The Page Turner

Peter Kurth reviews 'The Page Turner' by David Leavitt

By Peter Kurth
Published April 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

For a writer whose name has lately become almost synonymous with literary controversy, and as one of the acknowledged lights of contemporary gay fiction, David Leavitt has always written in a surprisingly conventional, non-inflammatory tone. His last novel, of course, the ill-fated "While England Sleeps," was pulled from the shelves on both sides of the Atlantic after Sir Stephen Spender charged him with plagiarism, and was only reissued in the United States after Leavitt agreed to rewrite it. Later, one of the novellas in "Arkansas," his triptych of writerly woe, having been sold for serialization to Esquire, was killed by the magazine's editor, who feared advertiser objections to its sexual content. The memory of these disasters and the media attention that followed might account for the fact that Leavitt's latest offering, "The Page Turner," offers nothing in the way of surprises. It's as if Leavitt were hedging his bets and covering all bases in an effort to avoid a third run of the gantlet.

"The Page Turner" is a slight, ruminative book, too short for its scope, the story of the love affair between Paul Porterfield, an 18-year-old aspiring pianist, and his musical and artistic idol, the former child prodigy Richard Kennington. When we first meet Paul, he is about to graduate from high school in California, intent on a concert career and getting ready to study at Julliard. He meets Kennington unexpectedly in San Francisco, when he is asked at the last minute to step onstage as page turner for his hero. Their brief encounter leaves Paul in a whirl of desire and the normally fastidious, 40ish Kennington struggling with an erection when he ought to be thinking about Beethoven.

"He closed his eyes," Leavitt writes, "tried to will it away, for he couldn't very well walk out on stage like that. And yet despite his efforts to fill his mind only with the Archduke, an image of Paul on all fours, with his shorts around his knees, materialized immediately on the insides of his eyelids." But when Paul and Kennington finally do have sex, having met up again accidentally in Rome, Leavitt discreetly draws the curtain on the scene -- he is concerned not with his characters' sexual activities, but their human and emotional needs. Complicating the relations between Kennington and Paul is Paul's unhappy mother, Pamela, recently dumped by Paul's father and mistaking Kennington's attentions to her son as a thinly veiled desire for her. Then there's Kennington's much older lover and manager, Joseph, who provides the disillusioned counterpoint to Paul's and Kennington's Roman interlude.

It's hard to know what Leavitt's message is, apart from the glaringly -- and sentimentally -- obvious. "Don't have any illusions about pain," Paul's piano teacher has told him. "Only a child believes that joy is infinite and suffering is short." Leavitt writes sweetly, as usual, while flitting all over the map in his effort to deal with all of his characters equally. It's a mistake: "The Page Turner" is too thin to carry the weight of so many sadder-but-wiser souls.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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