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A Climb, a Crime and a Debut Novel

The Jump Artist By Austin Ratner Bellevue Literary Press, 256 pages, $14.95.

On September 10, 1928, a Latvian Jew was bludgeoned to death as he and his son hiked the Tyrolean Alps. The man’s son, Philipp Halsmann, 22 years old at the time, was convicted of the murder and spent the next two years in prison in Austria. In the appeal, Halsmann’s lawyer decimated what little evidence there was, but on the strength of an “experts’ report” from the medical facility of the University of Innsbruck, conjuring a brutal and embittered psychological portrait of the boy out of little more than the physical evidence of his father’s body, the sentence was upheld. Jewish and Jewish-sympathetic intellectuals and powerbrokers across Europe rallied for Halsmann’s release, condemning the verdict for what it was, a bald case of antisemitism, and Halsmann was eventually freed.

Though the specifics of the case are obscure in America, its broad outlines follow a script we know by heart. The story of the injustices done to the Jews of Europe in the years leading up to and culminating in the Holocaust is quite possibly the most often told tale in modern history. And though a certain portion of both the Jewish and gentile populations never tires of these stories, it’s hard to deny that the mandate to never forget has been fulfilled for at least the rest of our lifetime.

So why, besides commercial appeal, would an ambitious young writer choose this subject matter as the focus of his first novel? That this boy, Phillip Halsmann, grew into one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century, famous most notably for his depictions of joy, might provide some explanation. In “The Jump Artist,” his scrupulously researched first novel, Austin Ratner is interested not in rehashing the horrors of that era, but in exploring their aftermath — examining the effect they have on their survivors, asking what reservoir of will must a person possess to carry on after he’s seen the cruel depths to which humans are capable of descending. He’s not so much interested in the remembering as in the painful necessity of trying to forget.

The first half of the novel has the pace and excitement of a legal procedural. In brisk, evocative scenes, Ratner shuttles through the drama of Halsmann’s meetings with his lawyer, Dr. Franz Pessler, as they prepare for and wage the appeal. A parade of Aryan goons are trotted out — Karl Meixner, the forensic pathologist who keeps Halsmann’s father’s head in a glass jar; Wilhelm Kasperer, the investigator who, through insinuation and false deduction, “proves” Halsmann’s guilt; the various blond witnesses who encountered Halsmann and/or his father during their trek across the mountain. The lawyers execute their brilliant strategies, proving their cases with forceful rhetoric and clever gamesmanship.

Through it all, Ratner focuses again and again on Halsmann’s state of mind, his suicide attempts, his despair, his overwhelming guilt not for having committed murder, but for being weak, for being abject, for surviving. We watch as Halsmann massages the memory out of the few scraps he has left of his past, most notably, given what is to come, one particular photo of Halsmann holding his father in his arms. The prosecution attempts to show that if he’s strong enough to hold this larger man, he also must be strong enough to have murdered him. But the truth is, he’d held his father for only a moment; the photo captured this moment, but in doing so, it created an illusion.

We watch Halsmann endure the tedium of the cell, starving for the periodic letters to come from Ruth Romer, the German girl he loves; when they do, he caresses and gazes at them. Their contents hardly matter, what matters is their ability to conjure her into his presence:

He’d watched her write a précis in her little room in Berlin; her thumb bent and unbent around the pen like an inchworm inching across the page. And so from her pen strokes he could infer her living hand, and from her hand, he could infer her whole body, could almost imagine she were sitting there before him.

The prose here, and throughout the novel, contains a formal elegance. Ratner knows how to use rhythms and metaphors to evoke a sensory, psychologically grounded reality that writers with vastly more experience than him would envy, which is why, when halfway through the story, the trial ends and Halsmann is suddenly freed by executive order, cutting loose the narrative from the suspense that has been propelling it thus far, we keep reading. Like Halsmann himself, we find ourselves dislocated, thrust into a new, unexpected environment.

In possibly the most affecting scene of the novel, Ruth visits him soon after his release from prison. She responds to his emotional remoteness with well-intentioned attempts to re-engage him in the world. When finally he allows himself to believe that the love between them might continue unhindered, he discovers that their bodies no longer understand each other:

She just wasn’t the same Ruth as the one in the little portrait he’d wrapped in wax paper each night in Innsbruck prison, and not the same as the Ruth of Lugano, Dresden, or Berlin. He felt himself closing again like the balustrade gentians at night.

Though this is as much a survivor’s tale as any novel focused on the Nazi camps, Halsmann’s story occurs in the margins around the most egregious atrocities of the Holocaust. The second half of the book takes him on a sentimental journey through the highs and lows of Paris between the wars, growing ever more famous as a photographer, and ever more frivolous, at least outwardly. This is where “The Jump Artist” becomes truly interesting. To survive the calm of civilian life, Halsmann must regain his sense of humor and relearn how to engage beauty. This requires him to accept the possibility that he deserves to live in a world where beauty and humor are possible at the same time, as he watches, with wincing recognition, the dark rise of those forces that once imprisoned him.

But how? This, in Austin Ratner’s telling, has everything to do with the photos Halsmann takes. As he learned early on from the photo of his father, the right image can make a lie seem like the truth. What can be seen in Halsmann’s photos is the majesty, the luminosity, the urbanity and joy of the good life, behind which painful reality can almost disappear. And what can be seen in this subtle, moving novel is how much of that good life is a trick of the camera.

Joshua Furst is the author of “Short People,” (Knopf, 2003) and The Sabotage Café (Knopf, 2007)..

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