story of the hardships and really tough life of a man who overcame his struggles, and became someone great.

Salvador Dali and Rhinoceros, by Philippe Halsmann

I don’t know if this genre, this biographical fiction, is particularly en vogue these days, or I have just happened to stumble over a lot of it, but I have to say that I am a huge fan of the genre. Admittedly, I have spent the weeks since easter reading Game of Thrones, which is sharply opposite, but I have decided that once I finish reading things on my “urgent” to-read list (book club books, and books I have already bought or been given, as opposed to my “one-day” to-read list, which is books I have only on goodreads) I am going to read my way through the real fictional lives of history. I think perhaps what I love about these books, and The Jump Artist in particular, is the astounding truth behind every word.

Truth is stranger than fiction, it is said. And I have to say I agree. It is also more moving, for being true, and more poignant. And when an account of someone’s real life is written as beautifully, astoundingly as Ratner has written the life of Halsmann, it bites deep.

Self Portrait by Philippe Halsman

Self Portrait by Philippe Halsman

At the novel’s outset Philippe is hiking through the Austrian mountains with his father. He is a boy. However, the chapter his headed by the following excerpt:

Tell me, have you ever dreamt that you were flying?
Phillippe Halsmann, letter to Ruth Römer, Innsbruck  Prison, 30 july 1929.

It is soon clear that Philippe is being accused of murdering his father, of being a vatermörder. He is in a swiss jail, in the grips of a pre-world war II nazi central Europe. He is a jew. He is peculiar and intelligent, and in jail for killing his father. It is hard to do anything but sympathise with Philippe, though he by no means a meek lamb of 2D victimising. He has his ups and downs, and Ratner paints a multi-faceted picture of this young man, grieving for the loss he being accused of having caused.

Make no mistake, this is a heavy book. In addition to being an account of a renowned portrait photographer’s rise to fame, The Jump Artist is also an account of nazism, not in it’s shiny boot-ed, parade-ed, nightmarish completion, but in it’s casual, every-day, regular-people indoctrinated, truly scary early stages. But it is also an extremely well written, moving novel, by a great writer.

It is not some flippant description of a celebrity photographer, but a portrait of someone shaped by hard choices, by ruthless cruelty, and in the end by a gift of seeing and portraying. And just as with Konstantin, I finished the last page feeling that I had learnt something important, and that this was a beautiful book I wanted to tell the world to read.

And so I am.

UK Cover

The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner will be released by Penguin on 5 July 2012.

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