To the Finland Station

Richard Rayner, who began his writing life as a journalist at Time Out in London and still works as one on a freelance basis, has one of the odder literary careers going. Five books into it, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what kind of writer he is.

His first three books -- two autobiographical novels and a memoir -- all aroused a certain amount of controversy. His first novel, the hilarious Los Angeles Without a Map (1997), was dismissed as cliched in his adopted hometown, but reviews on the East Coast and in England were considerably warmer. His second novel, The Elephant, a fictional exploration of his relationship with his con-man father, was written with equal comic verve but suffered the unlikely fate of being criticized by the author‘s own mother on British television. Then came The Blue Suit, a terse, razor-sharp memoir in which Rayner revealed that, back when he was a philosophy student at Cambridge and, later, a journalist in London, he had also been a thief.

Arriving in the midst of the craze for sensationalist memoirs, The Blue Suit subtly upped the ante. This wasn’t just a book about neurosis. It was a book about actual crimes. Rayner forged checks, broke into houses and (most shameful, perhaps) lied to his friends. The fact that he specialized in the purloining of books added a louche literary touch. (What reviewer wouldn‘t be riveted by an account of walking out of a bookstore with a first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop hidden inside one‘s coat?) Not surprisingly, the book led to much hand wringing in the British press about whether the memoir phenomenon had gone too far. Some called for Rayner to be retroactively prosecuted, while others accused him of making his memoir up. One skeptical reporter even examined old police records in order to demonstrate that Rayner hadn’t committed the crimes he wrote about, but failed to prove the case either way.

Since The Blue Suit, Rayner has dropped the autobiography and set about reinventing himself as a writer of straightforward fiction. First came Murder Book, a well-received detective novel set in L.A., and now The Cloud Sketcher, a romantic epic about a Finnish architect who, after fighting against the communists during Finland‘s civil war, goes to Manhattan in the 1920s intent on building the world’s most beautiful skyscraper, even if it requires murder and a gangster‘s money to do it. The novel was influenced by two of Rayner’s favorite books -- Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead and Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago -- and the oddness of that pairing can be detected in a narrative that combines the hectic flush of a mass-market historical romance with a celebration of the aesthetics of Modernist architecture.

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I met Rayner recently at his home in Venice, where he lives with his Finnish wife, Paivi, and their two children. Wiry and tall, with a thatch of black hair and a neck long enough to make his head seem oddly dissociated from his body, he‘s an affable, good-looking man whose face is periodically consumed by an enormous Cheshire-cat grin. When he was growing up, Rayner told me, books were like “magical objects” to him, and his smile suggests the inner glee of a man who can’t quite believe his luck: The book thief is now a respected author.

“So how did The Cloud Sketcher start?” I asked after he‘d pulled up a couple of chairs for us. “What was the seed?”

“Finland, really,” he replied. “It was pointed out to me after I’d written half of it that it was about why I have Finland and America in my life. I was looking round for stories, and it‘s curious the stuff that sticks. There’s a great railway station in the center of Helsinki, which was designed by the leading Finnish architect of the turn of the century, Eliel Saarinen [father of Eero]. Then I discovered that there had been this great skyscraper competition which the Chicago Tribune held in 1922. He came in second, and his design was enormously influential. It was so acclaimed that he left Finland and came to live in America, where he never got to build a skyscraper! So I started fictionalizing around that.”

The Cloud Sketcher (the title is a translation of the Finnish term for “skyscraper”) straddles two places and eras -- Jazz Age New York and early-20th-century Finland. What‘s unusual about this combination is that the former has been written about to death while the latter has barely been touched on at all. As a student, Rayner was an avid reader of post-revolutionary Russian literature, but only after he traveled to Finland with his wife did he learn that the revolution in Russia had triggered a civil war in its neighbor. As soon as he did, he was eager to put his architect hero through it.

“I asked my father-in-law what he could tell me about the Finnish Civil War. And he said, ’There was no civil war in Finland.‘ I said, ’Well, what do you mean?‘ He said, ’There was no civil war in Finland.‘ And I said, ’Well, forgive me, but I understood that in 1918, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the Reds seized power in Finland and there was a war and Finns were killing Finns.‘ And he said, ’Ah! That was the War of Independence.‘ Then I understood that it’s still a very touchy subject, because -- the Spanish Civil War was like this -- more people were killed after the war than during it. When the Whites won, they essentially took out all the Reds and shot them. And not surprisingly, this was a rift in Finland for a very long time.

”So that sounded great, and has never been written about in English-language fiction. Even in Finland there‘s not much of it.“

Until now, Rayner has resisted giving in to a book culture that favors authors who write the same book over and over again. ”If you can be bothered to do that, it does pay dividends,“ he said. ”But I’ve never really been up for that, I must say.“

Nonetheless, it looks as if he may be carving a new niche for himself as a writer, with America and criminal history as the themes. Next year will see the publication of a nonfiction book he‘s written about an American con man named Oscar Hartzell. In the 1920s, Hartzell persuaded some 200,000 Americans to contribute to his ”legal expenses“ in wresting from the British government control of an ”incorrectly probated“ fortune left by the 16th-century explorer Sir Francis Drake. It was a scam with long roots in American history (relatives of Drake had come to America as early as the 1700s), and Hartzell ran it successfully for years. ”That’s the Christmas tree off which all the other essayistic stuff -- What is the meaning of the con man? Why are we all fascinated by con men? Why do we all feel like con men? -- will hang,“ Rayner explains. ”It‘s the non-autobiographical version of The Blue Suit, basically.“

The novel Rayner’s currently working on also unearths an obscure corner of cultural and criminal history. It centers on the unsolved murder of the black jazz musician Wardell Gray, a contemporary of Charlie Parker, in the desert outside Las Vegas in the 1950s. At the time, Gray was dating a white showgirl who, legend has it, was also the girlfriend of a mobster. In Rayner‘s version of the story, the showgirl witnesses the murder and plots her revenge. Rayner calls the novel ”a beatnik Hamlet in fe-male clothes.“

Before he gets back to it, though, he’ll be going on the road to promote The Cloud Sketcher. Apropos of that, I told Rayner that I‘d recently gone to a reading by a well-known author, and was surprised to find that only three or four people had shown up. ”I’ve got a story about that,“ Rayner said. A few years ago, he told me, he gave a reading at a bookstore in London along with fellow authors Pico Iyer and Charles Nicholl. There was a soccer match between England and Holland on television that night, and it seemed as if the whole country was watching. Only one person came to the reading. When it became clear that no one else was going to show up, the authors suggested to their lone fan that they all adjourn to the pub and watch the game. But the fan wasn‘t having any of it. ”Oh no,“ he said, ”I came here to listen to the reading.“ And so each author was forced to read to him in turn.

”Whenever I run into Pico Iyer now, I remind him of that night,“ Rayner said, laughing.

He did better at his recent reading in Santa Monica, in spite of the rain: Considerably more people attended.

Rayner will read again at Book Soup on Wednesday, March 28, at 8 p.m. For information, call (310) 659-3110.

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