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The Man From Marseille [Kindle Edition]

J.P. Smith
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

For years, Alex Ostroff churns out unsuccessful, unpublished manuscripts. His rejection is complete when he’s rebuffed by London’s literary set and unceremoniously thrown out of a party by the host. His exasperated literary agent encourages Alex to write what he knows, but the writer is loathe to reveal anything about himself. Alex follows the advice, however, mining his childhood for material.

The son of Russian expatriates, Alex certainly has a compelling past. His parents, glamorous figures living in France under assumed names, worked with a shadowy Frenchman named Felix Dumont in a mysterious import-export business that involved fraud, forgery, blackmail, and murder. Drawing from these memories, Alex’s new novel, Troika,finally lands the struggling author some acclaim.

As his writing career—and the media’s fascination with him—gathers steam, Alex questions much of what his parents have told him. And when he unexpectedly encounters Dumont in London, he learns the dark truth lurking behind the fictions of his life.

Editorial Reviews


“This is a first novel, but J.P. Smith writes like an old pro; his style is urbane, his prose smooth and polished.” —The New York Times Book Review

From the Author

The Man from Marseille was the thirteenth novel I'd written, and the first I published. I wrote it after we moved back from England and were living in Rockport, Massachusetts. Until then my agent in London, the late David Bolt, had begun to despair of me, and some of his despair is in the character of the agent in Marseille. This time, though, he felt I'd finally written a work he'd be able to place, and he did so very quickly, to the venerable old house of John Murray, on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, best known for being pretty much everyone's publisher back in the 18th and 19th centuries, but especially Lord Byron, whose archive belonged to the Murray family. Until it was sold a few years ago, it was the oldest publishing house still in private hands (and in the same family, as well).

The book was accepted coincidentally with our return to London for several months, so that a few days after our move I was sitting opposite my agent in the Savage Club in London, named after a poet known for having been a convicted murderer who died penniless in prison. We drank warm gins-and-tonic and discussed the manuscript. 

"You're going to be meeting with your editor on Friday," he said, peering at me through the monocle he wore on a ribbon around his neck. "Here's his list of changes." Four single-spaced typed pages fell from his hands into mine. Some were line edits, but the big one was the ending. "Be mindful that the ending could be a deal-killer," David told me.

I met with my editor and another senior editor in the same room where an earlier Murray had burned Lord Byron's memoirs in the fireplace, fearful of scandal and lawsuit. "It's the ending," my editor said. "It's a problem. We don't understand what you're getting at." I'd been warned this would happen, mostly by my wife, who perspicaciously came to the same conclusion once I'd finished it. She was utterly baffled by my final page. 

So I began to improvise. "I actually did have a different ending," I lied, because this was about as close as I'd ever gotten to getting published, and didn't want to screw it up. They waited for it. And then I told them the ending that is now part of the book. I felt like Charlie Parker on a bad night suddenly coming out with a musical phrase that left the audience gasping in admiration. It was just...there. I'd sold it, and to this day I have no idea where it came from. I was offered an advance of £900, half on signing, half on publication, and I was happy to accept it. I'd become a published author, and I'd had to travel 3000 miles to do so. 

My editor was intending to put me up for the Booker Prize, back then bankrolled by a sugar company, Tate & Lyle, its ceremonies televised on prime-time TV. This was back when writing, and publishing, really did matter. However, I was unqualified to be a contender for the prize, as I was a citizen of neither Britain nor the Commonwealth, though the writing had fooled them all. It reads as though someone from England, or someone who had lived there long enough to learn, had written it. I fell into the latter class, and when it was reprinted this November by Thomas & Mercer, I insisted that the original spelling and punctuation remain; for that is how it was written.

When I wrote The Man from Marseille I was somewhat under the influence of the French writer Patrick Modiano, the majority of whose many novels deal with a narrator or main character who is in search of his or her past, which to a large degree is what the novel is about. The narrator, Alex Ostroff (named after a dentist in Wellesley, Massachusetts, whose sign I once spotted in an office window), is the son of two elegant, albeit raffish Russians who have moved from Russia to Nice, thence to Paris during the German Occupation, during which time Alex is witness to what are clearly a series of criminal acts and activities. Charming, immensely good-looking, they are nonetheless so down at heel that they'll do anything to achieve respectability and solvency. Including murder. 

Alex is the repository of their lives, but he's also been instructed never to tell anyone about them. So that as you read the novel you have no idea if it's all true, half-true, or a fiction created to protect Alex and the memory of his family. Some references, especially to the British TV and publishing scenes, are now dated (and when I'd used real names in the manuscript--John Gielgud, Tom Stoppard, Anthony Burgess, Clive James, and so on--I was warned off by Murray's legal counsel that even a mention in a benign way of an actual name could give rise to a libel suit; so everyone is now disguised, but still recognizable, I think. Even Ian McEwan); but I think its merit lies in its transparency, the sheer breeziness of the narration, which contributes to the slightly sinister notion that you're being seduced, embraced and ultimately lied to. 

A few months later we addressed the question of the cover. My editor and I both agreed it should be an old photograph, so we separately began researching. He went to the BBC Hulton Picture Library, back then a huge repository of photos dating back a very long time, and found a photo of a French colonel--or at least a man identified as such--walking along a boardwalk in the South of France. He looks more like a bookie or a small-time crook, and in a funny way he fits the image of Felix Dumont, whose role in the book is of dubious legality. I suggested that we add a mustache to the man in the photo, and if you can get your hands on the original St. Martin's Press (or John Murray) edition, you can see how it's been inked in. We had a book, we had a look, and, because it came out in a country with both regional and national presses, I was reviewed all over the place, sometimes even positively. (My first review ever, in the venerable Times Literary Supplement, was a bit lukewarm, and I remember reading it while waiting to enter the Russell Square Underground to take the tube back to my hotel and being very pleased, at least, that I'd been noticed in such a place.)

The week the book came out I was in London, and my film/TV agent called me up to her office for more warm gin and some business. There was serious film interest in the project. Dino De Laurentiis was interested in purchasing the rights for Paramount; and an independent film company based in London, just now wrapping their first feature starring lots of well-known character actors and a young man named Liam Neeson, was just as interested. My agent said, "If you go with Paramount, that's more money for you and me, but no guarantee you'll ever get a film out of it, and, should it actually get greenlighted, absolutely no guarantee the film will resemble to any degree what you've written here. If you go with these three young men you'll write the script, and if they like it they'll make it. They do one project at a time, they all are very successful TV producers, they've read lots of your scripts and they want you desperately to do this."

I asked what she suggested. "I say go with the independent company." 

We met and discussed the script, some possible locations and casting ideas. They wanted Jeremy Irons to star as Alex's father. They knew him, liked him, worked with him, and felt they could get him attached. And so I flew home and got to work. It's a difficult book to adapt, in that it's primarily a series of extended flashbacks, which never work well in a medium designed always to move forward. We spent a year going back and forth over drafts, and finally the project became too expensive for them to take on. Months later it was published in the US, and earned me my first review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, something which has never happened since. 

Product Details

  • File Size: 345 KB
  • Print Length: 173 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1612185703
  • Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (November 20, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0081SA6FM
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #622,421 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By Monika
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The book started out with an anticipation of a great story but did not live up to what I was expecting. The book never really explained what the parents actually did, just lots of innuendos and nothing more. I kept reading hoping to find out the mystery of what had happened but it just left we wondering and completey dissatisified.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Different July 27, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This was an interesting book. It took a quarter of the book to figure out what was going on and most of the rest of the book for a really good buildup. But the ending was a let down. I wanted to hear more. Not sure I would recommend it, but if you like the odd story with a definite edge to it, go for it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing July 10, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a really boring book. I kept reading in hopes it would get better. It didn't. Waste of time.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What an incredible waste of time February 14, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This novel was was the biggest disappointment! It kept hinting that it was going somewhere, but never did. Amazon, I want my money back!
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More About the Author

Biography (by way of an interview)

So what's the origin of your new book Airtight?
--Some years ago my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown on cable. I'd seen it before, but now something about these middle-aged guys getting involved with crime nicked a memory. I turned to her and said, "We never dug it up."

Care to elaborate?
--Don't be ridiculous. People are still alive. Mostly me.

So is this autobiographical?
--This is the one book most directly drawn from my own experiences, especially during the Sixties.

Stop a second. One of the big events in the novel is when the main character, years earlier in college, sees something you call the Clear White Light during an LSD trip. Have you seen it?
--What he experiences in the first chapter is exactly what I experienced, up until the moment when Rob enters the room. Then the fiction begins.

Except for the rest of the autobiographical parts.
--Right. Enough said.

Let's go back to the book's origins. You were watching Jackie Brown--
--And because I'd originally imagined Airtight as a movie, I wrote it as a script under a different title, sent it to a few people in Hollywood with whom I'd met and who already liked my work, and though they loved the concept, the idea of casting two leads in their late forties--for my characters are an advertising executive and a Manhattan attorney, both suddenly out of work and desperate for money in our current economic downturn--is never an easy thing, especially when your target audience is fourteen-year-old boys. Nowadays I'd pitch it as Mad Men meets Easy Rider. Don Draper and Pete Campbell as Wyatt and Billy. And now Clooney and Pitt are the right ages for the leads. Two old college buddies who go back to dig up something they'd buried thirty years earlier, hoping it might turn out to save them.

It's a tale of desperate men resorting to desperate measures. When I finished it what came to mind was the John Huston movie with Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. People scrabbling for their imagined salvation, increasingly at each other's throats. But Airtight is also a study of memory and regrets, how we make choices in our lives that haunt us for years to come, so it's a character study as well. For as the main character, Nick Copeland, discovers as he returns to his old college to dig up what he hopes will redeem his economic woes, true redemption comes from another place.

In a way it's my most accessible and, oddly, optimistic book. It's absolutely a moral tale. Writing it was a hugely liberating experience. Memory has always been a theme of my work, whether in screenplays or novels, and here I think it touches upon something universal--that as we move away from the past we lose sight of what once made us feel utterly, joyfully, human--this exuberance of youth, of feeling we're immortal, invincible. And yet by going back to it we also see that our decisions have consequences, that what we once said or did thirty years ago still reverberates today. Nick and Rob in the novel relive that, and, for Nick at least, it's like a kind of rebirth. It's the pain of memory and the need to make amends that tugs on his soul. I think what powers the story is the fact that these two guys are reliving the renegade times of their youth. As I wrote it I remembered things I hadn't thought about for years. Such as when I would-- Nah, forget it. The statute of limitations hasn't run out yet.

You left a perfectly good teaching job to move to London to start a writing career. Seems insane to me.
--The school was on the brink of bankruptcy, and I was making all of $9200 a year. I knew I had to make my move then, because in a year there would be no more school.

But you took the leap.
--This was in the late Seventies, when in order to get published you had to have an agent, but to get an agent you had to have been published, which left you feeling as if you were living inside a Kafka story. Occasionally I was able to get a New York agent to read (including, back when he was first getting started, the one I have now) and for a while I had an editor at Little, Brown eager to publish me, but she vanished. However, I was determined to become a writer. The British Home Office gave us permission to live for a year there, and each succeeding year we had to reapply.

We were able to live frugally, which is a euphemism for being dirt poor--paying around £20 a week rent, not owning a car, walking everywhere, eating very little. Museums were free (and warm; we were feeding an electrical meter back in our bedsit on ten pence coins, neatly stacked on top of it), theatre tickets were cheap, so we always had something to do, especially during what's become known as the Winter of Discontent, a season of strikes, electricity outages and the threshold of Margaret Thatcher's reign of terror at 10 Downing Street. That time is evoked very accurately in the recent film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Lots of brown and beige set against a kind of dishwater gray. That first year turned into five.

We moved around for a few years--London, Lyme Regis (where daily we walked the Cobb, made famous in the film of our neighbor John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman), then to Cambridge, where we remained for four years. There was no net to catch me, no other opportunities for me to fall back on. I had to become a writer.

Was it worth it?
--Absolutely. I learned a lot about discipline, especially from British writers and actors, who viewed their work not as some painful inner journey but simply as what they did, day after day. I like the story about John Hurt, who was shooting a film in, I think, Canada. He was working opposite a young American actor, preparing to shoot a scene meant to show the aftermath of a foot chase. The American spent his break doing push-ups and jumping-jacks and working up a sweat, while Hurt quietly enjoyed a cup of tea and a cigarette. The director told them to take their marks.

John Hurt handed his tea to an assistant, doubled over, turned red and broke into a sweat. The American, who'd been beating himself up for the past ten minutes, was amazed. "How did you do that, John?" "Simple," he said. "It's called acting."

What happened with the books?
--Apart from writing scripts, I continued to write a book a year, and it was only after we returned from the UK that my first novel--in fact the thirteenth I'd written--was accepted. It sold very quickly, a week or so after my agent in London had sent it out. The letter arrived from him the day before we were due to move back to London. My editor in London was convinced I was British, and thus he intended to put me up for all the awards limited to UK and Commonwealth writers, such as the Booker, the big one. Little did he know I was from just outside the Bronx. I'd simply learned the language.

This was which book?
--The Man from Marseille, originally published by John Murray, at the time the oldest publishing house still in private hands, located in the same building where Lord Byron's tell-all memoirs were burned by the overcautious founder of the firm. Once the book was out there was film interest. Dino De Laurentiis at Paramount was prepared to make an offer, but then so was an independent film production company who'd just wrapped their first feature starring a young actor named Liam Neeson. They'd seen my teleplays and wanted me to adapt the book. For my agent, that was the clincher, especially as two of the producers had established names in TV drama. As she said, neither she nor I would make much money out of it, but at least I'd write the script and be working for people who'd respect the work. And we might even get a good movie out of it. Names such as Jeremy Irons were bandied about for the lead role.

At the end of a year of development the project was dropped due to how expensive it would be to make. The settings range from Revolutionary Russia, to the South of France in the 1930's, to Paris in the Occupation, to modern-day London. Lots of expensive old Hispano-Suiza convertibles and location shooting in Nice. It's a tough book to adapt, because the narrator turns out to be not all that reliable, and much of the story is told in extended flashbacks. I wrote the novel in five weeks. The story seems to go one place, until you realize that what you've just read may all be a work of, well, fiction.

You still write scripts?
--Absolutely. It's a parallel career. I love writing them.

Is Airtight your first novel that could fit into a genre other than "literary fiction"?
--Although most of my published novels play with genre to some degree--The Blue Hour is a dark, surrealistic thriller set in Paris and based on the Orpheus myth; The Man from Marseille is a kind of detective novel in which the narrator investigates his own past; Body and Soul, a take on the darkly comic French roman noir, an experiment in improvisation, as the main character is a jazz pianist, but also a tale of how the West deals with Cold War emigrés; The Discovery of Light--a Barnes & Noble Discover Title--a contemporary thriller built around the paintings of Vermeer, about how something witnessed can be interpreted in a hundred different ways; while Breathless, also something of a mystery, is about the widow of a murdered man trying to get to the truth of his death.

Who originally published you?
--The Man from Marseille was, as I said, published by John Murray, and here in the US by St. Martin's Press. Body and Soul was a Grove Press book, The Blue Hour was brought out by British American Publishing (and only missed being a Paris Review edition under that imprint, because George Plimpton found it "too lurid," which I thought should have served as a blurb for the book), and The Discovery of Light and Breathless were Both Viking Penguin editions. One of the great things about being with my current publisher, Thomas & Mercer, is having these all back in print as a uniform edition.

(An expanded version of this originally appeared at The Nervous Breakdown in November 2012. JP Smith's website is:

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