Monthly Archives: August 2005

A Fine and Private Place

Peter Beagle’s first novel, A Fine and Private Place, is a curious book, an urban fantasy set almost entirely in a Brooklyn cemetery, with a cast of characters consisting of a reclusive old man (he hasn’t left the cemetery in 19 years), a talking raven that brings him stolen sandwiches, two young ghosts and a Jewish widow.

I’m actually hesitant to tag it with a genre label, even one as loose as “urban fantasy”. If you didn’t know that Beagle would go on to write The Last Unicorn (the book he’s most famous for), you’d probably not think of it as fantasy at all, but as “a mainstream novel with talking animals and ghosts”.

As it is, Beagle ended up being pigeonholed in the genre, and this book ended up as one that Neil Gaiman, for example, will admit to liking quite a bit, when fans bring it up, usually apropos the raven. The raven is snarky and down-to-earth and a good-hearted curmudgeon, and sort of reminds you of Matthew, the raven in Sandman. Except, that’s sort of how you’d imagine a raven’s personality, I guess.

The restricted setting and cast of the book put me in mind of a play. Specifically, characters meet and converse and enter and exit in what look very much like theatrical scenes, and the scenes segue one into the other as if the reader were watching them on stage, with the plot broken down into acts distinguished by a small number of key turning points. Interestingly, the book was adapted into a musical play, where I guess the music allowed them to do the monologues more elegantly.

There’s a certain lesiurely sprawl here, with scenes that are just laid out lesiurely to be taken and enjoyed, without pushing the action anywhere. And there are extended character sketches embedded there: a whole chapter of Mrs. Klapper, Beagle’s delightful Jewish widow, going through her daily routine and contemplating life; ghosts wandering and thinking about life and feelings and stuff. Yeah, I’m saying it’s a bit slow. You know, you don’t run in a cemetery; you linger and take in the sights, thoughtfully.

I seem to recall Beagle has a reputation as a writer’s writer, and this book (the only thing of his I’ve read so far) justifies it. He writes here with a style and wit and wise humanity that makes you want to curse him, because he wrote A Fine and Private Place when he was f***ing 19. Finished it when he was 20. I shudder to recall what I was doing at that age.

Anyone who might wonder why such a young writer was so interested in old people (and dead ones) is obviously long out of touch with the concerns of 19-year-olds. Beneath its cleverness and even wisodm, it’s as obsessed with the concerns of your average Dark One as any angsty young adult, and it’s central theme is the age-old question of “What’s The Point?” Why go on with life when it comes to so little in the end, a road of sorrow eased only by passing comforts, all our hopes for happiness and love doomed to fail or fade?

And Beagle’s wise and consoling ending would strike a perfect closing note, except that I finished reading it on a pretty horrible night. I couldn’t help but think that the guy writing my life has a lot less compassion for his protagonists than Beagle, and a lot less skill.


כל הבוקר הכעס לכוד בפנים ולא יוצא. ואז אני קורא את יוסי והוא מצליח לבטא את מה שאני מרגיש. אפילו שהוא בכלל כותב על עזה.