Body and Soul
Body and Soul
Body and SoulIntroduction
For Further Study
Published in 1993, Body and Soul was the long-awaited first novel of the acclaimed author Frank Conroy. He had originally come into the literary spotlight with his autobiography Stop-Time, published a quarter of a century earlier. Critics and fans alike had eagerly awaited a book of stature equal to Stop-Time and were ecstatic to hear that at long last Conroy would be published again. Body and Soul was released with much hype and fanfare, yet the reaction from critics was mixed. Many were disappointed that Body and Soul, while very similar in subject matter to Stop-Time, was not as compelling as the autobiography had been. Others, however, were enthralled by the epic and weaving plot line, numerous and diverse characters, and rapid page-turning pace. Despite the mixed critical reaction, the book became a national best-seller and brought Conroy even more recognition. It even became a Delta Fiction Publisher's Choice book when it was reprinted in trade paperback format.
Body and Soul is the exploration of the life of a child prodigy, raised in poverty and neglect but achieving fame and fortune through his incredible musical gift. The saga chronicles his struggles with himself, his environment, his family, his ambition, and ultimately with the talent that has given him everything. It is, as Conroy himself put it, "a real old-fashioned novel—a big fat book with a lot of people and a lot of plot." Body and Soul encompasses not only the hopes and dreams of its protagonist, but of Frank Conroy fans as well.
While Stop-Time was Frank Conroy's autobiography, it is apparent that he continues to draw from his own childhood experiences to create the world in which his characters live. Born on January 15, 1936, in New York City, Conroy was the son of an absent, mentally ill father and a cold, unloving mother. He spent much of his childhood escaping from his loneliness by reading books and teaching himself to play jazz on the piano. Yet from this miserable childhood came the inspiration for the writing that would later make him famous.
Conroy attended Haverford College in Pennsylvania. While there he met Patty Monro Ferguson, whom he married in 1958, the same year he graduated. Patty introduced him to the world of New York's social elite. Then in 1967, at the age of thirty-one, Conroy published his first book, the uniquely styled autobiography Stop-Time. This story of his childhood in New York City was greeted with intense critical acclaim. The book was hailed as an extraordinary first work, and readers were eager to see what Conroy would produce next. However, the fans and critics would have to wait.
Conroy did not publish another work until 1985. During the interim, he divorced Patty and had to leave his two sons, Daniel and Will, and he left Manhattan for Nantucket, Rhode Island. In 1975, he married his second wife, Margaret Davidson Lee, and worked as a freelance journalist and a jazz musician. At the age of forty he began teaching and eventually served as the director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts (1981–87). In 1985, Conroy published his second book, Midair. This collection of just eight short stories received mixed reviews. In 1993, Conroy became director of the renowned Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. That same year he published his third book and first novel, Body and Soul.
Today, Conroy, his wife, and his son Tim divide their time between their homes in Iowa City and Nantucket. He continues to work as an administrator and teacher.
The novel begins when Claude Rawlings is six years old, living in a basement apartment on Third Avenue in New York City. While his mother, Emma, drives a cab, Claude amuses himself on an old, out-of-tune piano in his dark, little room. He occasionally attends school, but sits in the back of class and goes virtually unnoticed. Fascinated by Weisfeld's Music Store, he ventures in one day. Aaron Weisfeld shows him how to read sheet music and gives him a beginner's piano book to learn. Claude devours the book in record time, mastering the lessons with very little difficulty. Weisfeld is astonished by the boy's talent and agrees to be his teacher.
Claude also chances to meet Al Johnson, a maintenance worker in an apartment building. Through Al, Claude earns the money to pay for his piano lessons. In the meantime, his mother becomes involved in the Communist Party, using her cab to chauffeur leaders of the movement. Detected by the FBI, she is pressured into testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Traumatized by the experience, she slowly begins to lose her grip on reality.
Weisfeld arranges for Claude to practice on a concert grand piano in the home of the aged Maestro Kimmel. There the servants introduce him to gourmet dining, table manners, and strengthening exercises. When the Maestro passes away, he leaves Claude the Bechstein piano in his will and enough money in trust to pay for his music lessons. The piano is moved to the basement of Weisfeld's music store where Claude sets up a work studio. In the little time that Claude spends away from music, he goes to the movies and is enthralled with the glitzy, romantic adventures that he believes represent the world outside his narrow existence.
Claude then begins to study with a variety of music teachers, each one instructing him about a different technique or school of music. One of these teachers is the world-renowned Mozart expert Fredericks, who becomes a lifelong friend and mentor to Claude. As Claude moves into his teen years, he is hired to play at parties for the Fisks, a prominent, wealthy couple with two children, Catherine and Peter. Claude is immediately enraptured by Catherine, but she treats him with derision.
At the movie theater, Claude happens to find the notebook of Ivan Andrews, who attends The Bentley, a very exclusive private high school. Claude inquires about admission, and when they learn of his musical genius, he is admitted to the school with a full scholarship. Claude and Ivan become fast friends and spend much of their spare time together discussing music, physics, and life.
By this time Emma's emotional instability has reached its peak. Instead of driving her cab, she sits at home all day gathering evidence of what she believes to be a massive government conspiracy. Afraid they will be evicted from their apartment for nonpayment of rent, Claude tells Al of his dilemma. Al's understanding and support eventually bring Emma back to sanity. Then Al and Emma's relationship develops beyond friendship, and they begin living and working together on a permanent basis.
At school, Claude studies Schonberg's twelve-tone system of composition with his music professor Mr. Satterthwaite, and even manages to get invited to a social mixer by Catherine. When Catherine soon after elopes to Australia, Claude is confused and devastated, but does not have much time to dwell on it after he receives the opportunity to perform a Mozart Double Concerto with Fredericks at a music festival. It is Claude's debut, and he is a smashing success. Fredericks' manager, Otto Levits, signs on to manage Claude. By agreement among Levits, Mr. Larkin (the lawyer who handles Claude's trust), Weisfeld, and Claude, a scholarship is arranged for Claude to go to Pennsylvania to attend Cadbury College.
Claude is in his senior year of college when he meets Lady Powers. They fall in love, and Claude discovers that Lady is Catherine's cousin. Lady's parents do not approve of Claude because he is a musician. Professionally, Claude's career is growing. He performs a concert tour with the famous violinist Frescobaldi, playing to enthusiastic audiences in several cities and even at Carnegie Hall. None of this, however, impresses Lady's parents, and her father hires a private investigator to look into Claude's past. There is no record of Claude's father, and Claude confronts his mother for the truth. Emma tells him that she does not know who his father is, and that Henry Rawlings was just a soldier she met two days before he was shipped out. Claude is not happy with this explanation, but there is nothing he can do but accept it. Lady is furious with her parents and refuses to go back to their house. Fortunately, she has a five-million-dollar trust fund, so Lady and Claude get married.
Five years later, Lady and Claude are living the life of a normal married couple. Claude continues to build his music career while Lady flits from one project to another. Their world is shaken by the discovery that Claude is sterile. Lady desperately wants to have a baby, so they decide to adopt. The adoption falls through, however, and Lady is so traumatized by the bad experience that she closes the subject on adopting.
Claude comes into the music store one day to find Weisfeld in bed, very ill. He knows he is near death, so Weisfeld finally tells Claude the story of how he lost his family in the war. When Weisfeld passes away, Claude is absolutely devastated. He cancels all his engagements and goes into such a deep depression that he spends months lost in his own grief and completely out of touch with others. His marriage to Lady is falling apart, and she leaves to pursue a business venture with a friend in Florida. But when Claude learns that Weisfeld has left the music store to him and is reminded of Weisfeld's love for him, he is rejuvenated. He decides to move into Weisfeld's old apartment above the store and to begin to work again.
A big real estate development corporation wants to buy up the entire block, including the music store, and turn it into new apartment buildings. Claude refuses to sell, and finds himself the victim of corporate intimidation. He is harassed and even has his arm broken by hired corporate thugs. The intimidation comes to an end, however, when Senator Barnes, Lady and Catherine's grandfather, comes to Claude's aid.
Claude composes a concerto that wins the London Symphony competition. He leaves the store in the care of Emma and Al and goes to England. While there, Catherine, now a divorced single mother working on her doctoral degree, comes to see him. They become romantically involved, and Catherine confesses that during the time that Claude had known her in New York, she had been sleeping with her stepfather, Dewman Fisk. Claude asks her to marry him, but she does not want to marry again, and she knows that there is not room in Claude's life for anything but music.
While in a rehearsal, Claude meets a bassist named Reggie Phillips, who informs him of a nearby jazz club. Claude attends one evening and plays alongside Reggie's companion and bandleader, a black man named Lord Lightning. What Claude does not know is that Lord Lightning is his father. It is a secret that his parents, Al, and Reggie will take to their graves.
Claude's concerto, his debut as a major composer, creates a great demand for his performances, and Claude Rawlings leaves England for a whirl-wind existence in the music world that will consume his life.
Ivan is Claude's close friend from The Bentley School. He is an older student who has come from Britain to finish his war-interrupted schooling and teach Greek. He later moves back to England and teaches physics at Cambridge University. Years later, Ivan comes to the London opening of Claude's piano concerto.
Senator Barnes is Lady and Catherine's grandfather and a respected former U.S. senator. As a pillar of New York society, he is highly regarded and commands a great deal of power. Senator Barnes uses this power to push through the adoption of a baby for Claude and Lady. Unfortunately, ignoring some rules to rush the process causes disastrous results. The senator also helps Claude during a struggle with ruthless land developers, thereby allowing Claude to keep Weisfeld's store intact.
Dewman Fisk is Catherine's stepfather and a prominent figure in New York government and the arts. He wrote a law that required a children's section in each movie theater to protect children from molesters. Ironically, he himself is a child molester who started an affair with Catherine when she was only thirteen years old.
Mildred Fisk is Catherine's mother. Wealthy and shallow, she periodically becomes very ill, retreating to her room for weeks at a time. When she hears the news about Catherine's elopement, she is stricken with hysterical blindness and never recovers her sight.
Peter Fisk is Catherine's half-brother. He plays the violin very well, but has no real love for music. Sheltered and suppressed by his "delicate" mother, he becomes a shell without a soul and eventually takes his own life.
Mr. Fredericks is the best Mozart pianist in the world and a very expensive piano teacher who normally has students from only the wealthiest families. But he accepts Claude as a student on Weisfeld's recommendation, then befriends Claude and acts as his mentor. Fredericks gives Claude the opportunity to debut by playing with him at a music festival, and he helps to shape Claude into a world-class musician.
Mr. Frescobaldi is a world-famous violin player who invites Claude to perform with him. It is Claude's introduction into the world of professional music. They play Carnegie Hall together and go on to tour together at various times.
Al Johnson is the black custodian who befriends Claude. They meet when he discovers the young boy digging around for bottles in the basement of the apartment building where Al works. A poor man just getting by, Al occasionally steals from the wealthy tenants. But he turns from trying to involve Claude in theft to becoming Claude's advisor on life. He even steps in to help Claude's mother out of her emotional upheaval. Al's kind heart and great patience cause a sudden and radical difference in Emma's mental state. Al soon moves in with her, and together they drive taxis to make a living until Claude invites them to run Weisfeld's store.
Maestro Kimmel is an elderly piano master who allows Claude to practice on a very special and magnificent Bechstein in his home. The maestro has his staff give Claude lessons in etiquette and sees that he exercises and eats well. When the maestro passes away, he bequeaths the Bechstein to Claude, as well as a trust fund to pay for all of Claude's future piano lessons.
Mr. Larkin is the executor of Maestro Kimmel's will and is in charge of the trust left to Claude by the maestro. He is also on the scholarship committee at Cadbury College, and he is the reason Claude is accepted to that college with a full academic scholarship.
Otto Levits is Fredericks' manager, and becomes Claude's manager as well, after the debut performance at the music festival.
Lord Lightning is a gay jazz pianist in London and Claude Rawlings's biological father. His one sexual relationship with a woman had produced Claude, but Emma wanted to handle the situation by herself. One-quarter black, he arranged for Emma to marry a gay white soldier who was shipping out to war, and Lightning purposely kept himself out of Claude's life after that to allow Claude the opportunity to grow up as a white American boy. Yet his absence is a major source of doubt and turmoil in Claude's life, and one of the major reasons behind Claude's paternal love for Weisfeld and his pursuit of music.
Catherine Marsh is the unrequited love of Claude's youth and a modern-day version of Dickens's Estella. She is, on the surface, a rich, spoiled, precocious girl who enjoys tormenting the love-struck Claude and flaunting her privilege and beauty. She treats Claude with disdain and a sort of superior bemusement, as if he were there merely for her entertainment. Even when she allows Claude to enter her world by letting him escort her to a school dance, it is not due to any great interest in Claude as a person, but rather because she knows she can. She knows the effect she has on him and she uses that to her advantage. When Catherine elopes with another boy without explanation, it is a slap in the face to Claude's unquestioning devotion. Yet such obliviousness is not unexpected from this self-involved girl.
However, when Catherine is reintroduced into the novel as an adult, it becomes obvious that there is more to her than was first revealed. She is a complicated woman, driven by her passion for academic pursuits, a fiercely independent, struggling single mother, but scarred from the molestation of her teenage years. The once superior, indifferent young girl is now a woman who cries when she thinks of how her daughter suffers on their meager income. Despite the hardships, however, Catherine has come to terms with her life and the path it has taken. She knows what she wants and where she is going, and she knows that ultimately her path will not be the same as Claude's. Catherine, for better or for worse, achieves her peace and in her own way shows Claude how to find his as well.
Reggie Phillips is a bassist in Lord Lightning's jazz band and his ten-year companion. Reggie is the reason that Claude unknowingly meets and plays piano with his father, something he has been unconsciously yearning to do his entire life.
Lady Powers is Claude's wife. Her real name is Priscilla, but Lady has been her nickname since she was a child. She and Catherine are cousins, but Lady has none of Catherine's pretentiousness. Instead, she is blasé about her wealth and, in most respects, very normal. Her major problem is that she has no direction. Lady has lots of ambition, and a driving need to do something "real" with her life, but she doesn't know what that something is. So she dabbles in a little bit of everything, from teaching to publishing to photography. She comes to believe that having a baby will bring meaning into her life, but when she finds out that Claude can never father her children, she is once again floundering for some sort of purpose. Lady carries a great deal of promise and integrity, but she is unable to bring her capabilities to fruition.
- Film rights for Body and Soul have been sold to Spring Creek Productions.
Claude Rawlings, the protagonist of the novel, is a gifted and complicated young man. Without a father and neglected by his mother, he spends his childhood in the back room of his basement apartment slowly discovering the secrets of an old white piano. From this lonely and destitute beginning, he manages to take his life in all new directions including a wealthy marriage and concerts at Carnegie Hall. Yet through all this good fortune, he still has to struggle with finding himself.
Claude keeps a part of himself hidden from others, even those he loves dearly, and he allows them to keep things hidden from him as well. He tries to connect with people, to sustain meaningful relationships, but he fails because he puts too much distance between himself and others. The only thing he can rely on is his music. It has brought him everything he has ever hoped for, and it is only while playing the piano that he feels control and peace. Yet even his music can be difficult. He tries for years to compose and has some success, but it isn't until he emerges from the catharsis of his grief over Weisfeld's death that he finally writes something truly notable. His empty childhood has made the rest of his life sterile, so Claude finally resigns himself to living solely for and in his music. It is the only way for him to touch his soul and feel complete. Claude's gift saves him and ultimately becomes everything he has.
Emma Rawlings is Claude's mother. Anything but the typical mother figure, she is a six-foot-tall, 300-pound cab driver by day and a withdrawn alcoholic by night. Emma cares for her son, but she does not have the ability or the strength to be the mother that he needs. As a young child, Claude is fascinated by this enormous figure who enters his sequestered world at the end of every day, orders him to get her a beer, and then goes off to bed, "not to emerge until morning." As he gets older and witnesses Emma's downward slide into controversy and emotional instability, he becomes ashamed of her behavior and lifestyle, afraid of what outsiders may think of her and, by proxy, him. Despite her flaws, however, she remains a constant part of his life, eventually gaining enough of Claude's trust to be able to look after his music store while he is away. Theirs is an unusual pairing, one that requires a great deal of patience, understanding and compassion.
Emma's life is not easy. She was a talented vaudeville singer, but had to give up performing when she got pregnant with Claude. Her greatest struggle, however, comes during the McCarthy era. In an effort to find friendship, importance, and a place to belong, she joins the Communist Party and becomes involved in smuggling one of the party's leaders out of the country. Her actions come under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and she nearly loses her hack license, her apartment, and her mind when she is pressured to cooperate. In an effort to compensate for the total lack of control she has over her life and the events affecting it, she begins to maniacally hoard newspapers and documentation in an effort to catch the government in the gargantuan conspiracy that only she can see and understand. Her obsession nearly destroys her, but she is finally able to regain control of her life with the help and support of Al. It is through him that she is ultimately able to bring some normalcy into her world and develop a viable relationship with her son.
Anson Roeg is a writer and Mr. Fredericks' eccentric, constant companion. She is an unconventional woman, scandalizing the society ladies with her unorthodox attire and cigar smoking.
Mr. Satterthwaite is the music teacher at The Bentley School. He teaches Claude about Schonberg's twelve-tone system of composition.
Aaron Weisfeld is Claude's first and most important piano teacher. Having discovered Claude's prodigious talent, he takes the young boy under his wing, arranges lessons from the best piano teachers, and launches Claude's remarkable career as a pianist and composer. Yet to Claude, Weisfeld is more than just a teacher. He is the father Claude never had. He takes Claude in from the streets and virtually raises him, not only teaching him the fundamentals of music, but of life as well. Weisfeld has a profound effect on Claude's life, and Claude loves him for it.
Weisfeld came to New York from Warsaw after his family was killed in a bombing in 1939. As a Polish Jew, he needed to escape Nazi Europe, so he established a new life with his music store on Third Avenue. But at night, the dreams still haunt him, the memory of his beloved family waking him up in a cold sweat. In Claude, he finds a new family, a son who makes him proud. Having been a promising composer himself as a young man in Poland, Weisfeld uses his connections to further Claude's education and career. But it is not until he is dying that Weisfeld tells Claude about his past. All the years that they know each other, Weisfeld's apartment, filled with photographs from his past, remains a no-entry zone. He keeps the pain of his past separate, just as Claude tries to hide the pain of his impoverished life with his neglectful mother. Claude and Weisfeld have a deep love and respect for each other, for they both fulfill what the other needs.
Appearances and Reality
The illusion of the public image versus the reality of private life is a prominent theme that appears throughout the novel. Weisfeld appears to be an ordinary, unassuming music store owner. Beneath the surface, however, he is an extremely talented composer whose career was cut short by the traumatic events of World War II in Poland. He is a man who has achieved much, suffered much, and experienced more than most people ever will.
The Fisks are another example of the power of appearances. To the outside world, they seem to live a charmed life: wealthy, happy pillars of the community. Inside, however, they are torn apart by incest, mental illness, and deceit. Their admirers do not see the darkness that lurks just behind the façade.
Claude himself is not all that he seems to be. His African heritage is a secret kept from him so that he can compete in the music world without the burden of racial stereotypes. He is also sterile, even though in every other way he is a healthy young man. In another sense, the depth of Claude's feeling for music belies the fact that he is emotionally shallow in all other aspects.
Fathers and Sons
The epigram before Body and Soul reads: "That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it." Taken from Goethe's Faust, this quote is Conroy's way of telling the reader what the book is about. Claude's musical gift comes from his father, and he pursues the mysteries of music as fiercely as he would pursue the real man. Whether he realizes it or not, Claude spends much of his life searching for his father—perhaps not the actual man, but someone to replace him, someone to fill the hole in Claude's life. He finds others in his life to replace his father, namely Weisfeld, Al, and Fredericks. His father represents to him everything he does not have: a normal childhood, a past, the thing he cannot be himself. It is this one relationship, or the lack thereof, that keeps him from having a successful relationship with anyone else.
Salvation through Meaningful Life's Work
All of the characters in Body and Soul have some sort of obstacle to overcome. Most find the strength and the means to persevere through their life's work. For Claude it is his music that sustains him, for he can lose himself and his problems for hours in the midst of playing the piano. Catherine rebuilds her life through her passion for medieval history, finding meaning and contentment in her studies. Weisfeld also rebuilds his life after the Holocaust through music, owning the music store and teaching Claude. They find a path that makes them happy.
For those without a path, however, the prospects are dismal. Lady has loads of ambition, but no way to channel it into anything useful. So she meanders from project to project, desperately looking for something "real." Peter Fisk is also a victim of a passionless life. He has the skills to play the violin, but there is no love for the beauty of the music. There is an emptiness in him that consumes him to the point that he cannot live with it anymore. Emma also tries to find some meaning in her life, but by joining the Communist Party she only manages to create more upheaval. All the characters are searching for salvation, and the key in this novel is finding one's life's work.
Loneliness and Isolation
At the end of the first chapter, Claude is watching the crowd celebrate V-E day in the streets near his home. "Claude realized that all these strangers were caught up in something together, that an unseen force had wiped out all differences between them and made them one. They were joined, and as he clung tighter to the lamppost he felt his own tears starting because he felt entirely alone, entirely apart, and knew that nothing could happen to change it."
Through twenty-one more chapters, the reader waits to see if maybe there is something that could happen to change this poor little boy's loneliness and isolation. But Claude's talent continues to isolate him from ordinary people who can never know what it is to be so gifted. Although Claude does develop friendships and a comfortable relationship with the mother whose neglect started his life in loneliness and isolation, he does not ever really stretch beyond his self-centered world. That is why his marriage to Lady fails, and why Catherine will not marry him. Claude does not become one with others because he is one with music. Music is the soul he finds when he learns how to go beyond the "wall," and so with music he is complete.
The theme of loneliness and isolation carries over to many others in the novel. Mr. Weisfeld remains alone after he loses his family in the war, and he isolates his past from the rest of his life by never inviting anyone into his apartment. Peter Fisk is kept apart from a normal life by the needs of his mother and the shame of his family's sins. Lady keeps Claude at a distance and does not include him in any of her decisions, not even to discuss starting a family. Catherine chooses to isolate herself from her family by living abroad, alone with her child. Emma is set apart by her size, by being a single mother, and by being a female taxi driver in a time when all of these features make her unusual. Until Al comes along, she uses beer, communism, and obsessive behavior to fill her life. It is sad that she cannot find fulfillment in mothering Claude, but instead continues the pattern of loneliness and isolation in his life.
As several critics have noted, Body and Soul is a bildungsroman, a novel of formation. According to M. H. Abrams' A Glossary of Literary Terms, the subject of a bildungsroman "is the development of the protagonist's mind and character as he passes from childhood through varied experiences—and usually through a spiritual crisis—into maturity and the recognition of his identity and role in the world…. An important subtype of the Bildungsroman is the Künstlerroman ("artist-novel"), which represents the development of a novelist or other artist into the stage of maturity in which he recognizes his artistic destiny and achieves mastery of his artistic craft."
The subject of Body and Soul is the formation of Claude Rawlings as he passes from a six-year-old child through twenty years of varied experiences, including the crisis of the death of his teacher and father-figure, Aaron Weisfeld. Revived from his crippling grief by the strength of Weisfeld's love, Claude emerges with a new direction. Although Weisfeld could not find the heart to return to his life as a composer after all his work was lost in his flight from Nazi Poland, Claude begins anew and wins the London Symphony competition. Through Claude, Weisfeld passed on his dreams, and Claude fulfills them by becoming a masterful composer. In the process, Claude realizes that his destiny lies solely in his music.
Topics for Further Study
- Investigate the composer Schonberg and his twelve-tone system of composition. Discuss his impact on the history of music and future styles of composing.
- Research the Nazi concentration camps of World War II and their impact on European Jews. Discuss the aftermath of the Holocaust on those who survived—where they went afterwards, how they rebuilt their lives, and how they coped with the tragedy.
- Research the history of jazz and discuss its impact on American music. Who have been the most influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century? Who are the best jazz musicians playing today?
- Investigate the McCarthy era of the 1950s and the House Un-American Activities Committee. What were the committee's fears and goals? What was the impact on American society as a whole? How did it change our view of government and the political system?
- Research the psychological impact of the relationship between mother and child. What happens to the child's development when the mother is neglectful? How does it affect the child's future behavior and ability to interact normally in social situations?
- Research the Greek myth of Apollo, the god of music, then write and perform your own short play based on Apollo's life and adventures.
The setting in Body and Soul is notable because the time and place in which the main character grows up are the same as that of the author. Both Frank Conroy and Claude Rawlings grow up fatherless and lonely in New York City in a time period beginning in the late 1930s. Those who knew New York City in the World War II and postwar era have said that this book captures the essence of a city that no longer exists and is a nostalgic reminder of a life that once was. Conroy heralds the change to modern times by including in the story the tearing down of the old buildings on Weisfeld's block to make way for a new development.
Tied into the setting is the most important symbol in Body and Soul. Weisfeld's music store is Claude Rawlings' safe haven. In his basement apartment, he is alone and full of questions about music. At Weisfeld's store, he finds a teacher, a father, and answers about the wonders of music. It is not by accident that the Bechstein will not fit into Claude's apartment. Conroy needs the concert grand piano to go into Weisfeld's store so that Claude's whole life stems from that place. The process is completed when even Claude's mother and Al work at the store.
At the end of the novel, Weisfeld's store stands completely surrounded by the new building development. In his grief, Claude thinks perhaps that he cannot exist as a musician without Weisfeld. He finally realizes that he can continue because he still has Weisfeld with him as long as he has Weisfeld's store. His fight to save the store is a fight for his very heart and soul and is a symbol of his devotion to Weisfeld. More powerfully, the store, standing alone among the modern changes, is a symbol of Claude's separation from the rest of the world, a symbol that his life is consecrated to music and none of the other events in his life will ever change that.
In Body and Soul, Frank Conroy, born in 1936, tells the story of Claude Rawlings, a boy who enters grade school during World War II. The novel progresses for twenty years until the mid-1960s. Thus, the author and his character grow up and enter adulthood in the same time period. Postwar America, full of confidence after victory, entered a time of enormous prosperity when anything seemed possible. The veterans of the war wanted to forget everything ugly they had just experienced and concentrate on building the family and country for which they had fought.
But the terms of the Allied agreement allowed Russia to build the Soviet Union through its occupation and subsequent rule of Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. The Iron Curtain came down and the Cold War began. Communism spread around the world into China, Africa, and Central and South America. The fear of communism resulted in American participation in the Korean War and in the maniacal hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Senator Joe McCarthy wielded great power as he searched for "a Commie under every bush" and ruined the careers of many in the arts and entertainment world who were suspected of being communist sympathizers. Conroy brings this element of the times into the novel through the involvement of Claude's mother in Communist Party meetings and her participation in the effort to get a well-known agent out of the country. Emma almost has a nervous breakdown after testifying in Washington, a reflection of the tremendous pressure put on people to implicate their friends and acquaintances.
The late 1940s and the 1950s are generally considered a time when America celebrated itself and pretended that it had no problems. On television, "I Love Lucy," "Father Knows Best," and "Ozzie and Harriet" portrayed perfect families in a blissful and moral society. The contrast between the ideal family life portrayed on the television and the dysfunctional home life that Claude had growing up further sets him apart from society and adds to his sense of isolation.
Women had left their wartime jobs in the factories to make way for the veterans who needed jobs and to resume their traditional roles solely in the home. But women's independence during the war was not forgotten, and after the pressure to return to domestic life in the 1950s, the women's movement demanding equal rights at work and at home began to develop in the 1960s. Emma Rawlings, as a single working mother, was an oddity for her time, particularly in a "man's" job like cab-driving. By the mid-1950s, the Civil Rights Movement was also coming into existence with the first attempts at desegregation of the schools and public facilities. This equal rights movement for blacks would climax in the 1960s with the signing of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Thus, the relationship between Claude's white mother and his black friend was highly unusual for the times and would normally bring scandal and violent repercussions.
The early 1960s also saw the election of John F. Kennedy as president, his assassination, and the subsequent presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The Camelot days of the Kennedy administration, when everyone felt young and most believed that the "best and the brightest" led our government, died with Kennedy and were replaced by a loss of innocence that led to an era of questioning everything and believing in little. Even as the country united behind the early ventures of the space program, the turbulence of the 1960s left Americans shaken and unsure of their values. This loss of stability is reflected in Claude's life when Weisfeld dies and Claude loses his way. It is the only time that Claude expresses deep personal suffering, and he emerges from the experience with a new direction just as America did after the 1960s.
The critics seem to be evenly divided into good, bad, and indifferent opinions of Body and Soul. The phenomenal success of Frank Conroy's first book, Stop-Time, raised great expectations in the literary world. This autobiography of his youth demonstrated originality of style and masterful writing, so readers waited eagerly for a first novel. Conroy was only thirty-one years old in 1967 when he published Stop-Time, but he did not publish again until 1985 when he produced a somewhat disappointing collection of eight short stories. Finally, in 1993, at the age of fifty-seven, his first novel appeared to mixed reviews.
Compare & Contrast
- 1940s: This is the Big Band Era and swing music is all the rage.
1950s: The mellow sound of the crooners gives way to the rise of rock 'n' roll with Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.
1960s: Pop and rock rule the music scene. Folk songs played at "hootenannies," psychedelic rock, and the Motown sound have a phenomenal impact.
Today: Swing music makes a big comeback while America's broadened, eclectic tastes make room for rap, country, rhythm and blues, jazz, and classical music all at the same time. Many stars of the 1950s and 1960s still perform in "classic" tours.
- 1940s: Segregation is practiced in most of the country. Except for the Tuskegee Airmen, blacks may work only in menial jobs in the armed services.
1950s: Desegregation begins in the schools, but any attempt at mixing the races is met with violent rejection.
1960s: The Civil Rights Bill passes in 1964, but racial intermarriage is still banned in nineteen states until a 1967 Supreme Court ruling declares miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
Today: All races have equal rights under the law, but only four percent of marriages are interracial.
- 1940s: Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union forces Stalin to join the Allies during WWII, which leads to the postwar takeover of Eastern Europe.
1950s: The Cold War ensues and communism spreads throughout the world. America joins in the Korean War against the communist Chinese in the North, and lives in the grip of fear of communist attack and espionage.
1960s: The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brings the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of war.
Today: The Soviet Union has broken up and communist governments exist in only a few places in the world.
- 1940s: The Holocaust takes six million Jewish lives. Many survivors come to America and other countries, but the state of Israel is created in 1948 to provide a homeland for Jewish people.
Today: After several wars over fifty years with its Arab neighbors, Israel is still working on peace agreements.
The main complaint of the critics who panned Body and Soul is that it is so similar to Stop-Time. Claude Rawlings is only a fictional version of Frank Conroy. Both grow up lonely and fatherless in poverty in New York City in exactly the same time period. Both pull themselves out of these circumstances through talent: Conroy is a gifted writer, Rawlings is a musical prodigy. However, according to critics, Stop-Time was innovative while Body and Soul seems to be a fill-in-the-blanks parade of stock characters, predictable outcomes, and hard-to-believe coincidences.
Perhaps the critics who complained that Body and Soul was too much like Stop-Time were actually disappointed that it wasn't exactly like Stop-Time. But it was never Conroy's intent to repeat the style and innovations of Stop-Time in his novel. Rather, as Conroy told Sylvia Steinberg in an interview for Publishers Weekly, "Body and Soul is a real old-fashioned novel—a big fat book with a lot of people and a lot of plot." Explaining Claude's "incredible string of good luck," Conroy concedes that he has made the novel "in many respects a fairy tale."
Joseph Olshan writes in his review for Harper's Bazaar that it is tempting to compare Conroy with Rawlings because of the similarities. But the important difference is that Conroy admits to being a merely competent pianist. Olshan reports, "Rawlings, to use one of the novel's central metaphors, attempts to get 'beyond the Wall,' to overcome his physical limitations to find his soul in his music," and he has the talent to be able to do so. Conroy described to Olshan the moment of his final breakthrough in writing Body and Soul: "Driving east from Iowa City, I suddenly came up with Fredericks, who tells Claude the secret of the Wall. That development affected the entire novel. If you listen carefully to the text, the way you listen to music, it reveals the answer to each problem it creates."
Perhaps the negative critics did not listen carefully enough to understand the story even though it was written in a "supple and elegant prose" according to a review in Publishers Weekly. This review calls Conroy's depiction of Claude "brilliant" and the explanations of musical theory "lucid." Nonetheless, Publishers Weekly found the second half of the book less successful because Claude's obsession with music that "makes him fascinating as a youth makes him hollow as a man." The review admits that Conroy is purposely trying to make Claude's life devoid of emotion, but feels that he fails to maintain an interesting character in the process.
Other critics agree that Claude is a flat character, although they often remark on the skill with which Conroy conveys the passionate feelings of an artist. But none of the critics seem to complain about the technical detail supplied when Conroy describes the music that Claude works on. One odd feature, however, is denounced by Stanley Kauffmann in his review for the New Republic: overarching comments. "This device not only jars our focus, not only makes us inappropriately aware of Conroy rather than Claude, it suggests a nervousness in the author, a worry that he isn't getting enough in, that he must enrich his book." By overarching comments, Kauffmann means the parenthetical glimpses into the future that Conroy inserts. For example, Catherine predicts that when Claude is forty-five he will be famous and have some fabulous young woman on his arm, and Conroy interrupts with a confirmation that that is exactly what happens. The reader is also told in a parenthetical note that Peter commits suicide in later years. If the author cannot think of a way to blend such character elements into the story, it is a crutch to use an intrusive author's comment.
Despite its faults, Body and Soul is a readable story, the kind that is hard to put down. Maybe it is only soap opera quality, but then soap operas are very popular, and there is occasionally some very good acting in the daytime dramas. So it is with Body and Soul. Critics and readers were expecting one thing and got another, and some could not adjust to the change. Others were open-minded enough to try to see what Conroy was attempting to do. Whether or not he succeeded is, as always, left up to the opinion of the individual reader and the connection made between reader and author.
Lois Kerschen is a grants coordinator for the Houston Independent School District, the author of American Proverbs about Women, and a freelance writer. In the following essay, she discusses the themes of emotional distance and spirituality in Body & Soul.
Distance is the ever-present element in Frank Conroy's Body & Soul. There is a distance between Claude Rawling's world and the world around him. While some critics have complained that Claude is a lifeless character with whom the reader cannot establish an emotional bond, it seems likely Conroy intended for there to be no link between reader and main character. Through the reader's own difficulty in getting a window into Claude's soul, it becomes apparent that Claude himself has never looked into his soul. Claude is totally self-absorbed, but there is no self-introspection. Separated from the outside world and human interaction, he lives on the surface of himself and expects no more than superficiality from others.
Claude's distance from the world around him begins with his childhood. His mother's almost total neglect leaves Claude locked in a basement apartment where his only knowledge of the outside world is his view through the basement window. When he finally is allowed to venture out, he feels as if he is in a dream because the sights and sounds are all so unreal to him. Fifty years ago there were no agencies like Child Protective Services to investigate Claude's home life, but today there are safeguards for children in our society because it is now known that such neglect and isolation can seriously and permanently damage a child emotionally. Is it any wonder then that Claude is an emotional cripple who cannot relate to others? He was kept at a distance from people until he was six years old. He had no playmates or extended family. There was no day-care, no play school, no pre-school, no Mother's Day Out to socialize Claude. Consequently, when he does go to school, he makes no friends, he remains a loner, and he doesn't even raise his hand and speak in class until the third grade.
Claude's brief encounters with the real world leave him with a distorted view of reality. He gets a glimpse of the lives of the wealthy tenants in Al's apartment building when he and Al attempt a few heists. He has glimpses into the life of the Fisk family and does not see the reality of the situation there at all. For years, he ventures outside his world only briefly to go to the homes of his various music teachers for weekly lessons. His first contact with sex is with girls he doesn't know in the dark balcony of the movie theater and with a girl he never sees again after the music festival. To Claude, the world is what he vicariously experiences in the movies. From that distance, he imagines a world that doesn't actually exist, so it is small wonder that he has trouble finding a connection.
Only through music is Claude able to reach outside himself to another person. The sole passion in Claude's life, his love of music, propels him into Weisfeld's store to ask about the piano and the sheet music he has found. Claude does develop an emotional attachment to Weisfeld, always feeling more comfortable with Weisfeld than others, always seeking his advice, but that relationship stemmed from Claude's need for a father and for the musical knowledge that Weisfeld could share with him. When Weisfeld dies, Claude enters a frighteningly deep depression whose intensity is perhaps the result of having used so few other outlets for emotion. It is as if he is using his life's quota of emotion in the grief he feels from the loss of Weisfeld. Nonetheless, Claude's devotion to Weisfeld never led to a curiosity about his mentor's life. Respecting Weisfeld's request for privacy in his quarters is one thing, but never inquiring about his past, his home country, his family, is quite another. Claude surely loves Weisfeld, but in many ways Weisfeld's importance to Claude lies only in what Weisfeld gives to Claude. It is a happy accident that in return Claude fills a void for Weisfeld after the loss of his family.
From Claude's perspective, virtually all the characters in the book are just vehicles that bring something into his world. He accepts everything that comes his way without question or interaction. Indeed, he is grateful, but he is never required to show gratitude or repay any debts. As a result, he expects good things to happen to him and never bothers to think about what it all means. For example, the maestro who allows Claude to play the Bechstein is another person who gives generously to Claude, but from a distance. The maestro listens to Claude's playing through partly opened doors. The only time that Claude sees the maestro, he is a shadow in the darkness.
Catherine kept Claude at a distance when they first met. Her aloofness appears to be a trait of snobbery, and then she puts actual physical distance between herself and Claude by eloping to Australia. It isn't until years later that Claude discovers the real reason for the distance Catherine kept from others: her illicit relationship with her stepfather. Catherine had to build a wall behind which she could hide the shame and horror of her situation. Her determination never to return to America is a manifestation of her need to distance herself from her family and the terrible memories of her early teens.
Although marriage is supposed to be an intimate relationship, Lady is just as distant as Claude when it comes to sharing her feelings. She does not include Claude in the decision to have a child, and he comes to realize that she tends to build elaborate defenses for herself. "Silence, privacy, and occasionally secrecy were second nature to her. She could not share her sense of what was happening to her with him, could not reveal her sense of herself to him, and as a result he felt she didn't trust him." She makes so few demands on him that he feels almost lonely. When Claude sits by Weisfeld's deathbed, Weisfeld has to remind Claude to call his wife. It is something, one suspects, that Claude would not have thought to do because he and Lady did not truly share their lives. Ultimately, Claude and Lady permanently distance themselves from each other through divorce.
When Conroy writes about complex aspects of music that most readers will not understand, he is not just showing his own music education. He is distancing the reader from Claude by putting him on a different level of knowledge and understanding from the average person. The complexities of the music, the technical perfection that Claude can reach but others cannot puts Claude into a different realm from the rest of the world. A common problem of geniuses is that they often cannot relate well to others because there is just too much distance between the wavelengths on which they and others function. So, Claude's problem is somewhat understandable since being a genius in one aspect of life sometimes diminishes other abilities.
Claude's emotional life, then, is just as sterile as his body. The only connection between body and soul for Claude is through music. Here he virtually transcends his own body as the music carries him into an almost "out-of-body" experience. Fredericks taught him that going beyond the "wall" meant going beyond the body into the imagination. Children live in a world of imagination. If imagination takes one beyond the wall to spirituality, why would one want to leave a child's world to face the realities of adulthood? Perhaps that is why Claude is so slow to mature. Fredericks remarks to Claude one day, when Claude is already out of college and married, that he seems to be slow to grow up. He asks Claude why that is, and Claude does not know. He admits that he does not know himself very well. Possibly, Claude subconsciously refuses to grow up for fear of changing his relationship with Weisfeld. Considering Claude's deep depression following Weisfeld's death, it seems likely that Claude's emotional balance was dependent on the only stable thing in his life: Weisfeld. His mother was never there for him and his other teachers came and went. The only person who was a constant for him was Weisfeld. Without him, Claude lost his center and had to find himself again through another avenue of music. Fredericks has warned Claude that his talent would take him only so far. After that, he would have to depend on himself. Weisfeld's death brought him to that point.
In all of his writings, Frank Conroy expresses the belief that one can be redeemed through art. With enough self-determination, the pursuit of perfection in one's field of talent will be rewarded with a state of grace. Claude may not appear to be soul-searching, does not realize it himself, but his disciplined practice, his enjoyment of practice, is actually a determined effort to find his soul. Once beyond the wall, one finds spirituality. Once Claude determines that he can stand on his own feet after Weisfeld's death, and that he should follow his heart by becoming a composer, he is on the path to finding true satisfaction and fulfillment. Even though he makes an attempt to connect with Catherine, she senses what Claude will learn with time. He may never have a full relationship with another person, but he has connected his own body and soul through music.
What Do I Read Next?
- Frank Conroy has written only three books. Midair (1985) is a collection of eight short stories dealing with the same themes of growing up and appearances that Stop-Time and Body and Soul explore.
- Claude Rawlings bears a striking resemblance to Pip in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1860–61). Both rise from abject, lonely beginnings to positions of prominence. The objects of their desire, Estella and Catherine, are both aloof, almost cruel, patricians.
- The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald, portrays an outsider who pursues and achieves great wealth to insinuate himself into society and get close to his obsession, Daisy Buchanan. This cautionary tale about the price of success is a good portrait of the 1920s Jazz Age.
- Billy Bathgate (1989), by E. L. Doctorow, made into a feature film, tells of another New York City boy's passage into manhood, but his mentor is a notorious mobster who teaches Billy about crime, love, life, and death in a 1930s decadent world that Billy comes to question.
- Amadeus (1981), the play that became a musical and an Academy Award-winning movie, is Peter Shaffer's interpretation of the life of a musical genius.
- Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward (1867) is a story about a kind and helpful New York City boy who lived on the streets until he followed his dreams to success. This is the first of the many famous rags-to-riches stories by Horatio Alger that chronicle the American Dream.
- Solo Variations (1997), by Cassandra Garbus, is a well-received first novel that examines not only the difficulties of a musician's life, but the personal relationships that are entangled and affected by a performer's career.
Source: Lois Kerschen, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
In the following review, Kauffman expresses disappointment with Body and Soul, stating that is "affords almost no pleasure," and that Conroy fails to live up to his earlier promise.
In 1967, at the age of 31, Frank Conroy published Stop-Time. It was his first book, yet it was an autobiography—so prismatically conceived in sharp facets, so intense in its view of experience and of words themselves, that it marked the appearance of an arresting writer. Admirers (like myself) then kept watching down the road for the next Conroy book. It didn't arrive until 1985: Midair, a slim collection of eight stories, most of which supported prior opinions of his talent without much advancing his career.
Where was the novel that, intentionally or not, he had promised? In Stop-Time, speaking of his seventeenth birthday, he said:
It was around this time that I first thought of becoming a writer. In a cheap novel [that I had read] the hero was asked his profession at a cocktail party. "I'm a novelist," he said, and I remember putting the book down and thinking, my God, what a beautiful thing to be able to say.
He is now 57; at last the novel arrives, and, bitterly to report, it leaves this admirer bruised with disappointment. It's almost as if the publisher had made a mistake—sent out the wrong book with Conroy's name on it.
Body and Soul begins with a twinge of disappointment at its flat fide. (The previous two books had acute titles.) The first few pages aggravate the twinge, not because they are poorly written, though some of the subsequent book is, but because they don't read like Conroy or what might have grown out of the Conroy we knew. It may be unjust to expect that he further the style of 1967, but some of the stories in Midair, done in a subtle refinement of that earlier style, fueled the expectation. And if Conroy deliberately decided to abandon the artist's pointillist brush, why did he pick up, of all things, something closer to the house painter's roller?
He was to walk Third Avenue for many years, until it became so much a part of him that he didn't see it anymore. But at first it was a feast. People moving on the sidewalks, automobiles threading through the columns of the El, trucks rumbling through the striated shadows—he drank it in, his eye leaping from image to image.
There's nothing grossly wrong with that writing, but there's nothing distinguished about it either. Would the author of Stop-Time—of even the first two pages of Stop-Time—have written "drank it in" and "leaping from image to image"?
I begin with the prose because Conroy's change of style almost predicates the choice of materials and the general approach. The story that he tells is long, complex and quintessentially familiar; the saga of an artist from childhood to manhood. Conroy has stepped into the line of the broad, full orchestral Entwicklungsroman, which today is not so much a choice of form as of generations.
Sometimes such a choice by an artist can be beautiful, amplifying, as for instance when the avant-garde R. W. Fassbinder decided to film Fontane's nineteenth-century novel. Effi Briest. But Fassbinder's old-style film showed us how much more there was to him, in sympathy and vision and technique, than we had thought. Conroy's retrospective choice, on the other hand, has diminished him: he seems murkier in perception, feebler in his language and almost devoid of the crackling electricity that made his work so welcome.
His protagonist, Claude Rawlings, is 6 when we meet him around 1944. (Rawlings was the name of a friend in Stop-Time.) He lives in a dingy basement apartment on Third Avenue in Manhattan with his mother, a six-foot, 300—pound woman who drives a taxi most of the day and hardly speaks to him when she is at home swilling beer. In their apartment is an old nightclub-size piano. After investigating it, Claude makes his way to a nearby music store run by Mr. Weisfeld, a Polish-Jewish refugee from Hitler. Weisfeld knows absolutely everything about music and a good deal besides.
Through his tutelage and care, Claude's life unfolds. Weisfeld knows an old, Hungarian composer, wealthy, and he gets permission for Claude to practice regularly on a fine piano in the old man's luxurious apartment. Claude never meets the old man; nevertheless, when the composer dies, he leaves Claude a trust fund that opens further education and opportunity to him. Directly if lengthily, this beginning leads to the conclusion—when Claude steps out on the stage or Festival Hall in London some twenty years later to play the solo part in the world premiere of his piano concerto.
Along the way, much else. His mother, an ex-show girl, turns out to be a Communist sympathizer whose taxi is used by Gerhardt Eisler, at the time a well-known Communist, to get himself aboard ship for Europe in an attempt to escape prosecution. (Conroy tells us in an afterword that he has juggled some dates. Eisler's escape is one of them.) In the basement of the composer's building Claude becomes acquainted with the black super, Al, who comes to figure in his mother's life in a way that prefigures later developments in London.
Along the way, too, of course, Claude meets girls. The first one of importance is Catherine, the attractive daughter of a very rich family, who dallies with him before she elopes at 17 with someone else. Claude meets the only other girl of importance in his final college year; nicknamed Lady, this Social Register belle turns out to be Catherine's cousin. Along the way Claude also encounters a very great deal of information, mostly but not only about music. These gobs of data are sometimes so thick that the narrative seems an armature on which hang explanations of, say, the valves of brass instruments and Schönberg's twelve-tone system.
When it's not delayed by data, the story moves on wheels lubricated with coincidence. The Catherine-Lady link is only one. Al has a black friend who teaches Claude a lot about the jazz that fascinates him throughout. Al happens to have been a taxi driver in the past so that he can help Claude's mother when needed. In the last pages Claude chances to go to a London jazz club that has connections with his past. And in the neatest of all the book's many arrangements, when Lady and Claude decide to marry, she tells him that she has a trust fund of $5 million. (Sometimes the book is close to a satire on classical serendipity.)
This sense of the author as guardian angel is heightened by Claude's excellence at virtually everything he tries. Musical theory, composition, piano playing—whatever it is, he excels at it. Balanchine compliments him on his playing, Copland on his composing. He's also good at basketball and gin rummy; he can even turn "a spontaneous cartwheel." The only bad things that happen to him occur near the end. He sinks into despondency because of an incompetence that isn't his fault. Five years after his marriage to Lady, a doctor tells him that his sperm are lifeless. Eventually this leads to the breakup of the marriage and to some bleak weeks in London while his concerto is in rehearsal. But just then he meets Catherine, divorced, who is now able to respond to him. The tidiness with which he goes into and out of his slough of despond makes this penultimate episode seem like the dip-before-the-upward-finish that is a Hollywood staple.
Hollywood is otherwise manifest as well. Claude is passionate for films, and his fever seems to have infected his author. All the characters seem drawn from Movieland experience rather than from life. Claude himself is a dolled-up artifice. (We don't even really know what he looks like until late in the book.) The kindly, sagacious Weisfeld, the ignorant but deep Al, the elegant Fredericks who is Claude's principal piano teacher, the obese virtuoso violinist whom Claude accompanies on a tour, all of them seem remembered from Loew's balconies. The character whom Conroy works hardest to color, Claude's mother—gigantic, politically obsessed, once an errant show girl—is, after all the huffing and puffing, much less vivid than the father in the brief title story of Midair. The breath of life is not in the novel's people: Conroy merely gives them attributes that are like the springs in wind-up toys.
The author intrudes otherwise than as guardian angel. Most of the story is told from Claude's point of view, but Conroy breaks in frequently with overarching comments. For one example among many, Claude looks at a friend and thinks that he looks "like a dying man." Conroy then adds:
(Which, in a sense, he was. Years later he was to leave home and go to the University of Chicago as a graduate student in history. In his small, luxurious off-campus apartment he would explode his brain with a German Luger pistol…. His body was not to be discovered for some time.)
This device not only jars our focus, not only makes us inappropriately aware of Conroy rather than Claude, it suggests a nervousness in the author, a worry that he isn't getting enough in, that he must enrich his book. This is quite the reverse of the earlier Conroy who exulted, quite rightly, in what he could leave out.
After all this, it can't surprise us that the dialogue is, to put it gently, not vibrant. Generally, the talk has a counterpoint of typewriter clatter or computer-screen blinking: it sounds written. Clichés float in. "You look like the cat that swallowed the canary," says Weisfeld at one point, and Conroy so likes the line that he uses it for someone else later in the book.
But the most painful dialogue, and it's plentiful, comes when Conroy tries to make the didactic material breezy. A discussion of physics:
I mean, you go down and down, and there's the atom, protons, electrons and it doesn't matter if they're little bails or wave phenomena or whatever. Heisenberg comes in and you can't look at anything smaller because the beam of your fancy flashlight is going to knock the little thing away or change or something.
Leaden banter of this kind, applied to music and Marx and Gandhi and other topics, makes for almost physical discomfort in the reader.
Well, enough. It's a gray occasion, the arrival of this novel after such a long wait—a book that manifests no theme or point or purpose. What does Claude s story signify of character or the art he is engaged in or the epoch that he lives through? Virtually nothing. Worse, and more important whatever the aestheticians may think, the book affords almost no pleasure. It is possible to read it; but that's a dreadful thing to have to say about the Conroy we have been waiting on. His enthusiasts will have to wait still longer for the fulfillment of his career.
Source: Stanley Kauffman, "Wrong Notes," in New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 4109, October 18, 1993, pp. 47-49.
Sybil S. Steinberg
In the following Publishers Weekly interview-essay, Conroy gives background on the creation of Body & Soul.
Legions of authors have produced a shelf-full of books without coming close to the literary reputation that Frank Conroy earned with his first effort, his now-classic memoir of a miserable youth, Stop-Time, published when he was 37. Seventeen years elapsed before the appearance of a highly praised short story collection, Midair, Conroy is 57 now, and he seems surprised that his first novel, Body & Soul has been so eagerly awaited. He's somewhat stunned that it has thrust him into the limelight. In fact, commercial success, in the form of celebrity status, boffo rights sales and a perch on the bestseller ladder, appears imminent for this book, out from Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence early next month.
A second major career is surely one reason why Conroy's literary output has been limited. He has a distinguished reputation as teacher and administrator, notably as the director of the renowned Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. Another reason is that he is a slow writer and a careful one. "I have pretty high standards for myself," he tells PW, a statement borne out by his precise and resonant prose.
This time out, however, his ingrained caution may be blown away by fair-weather winds. Word of mouth preceded Body & Soul to the ABA and escalated there. With a 125,000-copy first printing, foreign rights sold in 10 countries, film rights picked up by Spring Creek Productions, and a tap by the BOMC, the novel is making beautiful music for its author, much as its protagonist finds transcendent joy in the music he plays and creates.
Body & Soul is a novel about a musical prodigy, a story that carries its young hero from his first exposure to music—fiddling with keys on an out-of-tune piano—through stages of increasing mastery of technique, concert performance and composition.
The boy, Claude Rawlings, is to some extent Conroy's alter ego, a fantasy of what his life might have been had he been rescued from his neglected childhood by a loving father figure. Conroy acknowledges that the key to the book is Claude's mentor, Aaron Weisfeld. The owner of a music store in Claude's 1940s Upper East Side New York neighborhood (a time and place evoked with fidelity and affection), Weisfeld makes himself responsible for Claude's welfare and his musical education. "He is the father I did not have," Conroy says simply.
More than wish-fulfillment, the novel satisfied another need. "The plot emerged from the two great preoccupations of my life, books and music," Conroy says. The idea came to him about five years ago as he was driving from Iowa to his summer home on Nantucket. Conroy confesses that he felt "a little leery—because music is very difficult to write about." Besides, he had given himself a difficult task, namely, "to recapitulate the history of piano pedagogy in Claude's teachers." Cognoscenti may recognize that Claude's professors represent Clementi, Beethoven and Chopin. But musical knowledge is hardly a requisite for appreciating the book.
For as Conroy himself says, " Body & Soul is a real old-fashioned novel—a big fat book with a lot of people and a lot of plot." He was inspired by the romantic writers he read as a boy: Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal. "Those books kept me from going crazy. I like that old stuff." He gives a deep, chesty laugh. "I'm sorry, but I just do."
The laugh is genuine, and frequent, but not simply mirthful. The effects of the childhood he described in Stop-Time could not have rendered Conroy carefree. He is the son of an emotionally unbalanced man who spent most of his life in institutions, and a cold and irresponsible woman who withheld tenderness and love. The world of books was his solace and salvation, jazz improvisation his emotional therapy. His first wife, whom he met at Haverford College, took him into the milieu of New York's social register.
At 35, divorced after 12 years of marriage and "in bad shape emotionally," Conroy reluctantly left his two sons and Manhattan, and came to Nantucket. He supported himself (none too successfully) with freelance journalism and, during the summer months, by playing with jazz combos at island clubs. For a small price, he bought the five acres on which his house now stands, acquired the genuine barn beams from a farmer in Pennsylvania, and rounded up "eight hippies" to build it. Today, the gray-shingled house is weathered and snug, virtually one large open, high-ceilinged room with a view of woods and a pond. Comfortable and unpretentious, it is dominated by a beat-up piano that also serves as a haphazard bookshelf. Toys belonging to Tim, Conroy's six-year-old son from his second marriage, are scattered on the Oriental carpet.
Conroy and PW sit in canvas chairs looking into a well-used kitchen. His lanky six-foot frame is clad in a brightly hued sweater and jeans. A long lock of his once-blond hair, now faded to the color of coffee cream, falls across his forehead, and he brushes it back with an absentminded gesture. In a nearly two-hour conversation he uses a mild profanity twice, both times prefacing the vernacular expression with a courtly "excuse my French."
Though his name brings instant recognition in literary circles, Conroy considers himself primarily a teacher. He entered the profession when he was 40, a "late age" he regards as an advantage in preserving his enthusiasm. Even during the years (1981–1987) when he served as Director of the Literature Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, he insisted on teaching at least one class. And he finds working with students the most gratifying part of his job as head of the Writers Workshop. Houghton Mifflin has arranged his tour for Body & Soul so that he'll be back in Iowa for his classes each week.
To Conroy himself, it's quite logical that he has written only three books to date. "I really never thought of writing as a career. Although Stop-Time was a critical success (and has never been out of print in paperback), I never got any signals that I could make a living as a writer. So I had to look elsewhere to figure out how I was going to support myself."
Stop-Time sold only 7000 copies when it first appeared from Viking in 1967, despite a "terrific editor," Aaron Asher, who "did what he could," but could not surmount the '60s atmosphere. "Everybody was taking drugs and making love, and here was this sort of neoclassical memoir. It was just the wrong time for it to come out." In the wake of the excitement attending Body & Soul, Viking Penguin is now issuing new editions of Stop-Time and Midair, New foreign translations are in the works, too.
Much credit for the upsurge in his fortunes, Conroy claims, should go to his agent, Candida Donadio, and to Seymour Lawrence, his editor for Midair (published under his imprint at Dutton) and Body & Soul. Donadio "found" Conroy more than three decades ago, when a few chapters of Stop-Time appeared in the New Yorker. "She's the smartest person I know, both as a reader and as an agent," Conroy says. "What's nice is that now, finally, she will make a lot of money. She deserves it; she hung in with me for 30 years, when other people probably thought I was dead."
Sam Lawrence, whom Conroy calls "an impresario, the Sol Hurok of the publishing world," has been the guiding angel of Body & Soul. "Bob Stone and I were speaking at a conference in Key West," Conroy recalls, "and during lunch at Sam's house there, he gave me a tip about buying some stock. I told him I didn't have stock, or money to buy any, either."
"Sam is loyal to his writers. It's his hallmark virtue," Conroy continues. Determined to improve Conroy's fortunes, Lawrence and Donadio decided to show the first 200 pages of Body & Soul to a few people in Hollywood. "Then everything went crazy. It leaked from those four people to all the studios, from Hollywood to Europe. At Frankfurt, everyone came to Sam about it. He wasn't even planning to offer it; it was a long way from finished." After the feedback at ABA, Houghton Mifflin raised the initial printing of the book. Conroy still seems stunned by the hubbub. "I'm very heartened," he says.
Perhaps his cautious elation comes from his sense that he has pulled off a risky undertaking: into the form of a bildungsroman he has managed to pack a great deal of musical background. This entailed night courses at Juilliard and "a tremendous amount of reading and research. I wanted to go back and learn everything over again—and learn it right," he says.
As indicated in the Author's Note, he is "deeply indebted" to Peter Serkin, who served as the book's unofficial vetter. The two met a decade ago when Conroy did a profile of the pianist for Esquire. "Once I was launched on the book, I thought of him," he says. "He's a very generous man, and very cultured. He looked at the manuscript, 100-150 pages at a time over the course of five years, made marginalia and sent it back to me. That allowed me to take chances that I otherwise would have been afraid to do."
Because of Serkin's enthusiasm, Conroy feels sanguine about readers' responses to the explanations of musical theory and descriptions of concertos, symphonies and jazz arrangements. "I think readers are interested in process," he says, "if it is conveyed as a process: the natural development of a child who's being taught by people who really care about music. As the child learns it, so can the reader."
While the title may suggest the familiar song, Conroy had other reasons for choosing it. "The concept of the body and the concept of the soul seemed to me to be what the book was really about. I knew that most people would immediately think of that song, but I also hoped that they would examine the phrase both in terms of the novel's musical component and in terms of the love story," he says.
What remains mysterious to Conroy is the manner in which the characters became so vividly alive to him. "Maggie [his wife] talks about last summer as the summer I wasn't here. I was so involved with the characters I walked around in a daze. That's every writer's dream, a situation when you don't have to push the story or flog it: you just have to follow it."
Another mystery is his choice of his protagonist's surname. Tobey Rawlings was the name Conroy gave to his boyhood friend in Stop-Time. He had originally used the boy's real name, Conroy recalls, "but the lawyers made me change every name in the book except my own." He says he has no idea why he elected to bestow it again on Claude in Body & Soul.
Though the resemblance between Conroy's youth and that of Claude Rawlings is hardly coincidental, Conroy's use of his boyhood memories was a far different emotional experience this time. The memoir resulted from an "almost therapeutic" need to exorcise his childhood. "Ted Solotaroff said the engine behind Stop-Time was anger. If Stop-Time was anger, Body & Soul is love, largely because of the relationship between Claude and Weisfeld."
In granting Claude an incredible string of good luck, Conroy concedes that he has made the novel "in many respects a fairy tale." That was part of his pleasure. "The material was exhilarating. It was like being in a sailboat on a perfect day. The wind is going, the sun is shining, the ropes are tight. The boat is just tearing through the water."
Describing the serendipity of discovering the book's epigram—"That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it"—Conroy bolts from his chair into the kitchen and takes down a well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking. "I get sort of manic at the end of the day when I'm writing," he says, in what at first seems like a non sequitur. "My head is bouncing all over the place. I have a couple of beers, then I cook dinner. It helps me reenter." One day he happened to flip to the front of the cookbook and the epigram from Goethe's Faust leaped out at him.
"I felt a thrill go through me. I said: 'That's it, that's what I'm writing about!'" The loving protection of fathers, the ineluctable blessing of love, the empowerment of knowledge, the joy of music, that indeed is what Body & Soul is all about.
Source: Sybil S. Steinberg, "Frank Conroy," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 34, August 23, 1993, pp. 44, 46.
Rand Richard Cooper
In the following negative review, Cooper identifies clichéd characters and bad writing as two reasons why Body and Soul is a "disappointment."
Younger writers who've pulled off that rare feat, a wonderful first book, work on under a hefty burden of expectations. Frank Conroy was thirty in 1967 when he published Stop-Time, his memoirs of a childhood marked by the absence of a disturbed and alcoholic father. A collection of sharp images retrieved "from the very edge of memory," Stop-Time anatomized experience rather than judged it, setting forth episodes of boyhood—the thrill of scavenging an abandoned building with a best friend, the brutal beating of a helpless fat boy at boarding school—from a detached, almost amoral perspective that held out to readers the persistent illusion of breaking through adult sentimentality to see life as it "really" was.
Praised lavishly for its intelligent candor by such authorities as Norman Mailer and William Styron, Stop-Time went on to become that writer's dream, a true word-of-mouth book, remaining continuously in print decade after decade, winning new generation of readers and setting a standard for childhood narratives against which other talented practitioners—from Annie Dillard to Theodore Weesner to Alice McDermott to E. L. Doctorow—could be measured. Meanwhile, however, Conroy himself (who currently is director of the famed Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa) managed but a single slim volume of stories in a quarter-century (Midair, 1984), invoking anxieties—shared, according to interview, by the author himself—of that nightmare of literary nightmares, a one-book career.
Now, at last, along comes Body & Soul, a sprawling bildungsroman taking up the youthful adventures of a musical prodigy named Claude Rawlings. Weighing in at 450 pages, the book clearly means to put all doubts to rest: "a big novel …" Conroy has called it, "a book [not] about me but about the world."
Such comments notwithstanding, it's hard not to read Body & Soul as an updated Stop-Time. Both books have as heroes a musically precocious boy growing up fatherless in postwar New York, and both explore, to a greater or lesser degree, the same terrain: isolation, imagination, and the redemptive power of art. Alas, however—I might as well say it right off—lovers of Stop-Time are in for a big disappointment. Slack where Stop-Time was startlingly fresh, Body & Soul rarely approaches the brilliance of its shimmering progenitor.
The novel begins promisingly enough. Following Claude Rawlings around from the dingy apartment he shares with his taxi-driver mother to the music store where his mentor, Weisfeld, teaches him piano, Conroy takes us on a guided tour through a long-lost New York. Food automats dispense franks and beans for a quarter, neighborhood saloons on V-E Day offer free beer for anyone in uniform, and in the background Rosemary Clooney sings "Come On-a My House." In the shadow of the Third Avenue el, Claude shines shoes, collect bottles, and indulges in a little petty larceny. He's like Doctorow's enterprising New York City boys, growing up clever and tough; but Conroy's version of the street urchin is softened by a quiet, baffled wonder:
In the general torpor specific noises stood out in high relief—the wheezing of a bus, the clacking, rattling rush of the el, angry voices from inside a tenement, the crash of a storefront gate—thick sounds rising with an eerie clarity against the unnatural silence. On an empty street he might watch his own feet, as if to reassure himself that he was not dreaming. He might wipe the sweat from his face with the back of his hand and then look at the back of his hand. He was often dizzy.
This is the quiet intensity that made Stop-Time so terrific, and it's what Conroy does best: carefully detailing the texture of consciousness, with its dizzying intimations of self and the formidable, sometimes terrifying otherness of the world. Conroy's boy protagonists, while preconscious, are nevertheless children; ideas come to them not abstractly, but with a taste, a shape, a sound. Their world is incorrigibly sensual, and in Body & Soul, as in his earlier memoirs, the author renders this sensuality superbly.
As soon as Body & Soul busies itself with the action of Claude's budding career, however, things start to go bad. Conroy knows a lot about music, and uses it in fashioning a successful career out of the dubious and scattered materials of Claude's circumstances. The problem lies in the characters with whom he surrounds his wunderkind. Dividing the boy's world neatly between mentors and antagonists, Conroy paints these figures with very broad strokes. There's the eccentric but kindly artist; the cold and shallow Upper East Side socialite, impervious to art; the shabby, soulful Eastern European Jew, tormented by Holocaust nightmares; the jovial black janitor with a heart of gold and a bottomless fund of folk wisdom ("You gotta decide if the mad runs you, or you run the mad"). These are not living character but types; worse, they're secondhand types, inherited from other New York writers, like Tom Wolfe or Bernard Malamud, who've done them far more compellingly.
Similarly, Conroy seems to have lost his ear for original language. The novel offers a full menu of bad writing, from bland straightforwardness ("A quiet idealism glowed on both of these small, protected campus worlds—islands of optimism within the larger security of calm, prosperous postwar America") to Mushy Love Writing ("As her soul welcomed him, his own was cleansed. As they ascended together in to the blue beyond blue, all else was trivial"). One searches Body & Soul in vain for the kind of pin-point-accurate insight into what makes people tick that made Stop-Time sing. But the new novel's characters remain stubbornly fuzzy and shallow. The are functional; less like real people than props furnishing the stage of Claude Rawlings's moral education.
The problem goes right to the heart of the differences between the two books. Stop-Time was both a reflection upon, and a recreation of, the extreme limitedness of a child's perspective. Its protagonist's deeply adolescent assumption was that life will never change, that it goes nowhere. "An adult [Conroy wrote] recognizes petty problems for what they are and transcends them through this higher preoccupations, his goals—he moves on, as it were. A child has no choice but to accept the immediate experiences of his life at face value. He isn't moving on, he simply is."
The lack of a redemptive telos, the refusal to discern or impose a "story" upon often painful and difficult events, gave Stop-Time its pessimistic cast—the narrative structure is framed by an account of the grown-up Conroy driving wildly through the night, drunk, heading for a crash—but also its vivid and penetrating honesty. The various people who pass through young Frank's life have no function, no part in a larger story, because from Frank's point of view there is no larger story. People aren't there to teach Frank anything he wants to learn; they're simply there to be seen in all their mysterious and sometimes tedious particularity. As its title implies, Stop-Time relies for its success upon stuckness. The mode of the book is the trenchant skepticism of an exceedingly intelligent young person convinced he isn't going anywhere.
Body & Soul, on the other hand, exudes progress and higher preoccupation. Life, it insists, is indeed a story, a series of peaks and valleys along a gradually rising curve toward enlightenment. Surprisingly, Conroy seems to have grown up into an optimist; but it's an optimism that strains and creaks in its dogged insistence on making everything fit together, on delivering every last lesson and missing piece. Nowhere does it creak more loudly than in the novel's climactic scene, when the author maneuvers his hero, by now an internationally known concert pianist in his midtwenties, into an unwitting and coincidental reunion with his long-lost father—who turns out (surprise!) to be a jazz pianist in a London nightclub. The two musicians play together four-handed, setting the house on fire with their shared passion for jazz, Claude unaware of the true identity of the man next to him, yet inexplicably drawn to him…. And so on. The scene has the sweetness of Hollywood product: "perfect" to the last detail.
Behind such sentimental manipulations lies a deep romanticism about creative genius and the nobility of art. Body & Soul is suffused by a longing for the purity of artistic devotion. It deals Claude (and the reader) chastening life lessons, ultimately offering salvation in a deep commitment to "the work." The tone of the novel is warm but power-fully earnest. "You're not a kid anymore," Weisfeld counseled Claude when the boy confesses bewilderment at the twelve-tone system of modern music. "You're on your way to becoming a well-educated young man, and we're getting into deep stuff here." The substitution of Schoenbergian atonality for the birds and the bees in a standard coming-of-age moment might be hilarious, were there any irony to it; as is, we are asked to accept it, and other such moments, straightforwardly. With its hopeful messagizing, its sprawling all-inclusiveness, its earnest profundity, Body & Soul reads like, well, a first novel: which, after all, it is. It's a good enough book, given what tends to get published. it just isn't a wonderful book. Harsh judgements are the reward for having once upon a time written a book a lot of people love.
Source: Rand Richard Cooper, "A Long-Awaited Encore," in Commonweal, November 5, 1993, pp. 44, 46.
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 3d ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, pp. 112-13.
Kauffmann, Stanley, Review of Body and Soul, in The New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 16, October 18, 1993, p. 47.
Olshan, Joseph, Review, in Harper's Bazaar, October 1993, p. 130.
Review, Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 25, June 21, 1993, p. 82.
Steinberg, Sybil, Interview in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 34, August 23, 1993, p. 44.
Conroy, Frank, Stop-Time, Viking Press, 1967.
The critics have noted that this stellar autobiography about Conroy's youth and the storyline in Body and Soul are very similar.
The achievements of a number of entrepreneurs from a variety of fields are examined in terms of how race, gender, and ethnicity fit into the American Dream.
Kenneson, Claude, and Van Cliburn, Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives, Amadeus Press, 1999.
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Schoenberg, Arnold, ed., Fundamentals of Musical Composition, translated by Leonard Stein and Gerald Strang, Faber, 1982.
This book provides basic information about composition terminology and forms.