BOOK: A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle (1960)

It took me almost a week to figure out what to say about this novel.  And even now, I’m kind of at a loss as to how to begin.  This is a strange one — strange and wonderful.  And I don’t think any way I come up with to describe it is going to do it much justice.  But let’s see how it goes here.

On the surface, this novel is about an old man, Jonathan Rebeck, who lives in a cemetery and spends his days playing chess and talking to ghosts.  He’s lived at the cemetery for over twenty years, after going bankrupt as a pharmacist, and in all that time he’s never left the grounds, not even once.  He sleeps in a mausoleum and is assisted by a talking raven (metaphor with Elijah here not lost upon me) who drops by daily to deliver pilfered sandwiches and other items, and to fill Rebeck in on the latest news of the world.  It’s a simple life, in a fine and private place, and it has suited Rebeck very well.

When two new ghosts enter the scene, however, Rebeck’s life begins a gradual shift.  He first becomes friends with newly buried teacher Michael Morgan, a man who believes his wife poisoned him and is extremely bitter about being dead.  As it turns out, death is not an endless stream of ghostly walks, spying on the living, and regrets — it is instead simply a gradual forgetting.  You begin by forgetting details:  names, places, events.  But gradually you forget everything else as well — how to make sounds, how to feel sensations, how to love someone.  Michael strenuously resists this forgetting.  Angrily resists it, in fact.  But then Laura enters the scene.  She’s the ghost of a young woman recently hit by a bus, and her take on death is a sigh of relief.  Life was hard, why remember it?  Why not just let go of all of this?  Just let it go.  Let go.

The more time they spend together, the more Michael and Laura begin to pull in from their two extremes (must not forget!  can’t wait to forget!) to meet somewhere in the middle.  And then they fall in love (“for as long as I remember love,” Laura says).  Meanwhile, Rebeck has also begun to experience love, in his case for a woman about his age named Mrs. Klapper who has started visiting her dead husband’s grave a few times a week.  Mrs. Klapper and Rebeck get to talking one afternoon, hit it off, and soon find themselves making more and more plans to meet, opening up to each other at last all the various pains and fears of their hearts.

And so it seems our characters are all headed towards happiness, until something happens that threatens to separate Michael and Laura for good (as if death weren’t bad enough!).  It’s their love for each other that finally spurs Rebeck into action.  But to save them, he’ll have to leave the cemetery for the first time in two decades.  Can he do it?  Yes.  Yes, he can.

This is a strange, offbeat novel with a surprisingly sharp wit and an equally surprising tenderness for its characters.  At times, it does feel just slightly first-novel-y (and it was, in fact, Beagle’s first novel — he later wrote The Last Unicorn, which, incidentally, was one of my favorite movies as a child); it can be a bit repetitive in places, for example.  But you’ll hardly notice it in between all the truly delightful conversations between characters (I was especially fond of the exceedingly sardonic raven) and the thought-provoking ideas about the natures of both life and death.  The title comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell:  “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.”  As it turns out, this is both true and untrue, and the various ways in which it is both, either, which, neither are an absolute delight to discover.

Definitely a book that will require another reading for me, and soon.  Clever, gentle, funny, kind, patient, compassionate, and fascinating — I absolutely loved it.  (p.s.  Thank you, Rook darling.)


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One Response to “BOOK: A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle (1960)”

  1. Rolanda Says:

    Meg…I read the Last Unicorn in High School. I still have the quotes and notes that I copied in my “words” notebook. It really moved me at 16/17…wonder what I would get if I read it again now. I was such a nerd…anyway. I loved that book. I never saw the movie…but now really will be watching for this book. Sounds wonderful…to me.

    BTW…I am 1/2 way through The 19th Wife…wow. It is really interesting and has me caught up in it. I’ve neglected the house, kids, and husband over this holiday week trying to read the entire thing!

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