The Jump Artist, by Austin Ratner, is a novel that studies the relationship between a father and son, and the psychological impacts of that relationship and how it directed the emotional and life-altering course of the son.
Max, the father was a powerful force in his son, Philipp Halsman’s life, and often energetic, bordering on overpowering, in his quests and activities. He saw himself as able to perform any task, and no matter how strenuous, he never failed to exhibit his dominance and strength. And, exhibit he did, to a fault, proceeding to conquer even when his physical impairment should have quelled his goal.
Philipp, a 22-year old Latvian Jew, on the other hand, was diminished in his father’s presence (Philipp Halsman is not a fictional character, but is a factual person). He had no ambition to compete on his father’s level, and no motivation to drive him forward. Throughout the pages, he evokes a sense of detachment from his father, and a bond that is less than strong or close.
One day while out hiking in Austria, Max fell off a cliff and died. Philipp looked away for one quick instance, and when he looked back, his father was gone. From there the story line becomes more morose. Philipp is accused of murdering his father and taken to jail. He is found guilty of murder, and the reader surmises (at least this reader did), that he did not kill his father, from the way the story line is written.
The prison scenes are extremely layered with graphic imagery, and Ratner’s masterful writing is stark and straight forward. Nothing is left to the imagination. The inhumane treatment is apparent, and Philipp’s depressive state is fostered within the disgusting prison conditions.
While in jail Philipp becomes a tortured soul, unable to fathom why nobody believes him. He is unable to cope with his detention under the circumstances surrounding the fact that nobody believes him, and everyone is against him. His only saving soul is his lawyer, who defends him to the best of his ability, under the extreme and the microscopic efforts of the prosecution.
Within the pages the reader is given vivid portrayals of a man depressed, a man racked with guilt, not the guilt of a murderer, but the guilt of burdens he has bared, and the guilt of a man who is in a constant state of self-hate. His only allies are his attorney, his mother, Freud and Einstein. They rally behind him, and Freud and Einstein vouch for him and use their status to help him gain a pardon.
Once out of prison, he realizes he must move to another country in order to start life anew. Also, the fact that war is imminent plays a large factor in his decision to relocate to France, where he is welcomed, where he feels at home, and where he believes he will be harbored. Within his new environment his efforts at portrait photography are enhanced, and he becomes known for his work. Living in France does not last long, and Philipp eventually moves to America.
In America his photography flourishes, it becomes his life, his reason for living. He photographs famous celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe. His signature becomes the fact that he photographs his subjects as they jump, therefore, he is known as a “Jump Artist”. His life takes on new meaning, yet his detachment to humanity is still obvious.
Ratner is brilliant in his writing, and in his portrayal of the human condition, both in prison and in society, as antisemitism rears its ugliness. If this were today, I doubt that Philipp would have been convicted, even through all the discrimination inflicted upon him. There was no conclusive evidence, and the few witnesses that were present used drama tactics to infuse the court’s decision.
For those looking for an intense read, this book is for you. It is not a quick read, not a light read, but a dark and compelling read. Phillip Halsman’s life is the basis for the novel, and Ratman used his life history loosely in portraying the man and his thoughts and feeligns. I applaud Austin Ratner for his brilliant writing, and for bringing to light the circumstances surrounding a man who was wrought with burdens, and a man who overcame some of them, and went on to become a well-known photographer.