Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Art Lover Paints a Socially Realistic Portrait of a Young Man in 'Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse' -- Book Review

Book Review

Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse
a novel by Arthur D. Hittner
published by Apple Ridge Fine Arts

Amazon product page (Kindle version)

Although it involves many subjects that interest me--American art of the 1930s, baseball, New York City, Judaism, questions of faith, beautiful women, romantic dilemmas, racial divides, social stridency, cultural enlightenment and more--I only learned of the historical fiction novel, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse, because the author himself asked me to read it.

Clearly an art lover, collector and historian in addition to being a writer--and retired attorney--Arthur Hittner contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago after coming across a review/recap I had written about a 2016 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition titled America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s.

Some of the included artists that I cited in my review--Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, Stuart Davis--factor into Hittner's book, and also noting my baseball fandom, the Massachusetts & Arizona resident surmised I might enjoy reading and reviewing his novel.

After advising him that I can be an intermittent and dispassionate reader, who might realistically not complete his book for several months, I found myself rather feverishly digesting the 301-page Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse--via a Kindle app--in less than a week.

So I clearly enjoyed the book, and especially if at least a few of the topics above interest you, I strongly recommend it.

Not quite as a masterpiece, but a very engaging and informative read.

Below I will share more about the book's storyline and inspiration--including aspects Hittner cited to entice me to read it--but if you're already thinking it sounds like something you may wish to check out, it may be prudent to STOP READING THIS REVIEW NOW (and return AFTER you've read the book).


Knowing any of the following shouldn't really ruin the experience of reading Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse--and may well enhance it--but I somewhat wish I was a bit less initiated beforehand.

For the novel grew out of a non-fiction book Hittner wrote called At the Threshold of Brilliance: The Brief But Splendid Career of Harold J. Rabinovitz.

Rabinovitz was a transplant to the NYC art scene, whose work in the 1930s earned a good deal of acclaim, if not lasting fame. (I had never heard of him until now.)

Although Hittner fictionalizes some aspects of his protagonist in Artist, Soldier, Love, Muse, the character of Henry Kapler is, like the real Rabinovitz, a Jewish alum of Yale who moves from Springfield, MA to New York City.

Hittner even imagines Kapler painting works that were really created by Rabinovitz (I could only find a few online, including one I'll included below and the self-portrait adorning Hittner's biography; I imagine more are within).

There's nothing wrong with drawing quite direct inspiration from a fine artist of the era, largely lost to history, and I'm fascinated to learn of Harold Rabinovitz (reminding me of my discovery of a little-known but terrific Impressionist named Federico Zandomeneghi).

But knowing the title of Hittner's Rabinovitz biography--and the author spelled out a bit more in his email to me--can clue you in a bit too robustly about what will happen in the novel.

One of my minor quibbles with Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse (whose title is even a tad too revelatory for my tastes) is that the fine narrative Hittner develops--which along with considerable artistic exposition involves two attractive women Henry Kapler befriends, one of whom is dating a notorious New York Yankee (who really existed)--doesn't unwind the way I thought it should have.

Obviously, the author is entitled to make whatever choices he feels proper--and this doesn't change my overall impression of the book--but I feel the end is too tied to fact, rather than following the fiction in a more intriguing direction.

Eventide, by Harold Rabinovitz, 
As noted above, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse addresses a number of topics, and while Hittner interweaves them artfully, some--including commentary on racial discrimination and references to art luminaries of the times--get relatively short shrift.

But in saying that, I must admit that while detailed descriptions of Kapler's--and, probably, really Rabinovitz's paintings--engaged me, the parts about his romantic entanglements kept me turning the pages a bit more profusely.

So while a sound-byte summary of this book would likely reference a young, social realist painter bucking his Jewish father's wishes to make his way in the New York art scene of the 1930s--and this certainly did intrigue me--it also has more universal elements that, if not quite as educational, are fun to ingest.

While Hittner demonstrates considerable deftness in his writing, Artist, Soldier, Lover, Muse doesn't quite have the depth to call it a stroke of genius.

But it definitely paints an intriguing picture of a certain time, place, talented artist, coming-of-age story and more, rather realistically.

Perhaps even a touch too much so. 

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