Books by Nicholas Delbanco

Nicholas Delbanco is the author of more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Vagabonds, What Remains, Old Scores, The Countess of Stanlein Restored, Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France, and The Lost Suitcase: Reflection


THE ART OF YOUTH by Nicholas Delbanco
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: Nov. 19, 2013

"A study that belabors the obvious and provides little illumination."
Delbanco (English/Univ. of Michigan) must have intended this as a bookend to his earlier study, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age (2011). Through a selection process that seems arbitrary, he focuses on (in chronological order) author Stephen Crane, painter Dora Carrington and composer George Gershwin. Read full book review >
LASTINGNESS by Nicholas Delbanco
NON-FICTION
Released: Jan. 24, 2011

"Shows that time's winged chariot can glisten brightly, even in the sunset."
A prolific author now in his late-60s examines why some artists remain productive, even innovative, in the dying of the light, while others opt not to rage but to rusticate. Read full book review >
SPRING AND FALL by Nicholas Delbanco
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 19, 2006

"Delbanco's writing is smooth, but bland."
From the prolific Delbanco (The Vagabonds, 2004, etc.), a low-wattage romance about former college sweethearts whose feelings rekindle when they meet again, by accident, 40 years later. Read full book review >
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Released: April 1, 2005

" A Guide Bleu for the literary armchair. "
A delightfully aimless, somewhat rueful collection of nine essays on places visited and friends lost. Read full book review >
THE VAGABONDS by Nicholas Delbanco
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 11, 2004

"Too busy a story makes for a tepid read: Delbanco's latest skims the surface without grabbing hold."
The prolific author (What Remains, 2000, etc.) traces a hidden legacy through three generations. Read full book review >
WHAT REMAINS by Nicholas Delbanco
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 22, 2000

"One of Delbanco's most attractive and accessible books."
Delbanco's elegiac and elegant 13th novel (Old Scores, 1997) gathers the voices of a family of German emigrant Jews to describe their "escapes" (to London, then America) from Hitler's persecution, and their mourning for the high culture betrayed and destroyed by the Nazi regime. Read full book review >
OLD SCORES by Nicholas Delbanco
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Aug. 22, 1997

A sad, convincing, autumnal tale of love lost, found, and lost again, by old pro Delbanco (In the Name of Mercy, 1995, etc.). Paul Ballard and Elizabeth Sieverdsen first meet at Catamount College, in Vermont, in the halcyon 1960s. He's an appealing young philosophy professor, modest, incisive, somewhat otherworldly, rumored to be bound for great things. She's a bright, frank, determined student who finds herself increasingly drawn to the kindly if distant Paul, and she wears down his wary reserve. Their fevered affair comes to an abrupt end when Paul is struck by a hit- and-run driver. His body shattered, despairing about his future, and guilty about his affair with Elizabeth, he sends her away. Angry and hurt, she goes. Paul's body heals, but he remains a recluse, publishing some acclaimed books but pursuing a solitary existence in rural Vermont. Elizabeth, meanwhile, marries a charming if somewhat passive Italian adman and settles down in his native village, where she raises two bright, demanding children. The marriage ends after they go off to college, and Elizabeth, at loose ends, troubled by her past, goes in search of Paul. Their reunion, filled with hesitancies, anger, and a growing awareness of their undimmed yearning for each other, is deftly handled. It seems, briefly, as if Elizabeth, now 48, has finally rediscovered the life she had once believed would be hers. Then sudden illness once more breaks the lovers apart. This is melodramatic stuff, and in less assured hands it would seem flat and unremarkable. Delbanco, though, narrates his lovers' plight in a spare, emotionally exact tone, and his characters have the complexity and fragility of real life. A moving exploration of a believably passionate love, and of its subtle, powerful, persistent impact on the lives of two stubborn romantics. Read full book review >
IN THE NAME OF MERCY by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: Sept. 12, 1995

Timely if flat euthanasia novel from Delbanco, head of the University of Michigan's writing program and author, mostly recently, of The Writers' Trade (1989). Weird things are going on in Lakeview, Michigan. Peter Julius, a young physician whose wife has recently died after a long and painful battle with cancer, has been put in charge of the Harley Andrews Hospice, a home for the terminally ill. Although the hospice is a charitable endeavor, endowed by a local millionaire, the notoriety surrounding that other Michigander, Dr. Kevorkian, has put it in the public eye. No one who enters as a patient comes out through the front door, and while this is not exactly a surprise, ugly rumors of pulled plugs and empty syringes start to circulate in town. When Rebecca Forsythe, the Derek Humphrey-like author of Death's Kingdom (a proeuthanasia tract), comes to the hospice to give a seminar on current medical approaches to death, even the staff begins to wonder: Has healing become synonymous with killing? Benefactor Harley Andrews himself has a bad heart and makes no secret either of his wish for a quick end or his fear that a low turnover rate will bankrupt the hospice. There are strange, anonymous letters to the editor of the local paper from a fundamentalist Christian who warns of "abominations" in town; an unhappy affair between Peter and Rebecca; a nurse who falls in love with an AIDS patient (who dies more quickly than anyone expects)—but all of it adds up not so much to a mystery as an essay, or an editorial. Delbanco is so leisurely in his narration that the climax comes as a surprise—not in how it falls together, but that it even takes place. The motive behind this work—i.e., how our understanding of health, life, and death is changing—is too strong for the story it's enclosed in, and ends by smothering it. Strangely dry and academic: more an exercise than a novel. Read full book review >
NONFICTION
Released: July 22, 1989

A disappointing attempt to wrest significance from a lifetime of visits to Provence; by a veteran novelist (Sherbrookes, Stillness, etc.). Delbanco begins promisingly in the caves of the Dordogne, as his tendency to heavily underscore ironies is balanced by a rare modesty of style. But in the episodes that follow—Delbanco at 18, setting forth with a letter of credit and a sports car to deliver; the author as an adult, picking up a Volvo sedan and driving down from Sweden, as a young writer living with his London relatives, then delivering an Alfa Romeo with a folksinger girlfriend—it becomes clear that these are vignettes, too frail for the burdens they carry. Partially, the problem is Delbanco's overripe style. Even when he deprecates his youthful smugness, born of privilege, he somehow ends up celebrating it. A paragraph of delicate description is followed by one full of unleavened facts ("These are the thirty-two winds of Provence. . ."). Sentimental dialogues with his daughters alternate with the kind of lush language and Victorian cadences indulged in by some art historians. The episodic technique prevents our ever getting to know the main characters, aristocratic Lilo and Alex, and the peasants Guillaume and Felicity. Briefly, the book threatens to make a centerpiece of Delbanco's proximity to and friendship with James Baldwin. But their encounters are short and circumspect, adding nothing to what is known of the late, self-exiled writer. In the end, a frustrating book, good only in fragments. Delbanco often notes that Provence is a harsh land; a little of that harshness in his narrative would have done much to help this memoir keep its balance. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 11, 1989

Delbanco, author of the Sherbrookes trilogy (Possession, Sherbrookes, Stillness), here offers a second collection of intelligent but surfacey stories (About My Table, 1983), all concerning writers (mostly male) who must accommodate their illusions to reality. Of the nine pieces, the best is "The Day's Catch," a novella: David Levin, the protagonist, a writer who lives on Martha's Vineyard as companion to a blind boy, is concerned with voice—"the play of utterance—its registered timbre and range." By story's end, Levin, middle-aged, and his wife attempt to recapture their marriage on a Caribbean island, but Levin "had used up their story." The effective title story describes the coming-of-age of callow Mark Fusco, "enrolled in the school of real life"; after a publication party for his successful novel, a train accident spoils his literary illusions—but the analysis of those illusions becomes his subject. Of the rest: in "You Can Use My Name," three Iowa Writers' Workshop grads keep in touch for years, until, finally, Adam sees famous Richard in dissipation, and former lover Marian as "one chatty woman, spooning fruit." Likewise, "Palinurus" concerns a famous novelist and his lesser patron, a "writer who teaches" and who becomes the novelist's literary executor, subordinating his own life to the needs of executorship. "His Masquerade" concerns a professor unexpectedly moved by a mediocre but sincere visiting poet; in "The Brass Ring," a mid-life novelist of limited reputation sees a younger brother suffer through a bout with Guillain-Barr‚ syndrome; "Everything" is modified stream-of-consciousness about a writer near the end of his life as he waits to be photographed. The metaphor of the writer writing can wear thin, but, still, this is a solid—if specialized—collection about the disillusions and small epiphanies of the literary life. Read full book review >
THE BEAUX ARTS TRIO by Nicholas Delbanco
NONFICTION
Released: Jan. 23, 1984

Because author Delbanco is a novelist (Sherbrookes) and the son-in-law of Beaux Arts Trio cellist Bernard Greenhouse, you might expect this treatment to have more texture than the routine, patchwork artist-profile book. Disappointingly, however, that's not the case: Delbanco salutes the long-lived chamber group with a standard assemblage of interviews, anecdotes, clippings, and journalistic close-ups. A brief history of the Beaux Arts piano/violin/cello trio (relatively rare compared to string quartets) leads off—from 1955 formation to the 1969 retirement of violinist Daniel Guilet, to be replaced by the younger Isidore Cohen. Later chapters offer detailed descriptions of three specific items on the Trio's busy schedule: a 1982 concert at Harvard's Sanders Theater (a performance for a less obvious, less sophisticated audience would have been far more interesting subject-matter); a concert-tour in France; and, to much better effect, a six-day recording session in 1983, focusing on two Mozart piano quartets (with violist Bruno Guiranna as the fourth). And interviews with the three current Beaux Arts principals are interspersed throughout—as the lively, humorous musicians talk about training, practice, critics, life-on-the-road, recording, teaching, and a soloist career vs. chamber music. Some intriguing specifics, a few merry anecdotes, and obvious appeal to Beaux Arts fans—but, unlike the better artist-profiles (e.g., William Zinsser's Willie and Dwike, p. 684), this uninspired mosaic provides neither rich character-studies nor involving vignettes. Read full book review >
ABOUT MY TABLE AND OTHER STORIES by Nicholas Delbanco
NONFICTION
Released: Aug. 1, 1983

Like much of Delbanco's full-length fiction (Stillness, Sherbrookes, etc.), these nine stories are intelligent, readable, well-meaning—yet lacking in depth, drama, or texture. In almost all the pieces, the focus is on a man nearing 40, usually married, usually the father of a beloved daughter; the man recalls an old flame, or considers the similarities between his dead mother and his young daughter, or muses on time and transience. (In "Traction," the man hurries home from a business trip to be with his daughter after her hip operation: "His baby lay in a hospital bed; he would tell her on arrival, though she would not comprehend him, how the world is in an orbit and ail-things are therefore circular.") Unfortunately, however, though Delbanco gives each of these men different names, ethnic backgrounds, and occupations (lawyer, doctor, insurance broker, academic), they are blandly interchangeable—and uniformly fuzzy; even a tale involving the discovery of infidelity fails to invest this persona with vividness or specificity. (Flattest of all is the essay-like title story—a meditation, dedicated to the late John Gardner's memory, on the unexpected deaths of friends: "Death visited him nightly. It comes when it will come. It could be a furnace malfunction, allergic reaction, rabid bat, oncoming drunk in a van in his lane, suicide, undiagnosed leukemia, handgun in a shopping mall, pilot error, stroke, the purposive assault of some unrecognized opponent, earth, air, water, flame.") And the few sparks of narrative urgency here come from some of the more interesting personalities who cross this central persona's path: in "The Executor," the hero (a frustrated artist) reluctantly inherits the papers of a late, semi-distinguished painter; in the similar "Northiam Hall," a would-be biographer goes to England to start research on the poet Harold Emmett but abandons the project ("Emmett's teaching had been suicide; he was better left alone. We each must learn to die; exampling helps only a little"); and in the faintly amusing "Ostinato," a tired notion—a husband's infidelity with the au pair girl—is given a bit of a bounce via the girl's oddly worded letters (she's Japanese) to both husband and wife. Mildly involving, never-disturbing short fiction, then: sentimental, wistfully thoughtful, undistinguished. Read full book review >
Released: April 16, 1982

After a long stretch of portentous yet limp throat-clearing, novelist Delbanco (Sherbrookes, etc.) offers the slim substance here: three small, chatty studies in literary "collegiality"—all of them involving writers who lived in the same area of England (Kent and East Sussex) around 1900. ("They drawl and carry pistols and flourish their umbrellas or their walking sticks. They will change the face of fiction in our time.") First come the last days of American wonder-boy and fun-loving host Stephen Crane—and how the others reacted to his early demise: Delbanco argues (not very persuasively) that, contra Leon Edel, Henry James did probably agonize over Crane's death; he suggests that Ford Madox Ford be given "the benefit of the doubt" re his purplish recollections of Crane; he celebrates the intense Crane/Conrad friendship; and he finally ponders Crane's artistic decline, ending up on a characteristically blurry note. ("Had he recovered, so might have the prose.") Then there's another look at the much-chronicled Conrad/Ford collaborations, with brief analysis of the different degrees of collaboration (re "Amy Foster," Nostromo, and Romance) and consideration of the partnership's influence on both writers' later work; Delbanco contends that "If Conrad gained in fluency while working on Romance, Ford learned profluence"—and that "Ford released the elder man to create profound scenarios by helping him to realize the surface of his texts." And, finally, there's the unlikely acquaintanceship of James and H. G. Wells ("It is as if Borges and Jimmy Breslin met for cocktails weekly")—a relationship that soon deteriorated into condescension from James and cruel parodies from Wells; yet here again Delbanco is determined to accentuate the positive, asserting that "What seems exceptional here is that Wells and James were close—not that they disagreed." Throughout, in fact, Delbanco leans on his Pollyanna-ish view of writer interaction so hard (especially in a goopy epilogue) that even his soundly-based points become suspect. And the sense of woolly-mindedness is compounded by the prose, which is slangy yet stuffy, with clichÉs running free ("forest for the trees," "with a grain of salt," "worth his salt," etc., etc.). All in all: familia material, sketchy—and unconvincingly didactic—treatment. Read full book review >
STILLNESS by Nicholas Delbanco
NONFICTION
Released: Sept. 12, 1980

The final book of Delbanco's trilogy (Possession, Sherbrookes) about the odd-fated Vermont manorial family, the Sherbrookes. Maggie Sherbrooke, 55, the much younger wife and now widow of old Judah, is still living in the family mansion with grown son Ian and her two-year-old illegitimate daughter Jane. Maggie is losing hold of reason, though; and Ian, alarmed, has called for help from Jane's father and Maggie's ex-lover, Andrew Kincannon, a rich New York talent agent. Andrew drives north and fetches both Jane and Maggie back to the city with him, leaving Ian his strange relationship of faith with the mansion (now part of the National Preservation Trust and thus open to visitors once every two weeks) and the shaky Sherbrooke lineage. Like the previous installments, the story this time often seems to waver between soap-opera and heavily artful interior landscaping. And, though Delbanco's prose continues to become less mannered—here it is generally steady, sturdy, and sensitive—the narrative effects still seem skittery, more than a little half-hearted. Required reading, of course, for those who enjoyed the previous two volumes (and Delbanco does a firm job of closing out the trilogy for them), but the author seems understandably eager to wrap up and move on—perhaps to richer, livelier material. Read full book review >
POSSESSION by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: Feb. 11, 1976

Delbanco goes on writing his perhaps thanklessly individualistic books, which are not so much private as confined. He is a special taste who elicits very contradictory reactions. In Possession there is less of his "rich" or is it "precious" prose with only a few words like "parodic" or "ephemerid"; there's a homelier simplicity with occasional lines that lilt—"Still, paradise is warm. It is a stepped-up version of September." No one has ever questioned Delbanco's dedication to language or his concern with cankerous family relationships, most strongly evident in Fathering. Now a trio, a little reminiscent of Ethan Frome, are together/apart in the chill of lovelessness, possession, advanced age, and Vermont. The novel passes a day with the leonine Jonah who has spent his entire life in a "holding action" against the outside world, keeping his wife and sister victims of his "fighting riled" bullydom. His sister Harriet, now 81, has always been as shriveled as a lemon squeezed once too often. His second wife, Maggie, half his years when he married her at 48, became estranged after the crib death of one child and she left in order to free her other son Ian, her "final lover," as well as her vital self. Years later she returns for this day at Jonah's request, but during its course the whole past surfaces in uncomfortable takes, solidified by the accuracy of insight and detail with which the novel is caulked. These give the novel its strength and austerity even if it's as claustral as an hour spent in a root cellar. Read full book review >
SMALL RAIN by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: March 10, 1975

After Fathering, Delbanco's only accessible novel, Small Rain's a steady drizzle of raffine exchanges (French, German, Italian and Latin on every other page), recondite vocabulary stretchers ("He permitted the oxymoronic construction; he used the chiasma in speech"), not so recondite aesthetic referrals (the Brownings, Buddenbrooks) and a little name-dropping of fine foods and wines. In between, this is the last romance of Anthony Hope. Harding, sixty, with one kidney, and Maija, with a husband and two children he persuades her to shuck. Until now the epicene Anthony has just had affairs — say, with Maija's sister whose "breasts were broccoli." At the close Anthony dies — his cancer (the one kidney) is terminal. The book with its high-toned blat is also just that kind of experience. Read full book review >
FATHERING by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: Dec. 7, 1973

Even if Mr. Delbanco has abandoned some of his most capricious stylistic tics, Fathering is still pretty heavy weathering and the occasional word remains "echoic" of perhaps Durrell, not so much in the shifting perspectives — there's that — but in the truly pate de foie gras prose. Some of it is romantic and elegant particularly in the paraphernalia it summons up; too much of it is another thing. The story which advances slowly and sometimes not at all concerns the search of Robert Mueller for his progenitors who have not really been revealed to him; his worldly, melancholy grandmother Elizabeth, wife of Hans, drops him as an infant with a French couple before he is moved and brought up by her son Alexander and his wife Susan whom Robert — when he's old enough — will share. In what seems to be a grandly generous family tradition since Hans and Alexander and then Robert will also know — in the biblical sense — Chloe who is probably Robert's mother but by Hans? or Alexander? Robert's estranged and vague and footless years of wandering are indeed justified although by the close (Elizabeth commits suicide; Hans dies; Alexander shoots himself but only succeeds in losing his sight; etc., etc.) all these "linkages" and "couplings" will not have corroborated his "provenance" or restored his real and psychic identity, both a word and a concern which have become the cliche of our time. Read full book review >
IN THE MIDDLE DISTANCE by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: Sept. 12, 1971

When Mr. Delbanco, who hit a high point with The Martlet's Tale (1966) and missed on the others, is committed to straight narrative, everything falls into place; but this story of middle-aged crisis is fragmented by the irritating dialogue. The protagonist (who has the author's name) whose world was abruptly soured and almost destroyed by the tragic death of his young son, projects his life backward. As he reels off its sequences, persons tainted by the anguish of the present, change. His parents achieve a pristine dignity, and women, merely tolerated or despaired of, become again stirring obsessions. The bereaved father's personality escapes from its confining cast. Unfortunately Delbanco laces his journey back with self-indulgent interior inserts in a wormy style which has plagued his other works: "What kind of character amalgams have we here, how send them shuffling through the deckydance?" And the narrative is weakened by too many "I love you very much"-es in mistaken deference to things said. However cluttered with experiential bric-a-brac, this is still a fresh concept of the middle distance. Read full book review >
NEWS by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: May 12, 1970

As far as general readability is concerned Mr. Delbanco's tangled fabrications have been downhill racing all the way since his first successful The Martlet's Tale (1966) and this one's another irritating mix of strangulated vision and alluvial prose. Four white American revolutionists, essentially loners but oddly suspended in a mutuality of "underground" stance, confront the exclusion and demands of black separatism. One commits suicide after composing a mad manifesto about black inferiority; one is murdered; one is under a sentence of death; and another grieves for "the four of us (who) inherit the merely meek earth. . . . We are. . . the victors gone to spoil." Delbanco is at his best stabbing into the heart of anger, humiliation and tear when the broad channel of alienated exodus and atavistic activism is abruptly diverted. ("When I ask myself about the kinds of terror I find them here. . . . And the worst is that I'm certain we could cut the black mass down, that I'd shoot if threatened, by skin color only, at sight." But despite the flashback backgrounds of the men and their women, the quartet of paleface cop-outs are still the four faces of a condition, marked by the odor of roast Pig, rather than individual consciousness. And a sentence may go on for two and a half pages something along this order: ". . . the world quite precisely divided, and recognition instant, and communities perforce in the shelter, street, and alliance easy. . . . Read full book review >
CONSIDER SAPPHO BURNING by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: March 10, 1969

Consider Sappho, a middle-aged, Bollingen-winning "poetess" doodling here about herself and five others (a painter, a musician, etc.), none of whom you can differentiate and certainly not by their sex and all of whom are "interchangeable, symbolic and not substantive." Consider the novel-"In the structured novel there is always clarity, a page that marks peripetea, than anagnorisis: yet the terms are foreign. . . ." Indeed, clogged with formidable foreign words, "vocalics," allusions, alliterations, and wordplay ("I sink and therefore am"). Mr. Delbanco's assault upon the reader considers him not and is for those (if any) who read his second novel (not his first) Grasse 3/23/66 of 1968. Alternating with the erotic permutations of his sestet, are, on every other page, grave rubbings and headstone readings from the cemetery on this island (Martha's Vineyard) and entries from some medical encyclopedia ("The optic nerves and chiasma: the neighborhood of the cerebral ventricles, and the subpial region of the spinal cord are favorite sites"). . . . Consider-conclude-"So much of our art form now is fraud" or at any rate a lyrical talent misapplied. Anomie in Arcady. Read full book review >
GRASSE 3/23/66 by Nicholas Delbanco
Released: Feb. 28, 1968

There is an old saying that you go into a poem sober, but if you don't come out of it drunk it's no poem. Nicholas Delbanco has upped the ante. With his offering ("This is not a novel but an epi-tome; news, age".), one has to wade into it drunk, and if you don't come out of it crazy, you're lucky. This reviewer was lucky: he was just bored. Perhaps the best way of describing this peculiar product (the title refers to a place in France where Fragonard was born; while the date presumably memorializes the prolific day When the whole thing was conceived), is to regard it as a set of pensees composed in the Joycean mode with a flight nudge of inspiration by way of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave Delbanco's penchant for word-play tosses up an armada of frisky phrases ("Physician, heal thigh, pelf") and a few champagne-tinged bubbles ("Law requires that seeing-eye dogs have access everywhere but to the cinema"). Unfortunately, it's a bit late in the day for experimental "fiction" or even anti anti-fiction (modern literature is really begging for a Samuel Johnson to lay down the old ground rules of rationalism again), and Delbanco's "wallow-swallow" verbal tit for tat, alliterative jeremiads, and prankish profundity usually wears as thin as Twiggy When it is not as hot as air (the procedure, alas, is just too catching for words). The narrator has a mournful-merry Voice (he would call it Orphic) and there seems to be a death-and-transfiguration theme to give a mythic glow and a failed marriage to make it autobiographically ashen. Strictly a private puzzle. Read full book review >