Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Critical Book Review

After devouring the novel by Peter S. Beagle titled A Fine and Private Place, I had developed rather mixed emotions about the book. It paralleled many of the themes that we have been exploring over the course of our time at Spring Grove Cemetery, but I felt as though the story was rushed. That is, the overall exposition is a little fast, perhaps showing the impatience of a young man to get to the meat of the story (Beagle was 19 when he wrote the novel). However, after learning more about the author himself and being asked to think more critically about A Fine and Private Place, I have discovered varying themes and social concerns along with a great deal of intricacy in how the characters interact with one another.

The story unfolds in a Bronx cemetery where the newly arrived dead quickly lose all sense of themselves as individual people by forgetting the sensations and impressions that composed their lives. As one would infer, the dead cannot leave the place of their buried body or make any physical impact on the world of the living. This is where we find Jonathan Rebeck, our protagonist. He makes it apparent that it is possible to be both physically alive and dead at the same time. On the other hand, Michael and Laura, who are newcomers to Yorkchester Cemetery, are able to remain somewhat alive by constantly reminding themselves of their past experiences and sensations. One can surmise that maintaining an identity and being alive are analogous. We must actively pursue a sense of self to prove we are alive and to be alive is to have proved or established a sense of self. In addition, this shows that an act of will is necessary to propagate life and such will clearly distinguishes it from death.

Beagle suggests that whether or not a character wills to engage in the constant effort of awareness required to maintain life and identity depends on the presence of love. For example, Laura embodied death because she felt that no one truly cared about her and Michael committed suicide because his marriage was failing. However, once these two ghosts developed a passionate longing and love for each other, then they find the incentive to hold onto their identities and inimitable existences by sharing their remembered sensations. In addition, Mr. Rebeck wills the action to leave the cemetery and reenter the realm of the living after 19 years because of his developing love for Mrs. Klapper.

Mr. Rebeck, Mrs. Klapper, Laura, and Michael are the four primary characters in the novel and Beagle places them as equals, as balances for one another versus functioning as separate entities. In so each character seeks to compliment the other three. It appears that Laura and Mr. Rebeck are parallels, as Laura only wants to sleep underground and fade away and Mr. Rebeck has abandoned life to live in a cemetery among the dead. They both have rejected life. Conversely, Michael vests all of his time as a ghost into remembering the past, remembering the sensations to hang on to life. Michael attempts to motivate Laura to do much the same as Mrs. Klapper’s character implies the same with Mr. Rebeck, but in his case to leave the cemetery. It gives the impression that Mrs. Klapper and Michael are both lovers who are attempting to bring life to the dead, and Mr. Rebeck and Laura are the beloved who receive it.

Beagle has attempted a novel expressing life after death, and life during death, and life instead of death using love as the ultimate vehicle to deliver his message. After thinking more decisively about the text and removing my initial dislike for the piece, I have come to respect A Fine and Private Place as a marvelous work of magical realism. The themes and characters are intertwined to reveal a complex notion of valuing everyday life and not to take it for granted. Moreover, it has been a true compliment to our analysis of Spring Grove and the nature of cemeteries.

1 comment:

  1. So - first impressions are not always accurate? I am pleased you were able to relook at the themes and characters in the novel, and find the more subtle aspects of the work. The novel, like life, is not perfect. We discover life in the cemetery and are reminded to be more alive ourselves