The Hour of Parade by Alan Bray
In late winter 1806, Alexi Ruzhensky journeys to Munich with intent to avenge his brother’s death by killing Lieutenant Louis Valsin, the French cavalry officer who’d recently cut young Mischa down in a duel. Very soon after The Hour of Parade’s opening Ruzhensky meets up with the concept of a small world when he runs into two soldiers from Valsin’s regiment, necessitating his rapid entry into the scenario he has fabricated as cover: that his father had business dealings in Austria and he means to straighten out his family’s financial affairs.
In these moments author Alan Bray creates a palpable tension for the Russian officer as well as readers, who can sense his apprehension as “the dead and the unknown living” both seem so near to his current moment, the vivid imagery erupts into scenes that overcome his awareness.
“A silence, not at all empty, occupied him. His feet pushed against the floor, the muscles around his knees tense and hard, as if he were gripping a saddle instead of a chair. Outside, on the street, a horse whinnied, and then, like bubbles breaking loose from the bottom of a red-hot iron cauldron, the sound of gunfire began to pour through the windows of the coffeehouse. The shutters opened, the walls dissolved, and—his senses worn and beginning to fray—he was once again astride his mare Pyerits, leading a charge over a snow-covered field. Above her tossing mane, riders in green surged forward—French cavalry, shouting, shaking their swords. He pressed down against the stirrups and heard a wild cry.”
Bray’s prose masterfully transitions us from a fleeting reflection into a scene easily imagined as live action, jarring the viewer into chaos from calm, then back into a quiet coffeehouse, the frequency of change and uproar reflecting, as the novel carries on, Ruzhensky’s inner turmoil with each letter he receives from his father, asking if his son’s killer is yet dead.
Ruzhensky confides the contents of his father’s letters to Marianne, his live-in lover who supports the mission and his pre-occupation with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, a quote from which appears at the start of each chapter and illustrates small and large pieces of events as they play out. Ruzhensky himself seems to grapple with a concept Bray introduces in his epigraph: “The source of happiness isn’t entirely in the desired object or in the heart that possesses it but in the relation of the one to the other.” As he meets and gets to know Valsin, he struggles with the idea of carrying out the act he feels he must.
Bray writes in the style of the time his characters inhabit; that is to say he constructs his prose with a feel as if we are in the nineteenth century, there in the rooms with each person, sensing the mood of the time and seeing up close the relationships as they interact. Ruzhensky with his Marianne, whose acute instinct gives an impression of clinginess; with Valsin when he gets to know him; with Anne-Marie and even Marianne’s interaction with Yevgeny as the two carry out an unacknowledged rivalry—all are written in a manner thoughtful enough that they present to the reader as they truthfully are, though upon closer examination we see there is very much more.
One of the elements that drew me in most was Bray’s vivid and imaginative use of imagery, utilizing the canvas as a board from which to illustrate his portraits painted with words. The visual depictions are very strong throughout the novel and paired with Bray’s talent for layering, we can fairly envision the waves of heat emanating upward as they slither into “serpentine ribbons of heat,” or easily imagine the age of autumn and its “toasted, orange-colored leaves.”
While this imagery is breathtaking in of itself, it also is suggested by the impressionist-style painting on the novel’s cover. The abstractly painted man’s face lends a moody, tense feel with its short, thick strokes, side-by-side vivid colors and emphasis on light to display his facial features. This draws the eye to the painting as a whole, with subsequent analysis on the individual parts. In the same manner, Bray consistently provides a view through the novel as he then shifts to draw us nearer to details that characterize and more closely examine what is occurring. This feat he performs with individual scenes and the novel as a whole as readers both come closer to see finer details and seem to move backward to receive a broader view.
If this seems contradictory, Bray’s prose drawn out in broad brushstrokes, not unlike those on the cover image, blur the sharper edges of reality to reveal the nuances that populate Ruzhensky’s inner unrest. The man on the cover is painted in unreal color schemes, yet clearly there is a darker presence in his environment. In this manner Ruzhensky presents, caught in a labyrinth as he attempts to reconcile his growing mixed feelings about two worlds colliding and his role within each.
“After they departed, he’d remain, entangled by the different stories he inhabited. He was not the person they took him to be; however, it would also be untrue to claim the identity of the person the woman had killed. In fact, he’d begun to think that person had been killed and that he himself was someone embryonic. Someone developing a new identity, transforming in Munich’s womb. It was wonderful; it was unbearable.”
As a behavioral study, The Hour of Parade is a fascinating glimpse into a world we ourselves both are removed from as well as inhabit. On various levels duplicity spars with authenticity, autonomy with duty and the need for redemption presents itself in multiple fashions, individuals tasked with choosing which is most suitable. Historical fiction, it portrays not only a period within the Napoleonic wars, but also the roles of men and women with the attendant vulnerabilities of each, and the complexities of relationships—between the sexes, parents and children, civilian and military, classes and nationalities. It reveals an author with a keen eye for human behavior and ability to work within various layers to relate a story, and carries an ongoing theme of movement between different worlds. While not an exhaustive sketch of the book, it is quite a lot for an author to juggle, and Bray does it with style.
Lovely, passionate, haunting, explosive, plush and vibrant, The Hour of Parade is a tale and a study to be seen as well as read, to drink in with the senses and to re-visit with the richest of classics.
The blogger received a free copy of The Hour of Parade in exchange for an honest review.
About the author…
Alan Bray was born in 1954 in Detroit, Michigan, the only son of a sales representative for a railroad and a schoolteacher. He grew up reading books, which at that time meant adult books, as there was limited availability of children’s books. He read a lot he didn’t understand, but it gave him a love of literature.
He began writing fiction in his forties after careers as a professional musician and psychotherapist. He has a son and a daughter, and a wonderful wife.
Photos courtesy Alan Bray unless otherwise indicated.