Peter Beagle’s debut novel, published in 1960. I borrowed a great looking copy from the library which collects A Fine and Private Place with Beagle’s most famous (and superior) novel, The Last Unicorn.
2.5 out of 5 stars.
Jonathan Rebeck has lived in a New York City cemetery for nineteen years. A smart-talking raven steals food for him and ghosts of the recently deceased keep him company. When two new ghosts and a very alive widow enter Rebeck’s life, he begins to question his withdrawal from the world.
A great set-up but this story never gets out of the first act. The entire book feels like a prologue with little added to the plot beyond what’s established above. We spend most of our time listening to solitary ponderings or philosophies being tossed back and forth. This would be fine if A Fine and Private Place was a character study but the characters remain one-dimensional.
You can see the beginnings of a very good writer here; the pieces just haven’t settled yet.
 Opens with an Andrew Marvell quote from “To His Coy Mistress”:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace
This was also quoted in Pet Sematary (note )
“There are people,” he said, “who give, and there are people who take. There are people who create, people who destroy, and people who don’t do anything and drive the other two kinds crazy.”
He fell silent, scratching aimlessly in the dust with his beak. Mr. Rebeck said nothing. Presently he reached out a tentative hand to smooth the raven’s plumage.
“Don’t do that,” said the bird.
“It makes me nervous.”
Within fifteen minutes he had been quoting Rimbaud for her, and Dowson, and Swinburne.
Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891), a French poet, was referenced in Cloud Atlas (Part 1, note ).
Ernest Dowson (1867 – 1900) was an English poet, novelist, and short-story writer, often associated with the Decadent movement. Dowson is best remembered for such vivid phrases as “days of wines and roses” and “gone with the wind.”
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 – 1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was a controversial figure at the time, writing about topics such as lesbianism, cannibalism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism. He is considered a poet of the decadent school.
Only the Chopin Preludes that he had learned as a boy stayed with him, along with some Rimsky-Korsakov, a few passages from the Ninth, and a plaintive, wandering strain he decided was Weill.
Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950) was a German composer. He was a leading composer for the stage. With Bertolt Brecht, he developed productions such as his best-known work The Threepenny Opera.
 One of my favorite Beagle-isms is his skill at making similes from seemingly disparate things. It’s all over the place (in a great way) in The Last Unicorn.
He saw family plots, with the little headstones bunched together like frightened cattle.
The black paved road became dirt, and then gravel, and then pavement again, and other roads ran away from it; somethings it was broad, and other times as narrow as the cold bed of Barbara Allen.
“Barbara Allen” is a traditional Scottish ballad; it later traveled to American where it became a popular folk song. The ballad generally follows a standard plot: Barbara Allen visits the bedside of a heartbroken young man, who pleads for her love. She refuses, claiming that he had slighted her at a prior affair; he dies soon thereafter. Barbara Allen later hears his funeral bells tolling; stricken with grief, she dies as well. A common line in the song says, “Oh mother go dig my grave / Make it both long and narrow.”
“Nobody can lie to you now, because three-fourths of a lie is wanting to believe it, and believing makes no difference to you any more.”
“If I can’t drink vodka and tomato juice any more I’m not drinking anybody’s nepenthe.”
Nepenthe is a medicine for sorrow, literally an anti-depressant – a “drug of forgetfulness” mentioned in ancient Greek literature and mythology, depicted as originating in Egypt.
“I’ve got some Swinburne.”
Michael tried very hard to remember if he had liked Swinburne, and felt something only a doorstep away from terror when the name made no sound in his head.
From note , we know that Michael discussed Swinburne during his first meeting with his future wife. This loss of ghost-Michael’s memory shows that his distance from the world of men has begun.
“You have to laugh,” she said. “Sooner or later, you have to laugh. How long can you cry?”
“Years,” said Michael. Mrs. Klapper shook her head, as if she had heard him. “Sooner or later,” she said, “you have to laugh.”
“Lecherous old man,” Michael said. “Control the clammy hands, Tarquin.”
There are several Tarquins to choose from, but I’m guessing from context that Michael is referring to Sextus Tarquinius:
The third and youngest son of the last king of Rome, Luicius Tarquinius Superbus. According to Roman tradition, his rape of Lucretia was the precipitating event in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the Roman Republic. The story of Lucretia’s rape is the subject of Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.
Immersed in this feeling, he wandered contentedly around the little clearing (…) letting himself become logy with sorrow.
adjective – (North American) – dull and heavy in motion or thought; sluggish.
“We are now united in mutual grief, maudlin sorrow, Weltschmerz.”
He knew very well that the great majority of human conversation is meaningless. A man can get through most of his days on stock answers to stock questions, he thought. Once he catches onto the game, he can manage with an assortment of grunts. This would not be so if people listened to each other, but they don’t. They know that no one is going to say anything moving and important to them at that very moment. Anything important will be announced in the newspapers and reprinted for those who missed it. No one really wants to know how his neighbor is feeling, but he asks him anyway, because it is polite, and because he knows that his neighbor certainly will not tell him how he feels.
Michael vaguely remembered a very old book, its binding hanging in strings. He associated a quotation with it and felt a disproportionate pleasure in doing so. “ ‘Into Paradise,’ ” he said slowly, “ ‘go those aged priests and those old cripples, and the maimed, who all day long and all night long cough before the altars. With them I have nought to do.’ ”
Aucassin et Nicolette is an Old French story written in a mixture of prose and poetry. The name of the author is unknown, but he probably lived in Picardy during the early 13th century.
“You have to fight,” Michael shouted after her. “I know that now. Giving up the fight is death.”
Laura stopped and faced him. “Death is not having to fight any more, either for yourself or for other people.”
I look too far ahead, he thought, because I am afraid of suddenly coming face to face with things. He had never been able to enjoy the Christmas holidays in his childhood because they seemed to skid him helplessly toward the long January.
She thought of them as yentas.
noun – (Yiddish origin; North American; informal) – a woman who is a gossip or a busybody.
Mrs. Klapper had, as a child, woven sturdy legs and a lot of curiosity into a real talent for getting lost.
“Fish got to swim and birds got to fly. God made them, high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” He coughed apologetically. “Those last two lines weren’t mine, I’m afraid.”
This seems to be a combination of two elements:
(a) From the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from the 1927 musical Show Boat:
Fish got to swim, birds got to fly,
I gotta love one man till I die
Kurt Vonnegut plays on this in Cat’s Cradle in the Bokonist poem “on pretending to understand”
Tiger got to hunt
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”)
(b) From the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” first published in 1848:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate
Goddam organizers, he thought. You got something good going and somebody comes along and organizes it.
 The raven is the best character in the book and sorely underused:
“Take a worm, now. All right, they aren’t brilliant, but they work hard. Your average worm is a nice enough little guy, a kind of small businessman. He’s quiet, he’s good for the soil, he doesn’t bother anybody, he leads a good, dull life – and the poor bastard is a three-to-one bet to wind up on the end of some kid’s hook if the robins don’t get him. And that’s all right, because he’s slimy and he can’t sing either. But a kid shoots a robin with a slingshot and forty years later he writes in his autobiography how he didn’t know the meaning of death till then.”
This is an utter tangent, but Stephen King has used the whole “bird death = young person’s understanding of death” in at least three stories:
Road Work (as Richard Bachman):
He’d had a .22 single-shot rifle as a boy in Connecticut. He had wanted that rifle for three years and when he finally got it he couldn’t think of anything to do with it. He shot at cans for a while, then shot at a blue jay. The jay hadn’t been a clean kill. It sat in the snow surrounded by a pink blood stain, its beak slowly opening and closing. After that he had put the rifle up on hooks and it had stayed there for three years until he sold it to a kid up the street for nine dollars and a carton of funny books.
(The Bachman Books collection, page 333)
Desperation (as Richard Bachman):
“The year I was twelve, my old man gave me a .22,” Audrey Wyler said. “The first thing I did was to go outside our house in Sedalia and shoot a jay. When I went over to it, it was still alive, too. It was trembling all over, staring straight ahead, and its beak was opening and closing, very slowly. I’ve never in my whole life wanted so badly to take something back. I got down on my knees beside it and waited for it to be finished. It seemed that I owed it that much. It just went on trembling all over until it died.”
(found by searching “.22” in Desperation on Google Books. Not sure what edition/page it correlates to)
Apt Pupil (from the collection Different Seasons):
On the corner he saw a bluejay lying on the sidewalk, its beak slowly opening and closing. It was trying vainly to get onto its birdy-feet and hop away. One of its wings had been crushed, and Todd supposed a passing car had hit it and flipped it onto the sidewalk like a tiddlywink. One of its beady eyes stared up at him.
Todd looked at it for a long time, holding the grips of his bike’s apehanger handlebars lightly. Some of the warmth had gone out of the day and the air felt chilly.
(Quote found on novelok.com, where they list this as page 44. Google Books didn’t have a full preview for the page.)
He would ask no questions, Michael knew; he would be very polite and wait for Michael to open the subject. And if Michael didn’t, he would talk about something else and never mention Sandra again. There might be a strain and awkwardness between them for a while, but it would all come from Michael. He would be placed in the uncomfortable position of a man whose privacy is genuinely respected, and he hated Mr. Rebeck a little for it.
 Beagle’s tone feels surprisingly modern; another great quality of his work:
“I didn’t kill myself. I know that as well as you can know anything in this place, where all of your thoughts crumble and go. It’s just not the sort of thing I’d do.”
“As the mother said when her son ran amuck and chopped up two old ladies, a bus driver, and the head of the fire department.”
“I had something to do, something I’d done, someplace to go, and something to look forward to. That’s a reasonable way to live. I enjoyed myself living. I had a good time. How much else can you ask for?”
“A lot more,” Laura said softly, “if you’re greedy.”
Her smile was too tolerant, Mr. Rebeck thought, too wise, too tout comprendre est tout pardonner.
French: understand everything is to forgive everything
(if est is changed to c’est the translation is: to understand everything is to forgive everything, which is a bit cleaner.)
He thought of the Thurber cartoon and grinned.
James Thurber (1894 – 1961) was an American cartoonist, author, journalist, playwright and celebrated wit. Thurber was best known for his cartoons and short stories, published mainly in The New Yorker magazine.
The way Michael thinks of “the Thurber cartoon” makes it sound like one has already been referenced (or there is a specific famous one I should know). Maybe a scene was edited out where Michael sees a cartoon in a newspaper ?
Mrs. Klapper looked at him for a long time and he looked back at her. There is nothing marvelous about meeting a person’s eyes, he thought. Your eyes may start to water after a bit and you may get a kink in your neck, but the soul is far behind the eyes and doesn’t even know what’s going on up front.
“If you hear noises, it’ll be us singing the duet from Aida.”
An opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi set to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Set in Egypt, it was first performed in Cairo in 1871.
There are several duets in the piece. I’m not sure which is considered the duet.
 The characters do a lot of ruminating on the same themes. One is always the depressed thinker, the other saying that s/he sounds ridiculous. Depending on the scene, any character can take either side, which makes them all begin to sound alike.
Michael speaking to Laura:
“There are honest people in the world, but only because the devil considers their asking prices ridiculous.”
Laura laughed. “Now you sound a little like that man who was with your wife.”
Laura speaking to Michael, echoing his thought and seeming to forget her earlier stance:
“Everyone – meaning me – has her price. Proving it’s easier to love the downtrodden and lonely of the world if you yourself have never been loved.”
“No hay arbol que no tenga
Sombra en verano.
No hay nina que no quiera
Tarde o temprano…”
Spanish: No tree that has no
Shade in summer.
No girl who does not want
Sooner or later.
“Cuando se ven queridos,
Spanish: When they are dear,
They do not correspond.
“Teach him ‘El Monigote,’ the one about the dummy.”
Spanish: the stooge
The air was motionless, carved, a block of warm copper fitting neatly around the earth, molded while soft to fit every house and every human being on the earth, and now hardened forever so that no man could move and no air ever came through. The earth rumbled down its alley like a golden bowling ball, shining.
 Any of the main characters could have had this thought, which continues the problem of :
I wish something would happen to me, something that would show me exactly how cruel and jealous and vengeful I can be. Then I could go back to gentleness because I chose it over brutality for its own sake, not because I didn’t have the courage to be cruel.
Two hours after finishing the book, while typing these notes, the characters weren’t distinct enough for me to remember if this passage belonged to Rebeck or Laura.
Had she lived during an earlier time, she would have propitiated a weather god possessed of a vindictive intelligence and a squad of little helpers.
verb – win or regain the favor of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.
Mrs. Klapper wasted no time in badinage.
noun – humorous or witty conversation.
“Rebeck, you’re a hard man to do a favor for. You’re always a favor ahead. This is no way to keep your friends.”
“Nothing’s worth any effort in the end,” he said to Laura, “because everyone is going to die and there is nothing in the world that will stop them from dying. Nothing lasts. A few things last longer than most people live, but they go too.”
“It’s like marriage. The race there is between total knowledge of each other and death. If death comes first, it’s considered a successful marriage.”
“I’ll tell you something. Once I was very fond of a poem by Emily Dickinson or somebody. I only remember one line of it, but it goes, ‘The soul selects her own society.’ ”
This is indeed the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem.
“When I was young, I thought I was very kind. I thought that I hated meanness and brutality simply because they were evil in themselves. As I grew up I learned that I hated to see people in pain because I could imagine myself suffering in their places.”
Mr. Rebeck had expected one of the shining black hearses with long tonneaus and shaded windows.
noun – the part of an automobile, typically an open car, occupied by the back seats.
He did not see her rise from her knees, because his face was in his hands. His fingers gripped and rubbed at his skin as though he were trying to find out whose face he had put on by mistake.
The inevitable is a great blessing to a man weary of making choices.
There are no happy endings, he knew, because nothing ends.
A Fine and Private Place has interesting ruminations and good quotes but it fails as a narrative. The few plot threads are not satisfactorily resolved and the two love stories aren’t earned by the underdeveloped characters. As a fifty-page novella, this might have worked but as a 262-page book, it’s a slog.
The Last Unicorn is a wonderful book. Anyone interested in reading Beagle should start there.
Next week, we’ll start a multi-post look at Catch-22.
It is not a book by Kurt Vonnegut.