RUNNING IN PLACE by Nicholas Delbanco


Scenes From The South Of France
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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.
Pub Date: July 22nd, 1989
ISBN: 0802138098
Page count: 243pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1989


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