David Leavitt first jumped to popular attention with his 1986 novel The Lost Language of Cranes. I first came across his work in 1993 when reading the acclaimed While England Sleeps.
Though I have not read later, expurgated editions, the first edition of While England Sleeps was a compelling novel of lovers separated by class, intellectual attainment, and later, revolution and war. Leavitt was sued by poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995), who claimed that Leavitt plagiarized (and vulgarized) his own life story. Leavitt settled out of court, and altered portions of his novel.
Leavitt followed While England Sleeps with The Page Turner (1998), another story of an ultimately failed love affair. The Page Turner is the story of Paul Porterfield, an 18 year-old music student, and his romance with Richard Kennington, a famed pianist approaching 40. Paul meets his idol while turning music pages for him at a concert. Chance brings them together again months later in Rome where they begin their love affair, complicated by Paul’s mother, Pamela, who also develops feelings for the senior artist. Months later in New York, Paul becomes sexually involved with Kennington’s long-term lover and agent, Joseph Mansourian, who is 61.
Unlike the rich first edition of While England Sleeps, Leavitt here falls into the fatal misconception shared by most contemporary novelists: thinking that less-is-more rather than simply … less. The four protagonists are drawn with deft sketches, but we never inhabit their interior minds as we would in the hands of a more generous novelist.
Paul, the ostensible protagonist, is little less than a cipher, and at best markedly unsympathetic. The novel opens with his burning passion to be a great pianist, a passion which, it seems, is crushed all too easily some months later when he is first passed over for a more talented student, and because one of his teachers tells him he’ll never be “great.” Such youthful ambition is seldom amputated so quickly, and his conversion to bitter cynic (while still an adolescent) rings false.
Pamela, his mother, is drawn with such broad strokes that it is impossible to really mine whatever riches the character has to offer. Is she worthy of our sympathy, or our scorn? Leavitt never seems to know.
It is only with Kennington that Leavitt approaches complexity and a fully-realized human portrait. Kennington is a man under siege, plagued by doubt, by conflicted feelings over his affair with Mansourian (which started when he was 15), and by his deep-seated ambivalence about live performance. But still, Kennington is too thinly drawn to transcend his book and haunt the memory.
Thin, here, is the operative word. Since Leavitt does not imagine a richly populated reality, he often resorts to parenthetical asides to add flavor or necessary background information. His secondary characters – and we know they are secondary as they are known by diminutives, Teddy and Bobby – exist only to ease the plot and supply a bit of tawdry comic relief. Such scarcity of imagination robs the novel of any possible romantic grandeur. When Paul is told that he will never become an artist of any particular merit, Leavitt lets drop an opportunity for great feeling and deep pathos. Instead of an exploration of thwarted artistic ambition, Leavitt has Paul accept this condemnation with mournful resignation and a crying jag. In other hands, this realization would be worthy of an entire novel…
Unfortunately, The Page Turner does not end so much as simply … stop. Though key characters all have had profound experiences, there is no resolution as such. The Page Turner, despite its wonderful romantic and melodramatic possibilities, never soars. As a New Yorker short story, it would be interesting enough; as a novel, it is insufficient.
There still is room for a great novel about accepting artistic limitations, shattered expectations, artistic disparity and the challenges of inter-generational passion. Leavitt touches on all of this, but only touches the surface. The Page Turner remains a readable misfire.