Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Review: Back There by Howard Waldman

Howard Waldman can write. This is a man in superb control of his material. A man who knows his characters inside out and who can bring them across to us with a sense of reality that is quite beautiful. He is also very funny. At times he has a wicked turn of phrase that can bring the reader from a smile to a laugh, usually at the expense of Harry .
Chris Williams

Howard Waldman’s Back There reverberates long after it’s been devoured and put back on the bookshelf. A novel too unashamedly individualistic and underivative to be easily squished into a genre pigeonhole, it offers a litfest of walking-talking-breathing-emoting characters set in the fuggy café ambience of mid-century Paris and country dacha retreat.

The protagonist, Harry, l’étranger from New York, is a memorable character. Howard subtly insinuates the reader into Harry’s convoluted thoughts and ambivalent heart. Arriving in la gaie Paris by a bizarre twist of fate, Harry engrosses himself in photography and at times his vision, or weltangshauung, is so warped that it seems as if he’s viewing life through a distorted lens. Ineffectual in the art of basic survival, Harry is – until self-made disaster strikes – an English tutor. There is much understated irony in his escapades, such as a pedantic grammar lesson serving as the springboard for steamy erotic foreplay.

Harry falls in lust, which he typically interprets as love, with a coldhearted but très belle mademoiselle. He eventually infiltrates himself into the belle’s home and we are given an almost voyeuristic insight into the private folds of a French mid-century family. The mother, the kindest woman and the worse cook in France, lavishes samples of her goodness and cuisine on Harry. The father sings opera arias at the dinner table and anoints his body with malodorous cod liver oil to achieve immortality. And not to forget the little grey sister who, with the passing of time, proves herself to be Harry’s eternal love. While this is a transatlantic love story, there is no suggestion of mawkish violins or hand in hand swoonishness.

Harry’s philosophical meanderings wend their way in and out of the narrative. This is done so sensitively that his quite profound and alarming thought patterns enhance the storyline rather than detract from it. Harry, while he is undoubtedly his own very idiosyncratic person, at times echoes and shadows Albert Camus’ unforgettable existential hero Meursault.

Back There is, without question, a literary tour de force which deserves a wide readership in English-speaking countries and, also, it would be a compelling and enlightening read for French bibliophiles.

Rebecca Latyntseva

Five decades ago I fell in love with a brick wall. Next to a bus stop I had ample opportunity to admire its colours, finger feel the rough texture, track the scurrying insects and over the years be astonished at how the mosses, lichens and miniature trees would burrow their roots in the desert-like substrate. Three decades ago I had my first article published. Yes, it was on walls: Detective work on the physical geography of sandstone walls. Thank you, Howard Waldman, for obliging these memories to flood back by having Harry Grossman be equally obsessed – in his case, photographing Parisian walls.

Harry is presented as such a self-deprecating anti-hero that I’m not sure I am supposed to care, but I do. It is tricky because we are not treated to his appearance until deep into the story. This is curious because we are regaled with vivid characterisation of others, including the liquid green eyes of his beloved’s brother.

There is no understating the plot. Waldman is a master of the ennui. His deep knowledge of mid-century France, both in the capital and in the sticks, oozes from the pages admirably. The American Harry, rudely bludgeoned by the police, discovers he has fallen in lust with a French beauty when his bleeding being recovers in her home. Does hapless Harry clutch his angel? One of Waldman’s writerly skills I am addicted to is his use of the conceptual double negatives in this book. Harry is after one goal but scores in another, then another. Linguistically too, he employs opposites brilliantly. For example ‘Addition is subtractive in the strange emotional mathematics of her language.’ Je t’aime is weakened to I like you when you add bien. Stop trying so hard, Harry. His girl knows this: It was always something else for you. This wonderful play with words permeate the whole novel in such delectable morsels.

Speaking of treats. Harry worms his way to the family’s rural farm. His New York life is poor preparation as illustrated with this gem: Where he comes from strawberries, once thawed, were in season all year round.

I will not spoil the ending, but it is both a crucial key and confusing, as is the beginning. I collect recursive stories, and this novel is one. A self-referential essay extraordinaire. I recommend the reader to skip the prologue until the last chapter is read, twice. In fact I am reminded of that joke where a local is asked directions: If I were you, sir, I wouldn’t start from here. The smoothest flowing prose is in the middle, and the beginning is a mosaic of confusion, much not really needed.

This is a beautiful book, so close to being perfect. As it stands it should be recommended reading for all lovers of English, with French dressing. I have no hesitation giving it an 85% rating.

Geoff Nelder

Back There is a deeply moving quixotic story that leaves even the most hardened cynic smiling at love's foolish ways. This book is destined for greatness and I would not be at all surprised to see the name Howard Waldman on the bestseller list.

Alastair Rosie

Harry Grossman sees his world through the viewfinder of a battered camera. And he photographs it all, from the peeling posters and graffiti on grubby city walls to the most intimate moments of his mysterious French sweetheart. He becomes a permanent guest at her family’s ramshackle country cottage, thirty miles and a century away from modern Paris. Harry, the New York outsider, calls it paradise and photographs the Model T Ford on the roof, the archaic well and scythe, the top-secret wild mushroom spots, and the reluctant Lauriers themselves.

They assume that outsider Harry will soon be a member of the family, but the strange photographer with his growing mountain of prints and negatives and imperfect French is not a man for snap decisions. Aren't things already perfect in this paradise? Someone once said, though, that the only paradises are lost paradises.

Back There is a touching and powerfully nostalgic transatlantic love story, sometimes verging on the comic, sometimes on the tragic. France and the French, too often caricatures of their own special reality, are presented with absolute authenticity.

With soft-focus subtlety, Howard Waldman shows that Europe and America are two continents divided by a perceived common culture of art and love – and that light-years separate Paris and Manhattan and the lives and values of the Lauriers and the Grossmans.


A few years after the purchase of Manhattan from the Indians, Howard Waldman, then aged 22, left his native island for Paris and freedom, and in less time than it takes to say Je t'aime found himself married to a lovely Parisian. To feed his growing Franco-American family he taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature to suffering French students.

He lives thirty miles outside Paris in a once rural area undergoing deplorable suburban transformation. He spends his days enjoying his wife's cooking, listening to chamber music in his chamber and trying to grow old roses in inappropriate soil.

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