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Austin Ratner has just made his debut as a novelist with a remarkable work based on the tragedy-filled life of Philippe Halsman, the iconic American photographer of the post-war years. The work documents a triumph of human spirit over tremendous adversity. I put six questions to Austin Ratner about his book.
1. Your novel focuses on Philippe Halsman, a New York photographer whose work gained international repute in the forties and fifties, but you write that your work is not so much a biography as a tribute to Halsman, just as Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac is a tribute rather than an example of verisimilitude. But your novel is filled with a vast collection of meticulous historical details. How did you settle on Halsman as a subject, and how do you distinguish historical detail from fiction in your approach to him?
I had Halsman’s famous photograph of Einstein hanging in my bedroom as a kid. (I was a nerd.) It’s the photo Halsman took at Princeton in 1947 during their conversation about the atom bomb, where Einstein told Halsman, rather ominously, “As long as there is man, there will be war.” But I didn’t know it was Halsman who took the photo until 2002, when I stumbled across a reference to the “Austrian Dreyfus Affair.” I learned then about Halsman’s photography and that Halsman suffered something very tragic early in his life before he went on to make these photographs for Life magazine that typified the outlook of postwar America—happy, funny, sexy, full of joie de vivre. And he made all these exuberant pictures of famous people jumping in the air too. Here was an individual who seemed to embody the ravages of the history of the twentieth century and also the miraculous healing and progress that that century saw. And his story was more or less unknown. I was fascinated.
I was careful to try to honor the facts as much as I could in the telling of it, because the full Halsman story has never been told at length in English, and because lies, rumors, and misunderstandings are what got Halsman into trouble in the first place. I worked with grad students to translate archival newspaper articles and a book of Halsman’s letters from 1930. I was interested first and foremost in his subjective experience, his inner life, and that is where the imagining comes in most of all. Even letters can’t get at the totality of inner life and subjective experience in the same way a novel can.
2. The core of your story is a recounting of Halsman’s trial on charges of patricide in Innsbruck in 1928-29—showing how Halsman is effectively denied justice, notwithstanding the international outcries against the wrongs that were done to him. You deal with the trial in great detail, focusing particularly on the role of the psychiatric opinion. Why so much focus on legal process and the role played by health care professionals?
A trial naturally dramatizes revelation and memory. Past events come out in the war between prosecution and defense rather than in meandering flashbacks. And that war in court for me was also a symbolic apparatus to represent the civil war of the psyche, as in the Kafka novel The Trial. We all have judges, prosecutors, and defenders in our minds. Even though Halsman was innocent of murder, I’ve supposed he suffered inner conflict, that he had some variety of “survivor guilt,” for instance, so that even as he was falsely accused in a court of law he maybe was also falsely accusing himself of having been unkind to his father or an inadequate steward of his father’s well-being. In many ways, it’s really a father-and-son story more than anything.
I was also interested in the idea of law as a rational order of thinking and in the way emotions distort that rationality, the way that distorted thinking can derail an individual person’s life or the life of a whole continent as it did in Europe under Nazism. The Halsman trial was a breakdown of the rational legal process under the pressure of fear and xenophobia. It’s a phenomenon highly relevant to certain things going on today.
I didn’t purposely focus on doctors in the novel. It so happened that historically Karl Meixner, a forensic pathologist who later acquired a reputation as a “radical Nazi,” was a key witness for the prosecution. It’s a grisly historical fact that he removed Philippe’s father’s head and displayed the head in court. It ended up in a jar at the University of Innsbruck and remained there for sixty years.
3. You completed an M.D. at Johns Hopkins before writing your novel. Do you intend to practice as a physician as well as write? How does your medical experience affect your writing?
A friend from med school recently wrote to me to say he started reading the book and that the prison scenes reminded him of his days at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Don’t laugh until you’ve had a lecture on transcriptional activation of zinc-finger proteins in the basement of the Pre-Clinical Teaching Building.
I co-wrote a physiology textbook for medical students that was published in 2005, but I don’t practice and don’t plan to. But medicine has definitely informed my outlook on human beings as a writer of fiction. A physician is comfortable with the idea of human nature in a way that an English major steeped in the works of Derrida is not. I like to write about human nature even though devotees to the postmodern creed might find that notion old-fashioned. I’m also interested in themes of illness and death and how people respond. Doctors are on the front lines of the ancient conflict between humanity and the second law of thermodynamics. Writers are engaged in a rear guard action in the same conflict, or they ought to be.
4. You call your work The Jump Artist and that clearly refers to Halsman. How do you come by this title, and what do you mean by it?
On one hand the title refers to Halsman’s photographs of people jumping in the air. Halsman noticed that when he photographed comedians—like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis—they would almost automatically jump in the air. (I guess in the 1950s that was funny.) Then he started asking everyone, Marilyn Monroe and comedians, but also the most staid people in the world, to jump for him, people like Mrs. Edsel Ford, Richard Nixon, Judge Learned Hand, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He felt that jumping removed inhibitions. As it happens the real historical Halsman was himself a great leaper who could turn a somersault in the air.
Metaphorically, the title refers to, I guess you could say, Halsman’s capacity for reinventing himself. He had to start over again and again. After the trauma of the affair in Austria, which had driven him to attempt suicide, he moved to Paris, learned the language and became a huge success as a photographer. Then the Nazis came after him again, and he fled to New York with basically the clothes on his back and had to start over from scratch. In the end he was fluent in six languages, a trained electrical engineer, a photographer, an author, and a damn good self-publicist. He was a person who seemed to lift himself up by his own bootstraps, like Baron Munchausen. He never gave up, even when the world was crashing down around him.
5. Clearly Halsman is able to overcome adversity repeatedly and despite all odds to make a success of himself (though he questions that), but much of his challenge involves the way he reconciles himself to his past. Plainly the experience of his father’s death was painful, and it haunts him to the last lines of the novel. How does Halsman manage to cope with these memories without being overwhelmed by them?
I know from researching his life that Halsman suffered and felt depressed even many years after the tragic events in the Alps, but he had a brilliant wit and a love of life too. I think that for a suffering person to elevate himself above his suffering and be joyous is an art. I suppose you can’t erase painful memories, maybe you can’t even erase the distorted patterns of thought that pain inspires. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube—that’s that second law of thermodynamics. (My older son, who is four, has tried. To put the toothpaste back in.) In that case I think you have to try to navigate the dangers of negative emotion, like Odysseus navigating past Scylla and Charybdis, and the only way you can do that is to try to know the danger and the emotion and its geography and architecture. I also find Jameson Irish Whiskey to be useful. But Halsman never touched alcohol. All the more reason to honor him with the name “jump artist.”
6. Halsman’s artistry as a photographer seems to turn in part on a mastery of technical things, but also on having an eye for the right moment and the right image that ultimately made his photographs—like the cover shot of Marilyn Monroe—iconic. This skill of capturing the moment seems both an art and a curse. Is that a fair summary of the “persistence of memory” theme that dominates your last chapter?
Halsman describes how he got the Marilyn shot in an article in Popular Photography in 1953. It seems he had a good sense for how to make her feel what she needed to feel in order to look like that. He and his assistant and a Life reporter were all flattering her and competing for her attention. Marilyn needed to be loved, and Halsman understood that about her. I think he understood other people’s vulnerabilities because he knew what it was to be vulnerable. In that sense, yes, his skill with his subjects may have come at a cost. I have certainly supposed this to be the case in my fictional re-creation of him. Marilyn told him about her own tragic past at her photo shoot that day in L.A., and she appears in that last chapter of my book as an emblem of psychological damage. Memory can persist in a painful and destructive way. But “The Persistence of Memory” is also the title of a Salvador Dalí painting. Dalí and Halsman collaborated together on a photograph called “Dalí Atomicus,” which shows Dalí jumping in the air with a bunch of flying cats, and Halsman shared Dalí’s ability to turn the horror of life, self, and time into art and comedy. Whereas Einstein seemed to gaze into the abyss when he looked into Halsman’s camera and thought about the atomic age, Dalí’s idea of the atomic age caused him to leap into the air with a bunch of flying cats. So I like to think that the somewhat gloomy title of the last chapter also holds the key to transcendence.
More from Scott Horton:
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”