Long Island Books: When in Athens

By Austin Ratner
Simon Van Booy
Simon Van Booy Ken Browar

They say it’s the water that imparts the superior taste to New York bagels. Would it be too alliterative to ask what’s in the water in Wales? I’ve never had a Welsh bagel, but I’ve sampled some delicious Welsh writers, writers with a musical ear and a warm heart. Dylan Thomas comes to mind, of course, and Dick Francis, the mystery writer of whom The Detroit News and Free Press once said: “[his] secret weapons are his protagonists. They are the kind of people you want for friends.”
Simon Van Booy is Welsh. His prose is music, and his characters are warmhearted, gentle, bemused, philosophical beings who could easily think just what Dick Francis’s hero does in “Whip Hand” upon waking from a good dream: “Living, of course, was quite different. One discarded dreams, and made what one could of the day.” In a similar vein, Mr. Van Booy writes of George, who’s had a drinking problem since he was a teenager: “George gulped his wine mercilessly. The professor poured him another and said, ‘Steady on, George.’ ”
    Such affably defeated characters supply a certain panache, charm, and intelligence to a work of entertainment like a Dick Francis crime novel. To judge from its cover (as the old adage instructs us to do with books, or did I get that wrong?), Mr. Van Booy’s novel might be that sort of harmless, diverting story, albeit for thinking people.
    And this story about a love triangle between three young expatriates in Athens in the summer of 1999 can be read on that level. Mr. Van Booy paints realistic pictures in the least obtrusive, most transparent way possible, so that you can look through the words like unnoticed windowpanes onto people and places that are so convincingly real it wouldn’t occur to you to doubt them. A writer like Mr. Van Booy, with his sure grasp of characterization and detail, and the confidence not to grandstand, ushers you into a pleasant fictional world without your having to work very much; he has already done all the hard work for you.

““Everything Beautiful Began After””
Simon Van Booy
Harper Perennial, $14.99

    Mr. Van Booy’s characters, Henry Bliss, George Cavendish, and Rebecca Baptiste, are sensualists and aesthetes and serve as guides to many places of quiet wonder and beauty, rendered with incontestable specificity. (The two men are sometimes almost androgynous in their sensitivity. Both Henry, the archaeologist, and George, the classicist, have a tendency to black out repeatedly like Jean-Francois Champollion.)
    And yet the novel is so much more than a mere diversion, and Mr. Van Booy’s characters are more than mere aesthetes. Henry has borne a knowledge of the world’s unpredictable dangers since he was 5 or 6 years old. Mr. Van Booy shows exactly what befell Henry back then in a way that’s at once audacious in its directness and modest in its lightness of touch. Rebecca and George don’t flee trauma so much as past neglect, but all three have converged on this city of ancient ruins as if in search of some lost, old part of themselves, a romantic dream interrupted in childhood that they hope to excavate and reconstitute in this later, calmer, wiser period of life.
    “ ‘My whole life,’ Henry said, ‘I’ve felt as though I were missing something, that the happiness assigned to me existed always at a distance, somewhere, in some place that was somehow beyond me — and when I moved, it too moved, always away but never so far as not to haunt me with the feeling of what it might be like to be happy.’ ”
    Around this part of the novel, I began to realize that Simon Van Booy was not playing games. His characterization of despair was not glibly existentialist but authentic, almost clinical, in a way that to me implied unusual life experience — the kind that presses truth into service no matter how awkward or frankly psychological that truth may be. So I was not entirely surprised to learn from an article Mr. Van Booy wrote for The Guardian in 2009 that he had lost his wife and was a single parent to a young girl.
    It was no real surprise to me either that Henry doesn’t at this moment in the narrative escape his past. Rather, just as the light of happiness begins to shine on him, Henry re-enters the penumbra of loss, where anguish nearly annihilates but also sharpens sensation, and even aesthetic experience.
    And that is partly what I take the title to mean: that pain exalts its sufferer with profundity, an appreciation for life, and a clarity of vision. “[T]here is a large crack that runs the length of the wall — neatly dividing your life before and your life after.” Things are then seen anew: “Your desk has a black marble top. . . . The desk is so polished that it reflects everything. Birds swim through the table as you work.”
    This clarity of vision yields some highly original pictures of the human animal. The human beings herein eat sardines and octopus by the sea like other, lower mammals, but they also move in ways that other animals don’t. They move within their minds. Even when their bodies are completely still, or asleep, thoughts flow within, and beautifully, originally, Mr. Van Booy represents the silent kinetics of thought, rumination, imagination in a nearly pictorial way.
    “Most nights you lie in one position. By contrast, your sleeping mind cannot dwell on one thing for too long. Your sleeping mind, like a ghost, drifts from place to place, from person to person. In the morning you wake to see what has washed up on the tide of dreams.” And later: “Language is like drinking from one’s own reflection in still water.” And people standing still by a birthday cake are observed to be moving silently within: “The cake arrives. Wishes are cast like nets.” It’s as if Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 30 has unfolded into a full-blown novel.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

    The sonnet’s concluding couplet seems to want to bind up instantly what cannot be so readily or instantly bound. The anguish remains. The restlessness of thought remains. But perhaps anguish and restlessness aren’t all; once witnessed, named, understood, torment takes its place among many other things in life. Through art, anguish is bound up in the fabric of life as a part of it, not the whole of it, like “the head of a lion sewn into a tapestry,” as Mr. Van Booy puts it so beautifully in one of the final images of the book.
    This book is art of that sort and that caliber; it binds up anguish in beauty.

    Simon Van Booy has been a regular visitor to the South Fork for many years. His book “Love Begins in Winter” won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2009. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
    Austin Ratner spends summers and weekends in East Hampton, where his parents have a house. His debut novel, “The Jump Artist,” won the Jewish Book Council’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature earlier this year.