A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne, tells the story of Maurice Swift, a handsome Yorkshireman and son of a farmer who is determined to leave his upbringing behind and become a renowned author. When the tale opens he is working as a waiter in West Berlin. Here he meets Erich Ackermann, an aging Cambridge professor whose latest novel has just won The Prize. To satisfy his publishers Erich has taken a year’s leave of absence to perform on the expected circuit of literary events across Europe and America, promoting the book that has unexpectedly brought him fame. He is drawn to Maurice as a moth to a flame, the young man’s good looks and knowledgeable admiration of Erich’s work unlocking desires that have lain dormant for decades.
Erich agrees to read some of Maurice’s writing and is disappointed to find it skillfully constructed but mundane. Unwilling to lose touch he offers to employ Maurice as his assistant on tour. With this foothold the aspiring writer enters the rarefied world of the literati with its jealousies, conceits and ruthless ambition. Always on the lookout for a story idea, Maurice encourages Erich to talk to him about his experiences growing up in Germany under Hitler. Erich harbours a terrible secret that he decides to share.
The plot jumps forward in time to a beautiful and secluded villa on the Amalfi Coast where Gore lives with Howard. Key figures from the world of literature, the arts and politics along with those who believe they will benefit from mixing with these supposed titans have all passed through. Now Maurice has found a way to receive an invitation to stay. Like other aging authors, Gore is tempted by the young man’s mix of admiration and contempt, his confidence and allure. There is much verbal sparring, name dropping and one-upmanship highlighting the tensions, pretensions and sensitivities of authors who, even when revered, are forever alert to the danger of eclipse by newer rivals’ work. Maurice may have by now written a book that garnered wide attention but the cost was high and lacking the esteem he seeks.
A decade later Maurice is married to Edith, an up and coming writer, but has not yet found the continued success he believes is his due. The couple have recently moved to Norwich where Edith is to teach creative writing at UEA while adding the finishing touches to her second novel. Maurice has no firm plans but hopes to pick up ideas, perhaps from her students. What he discovers will catapult him into the world to which he aspires. He will not allow anyone to stand in his way.
The story continues in New York where Maurice founds and runs an exclusive literary magazine, seeking out new writers and granting him access to their ideas. By the end of the novel he is living in London and being courted by a young writer himself, a situation he intends to work to his advantage.
The decades over which the story is set allows for tight plot progression, the pace of which effortlessly maintains reader engagement. Despite Maurice’s behaviour, the terrible actions he justifies to himself as necessary, there is much humour. Authors are often asked where they get there ideas. This tale provides an interesting study into who owns intangible and regularly reinterpreted inspirations. The denouement is ace.
I would offer a comparison to an amalgamation of Patricia Highsmith and Sebastian Faulks but wonder if this would somehow irritate the author who may prefer simply to be recognised as the talented writer he undoubtedly is. Having read this book readers will likely view the authors they queue to meet at festivals and events in a different light. Expertly constructed it provides engrossing literary entertainment, and a deliciously subversive dig at the author’s world.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.