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March 13 , 2002:

Fascinated by Rubens and reincarnation

Frank Deford '61 explores both in his seventh novel

By Kate Swearengen '04

During his years at Princeton, Frank Deford '61 wrote for the Daily Princetonian, and eventually became its chairman. He also played basketball for two years, but was less successful at that, and recalls that his coach often said, half admiringly and half despairingly, "Deford, you write basketball better than you play it."

Deford smiles ruefully when he admits this, but there is a measure of pride in his voice. He has, after all, just published his seventh novel, The Other Adonis (Sourcebooks, 2001), and is at work on his eighth. And, while there may be a certain satisfaction in nailing a jump shot, writing is, well, an awful lot of fun. This is particularly the case with fiction, a genre that gives Deford more leeway than the sports stories for which he is famous. "When you write nonfiction, when you write about real people," Deford says, "you're depending on others to make it work. Fiction is all you."

And, by that measure, The Other Adonis is unquestionably all Frank Deford. Part mystery, part romance, and part historical fiction, the novel defies easy categorization. Throw in the fact that the concept of reincarnation is central to the book, and the plot becomes even more difficult to explain. Put simply: Two of the characters, Constance Rawlings and Floyd "Bucky" Buckingham, have a visceral reaction to Peter Paul Rubens's famous painting Venus and Adonis. They enlist the aid of Nina Winston, a psychiatrist who hypnotizes them in order to discover if there is a historical basis for their strong attachment to the painting and to each other. Nina, for her part, is involved in a romance with Hugh Venable, a dashing minister.

The heart of the novel lies with the issue of reincarnation, which presents an intellectual and spiritual challenge to its characters. Eventually, reincarnation presents a more sinister challenge as well, and the book enters the murder mystery realm. If this, and the fact the action is split between modern-day New York City and 17th-century Antwerp, makes you think that this isn't the kind of book you can enjoy while lying on the beach, think otherwise. As complex as the story line may seem in summation, The Other Adonis is easy to follow. And, with its clever dialogue and dramatic conclusion, the novel is well-suited to film adaptation, a fact that Deford himself recognizes. Consider, for example, this excerpt: "Closer, closer. So transfixed was Nina that she attracted the wary eye of the vigilant blue-grey garbed sentinel of gallery twenty-seven. He edged closer, ready to pounce if this odd woman might try to perform some random act of desecration. But then, to take it all in, Nina backed up, sitting on the bench in the middle of the room, and the guard relaxed. By now, Rubens's glorious figures all but moved before her eyes."

To capture the setting for this scene and others, Deford spent a great deal of time in gallery 27 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His frequent visits to the gallery drew the curiosity of the guards, some of whom recognized him and wondered why a sportswriter would be spending so much time looking at paintings. The inspiration for The Other Adonis didn't come from a painting in the Metropolitan, but instead came from a painting by Renoir Deford came across when he visited Moscow. The painting was of a fetching young woman, and Deford wondered who she was and what her life had been like. He decided to construct the plot of his next story around a painting, but he needed one closer to home. The Metropolitan, 20 blocks from Deford's New York apartment, fit the bill. Venus and Adonis, which Deford describes as a "huge, vigorous painting, as big as a wall," provided ample material for a book.

Reincarnation entered the equation when Deford needed a way to connect the action in 17th-century Antwerp to the action in modern-day New York. Deford has been intrigued by reincarnation during his teenage years, when he read The Search for Bridey Murphy, an account of a Colorado woman who, when hypnotized, spoke in a 19th-century Irish brogue and called herself Bridey Murphy. Deford's fascination with the subject continued, and when it came time to research The Other Adonis, he discussed the matter of reincarnation with his own minister. "I wouldn't say I'm a believer," Deford says. "But I'm a very serious wonderer."

Indeed, fate works in mysterious ways. When Deford attended Princeton in the late 1950s, the university was in the practice of inviting famous authors to campus. Kingsley Amis was one of these visiting professors, and Deford took Amis's creative writing class. Deford enjoyed the class immensely, he says, and not just because the grading system was lenient. Amis, says Deford, showed little interest in his students or their work, although one of Deford's pieces caught his eye. It was a play called Mr. First, and it was about a fellow who had to be first in everything. Mr. First was, in Deford's words, "a very American play," and not at all the kind of thing that should have appealed to someone like Amis. But Amis loved the play, and he sent it to his agent. While Mr. First was never published, there is an interesting footnote to the story: Sterling Lord, the husband of the agent to whom Amis sent the play, is Deford's agent to this day.

You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu