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A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Published by Crown Publishing/Hogarth on November 13, 2018

A Ladder to the Sky is a novel about writers, some real but most imagined, which means it is a book about people with frail egos who spend much of their time sniping at each other. I enjoyed that. The story raises issues of karma and justice, and I liked that even more than the sniping.

A word of caution, however, to readers who do not like novels unless the characters are likable. The protagonist, Maurice Swift, is a talented wordsmith but is incapable of contriving plots, a deficiency he overcomes by stealing them. Even worse, while Maurice is charming and clever, he is also despicable: an ambitious, narcissistic sociopath who advances his career without regard to how he harms the people in his life. He is, in fact, one of the vilest characters ever to play a starring role in a literary novel.

Many of the other characters are writers and while they are typically portrayed as self-involved and somewhat pitiable, none approach Maurice’s malevolence. I enjoyed being appalled by Maurice. Evil characters tend to be more interesting than icons of virtue and Maurice is a fascinating train wreck of a person. Other readers might not be able to stomach an unlikable protagonist.

Point of view shifts throughout the novel. The story is only sometimes narrated by Maurice. As the novel begins, Maurice appears to be a secondary character, a young man worming his way into the life of Erich Ackerman, a literature professor at Cambridge who left his home in Germany at the war’s end, and who hoped to leave his secrets in the Fatherland. Ackerman achieved literary recognition at the age of 66 with the publication of his sixth novel. Ackerman meets Maurice in Berlin on a book tour, then makes Maurice the sole member of his entourage. Ackerman is gay and feels an unspoken yearning for Maurice, who claims not to have given his sexuality much thought.

Maurice longs for literary fame of his own. Ackerman, acting as his mentor, honestly appraises Maurice as an excellent technician who fails to tell compelling stories. Maurice finds his way to literary fame by betraying Ackerman in a way that will put an end to his mentor’s literary career. Perhaps Ackerman deserves that fate — whether Ackerman merits harsh judgment is one of the book’s important questions — but Ackerman has balanced his youthful misdeeds with an adult life that is exemplary. Many readers will feel sympathy for Ackerman, although other readers probably won’t.

Maurice uses another gay writer, Dash Hardy, in much the same way, leading to an intriguing literary interval involving an acerbic but perceptive Gore Vidal before the book moves to Maurice’s marriage and the next stage of his life. One dramatic section of the book involves Maurice’s wife; another involves his son, although the nature of the latter dramatic episode is hidden until the story nears its end. Under other circumstances, a reader would feel compassion for Maurice given the pain an ordinary person would endure in a tragic life, but Maurice is no ordinary person.

Maurice meets a young man near the novel’s end who reminds him of his lost son and their interaction suggests that Maurice may be capable of feeling well-deserved guilt, if only at a subconscious level. While many of the characters are distasteful, Boyne balances the pack with a few sympathetic characters, including Maurice’s wife, who play key roles. In any event, karma makes the novel likable even if the protagonist is not.

A Ladder to the Sky is a compelling novel, not because it creates empathy for its protagonist (John Boyne does quite the opposite) but because the story is absorbing and truth-telling. The novel’s theme is that some talented people cannot be happy with success on its own terms but wish to rise above their peers, to be seen as the best, even if they must tear down their peers to achieve that end. The story advances the quotation that is generally attributed to Gore Vidal (and that Vidal attributed to himself): “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Stated differently, the notion is that ambition is a pointless waste of energy, like setting a ladder to the sky. The book is honest and provocative. It is also immensely satisfying.


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