An extraordinarily haunting love story told in the voice of a man who appears to age backwards
We are each the love of someone's life.
So begins The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a heartbreaking love story with a narrator like no other. At his birth, Max's father declares him a "nisse," a creature of Danish myth, as his baby son has the external physical appearance of an old, dying creature. Max grows older like any child, but his physical age appears to go backwardon the outside a very old man, but inside still a fearful child.
The story is told in three acts. First, young Max falls in love with a neighborhood girl, Alice, who ages as normally as any of us. Max, of course, does not; as a young man, he has an older man's body. But his curse is also his blessing: as he gets older, his body grows younger, so each successive time he finds his Alice, she does not recognize him. She takes him for a stranger, and Max is given another chance at love.
Set against the historical backdrop of San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century, Max's life and confessions question the very nature of time, of appearance and reality, and of love itself. A beautiful and daring feat of the imagination, Andrew Sean Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli reveals the world through the eyes of a "monster," a being who confounds the very certainties by which we live and in doing so embodies in extremis what it means to be human.
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About the Author
Hometown:San Francisco, California
Date of Birth:November 21, 1970
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A. in English, Brown University, 1992; M.F.A . in Fiction, University of Montana, 1996
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Sean Greer. To be published in February, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
APRIL 25, 1930
We are each the love of someone's life.
I wanted to put that down in case I am discovered and unable to complete these pages, in case you become so disturbed by the facts of my confession that you throw it into the fire before I get to tell you of great love and murder. I would not blame you. So many things stand in the way of anyone ever hearing my story. There is a dead body to explain. A woman three times loved. A friend betrayed. And a boy long sought for. So I will get to the end first and tell you we are each the love of someone's life.
I sit here on a lovely April day. It keeps changing all around me; the sun alternates between throwing deep shadows behind the children and trees and then sweeping them back up again the moment a cloud crosses the sky. The grass fills with gold, then falls to nothing. The whole school yard is being inked with sun and blotted, glowing and reaching a point of great beauty, and I am breathless to be in the audience. No one else notices. The little girls sit in a circle, dresses crackling with starch and conspiracy, and the boys are on the baseball field or in the trees, hanging upside down. Above, an airplane astounds me with its roar and school-marm line of chalk. An airplane; it's not the sky I once knew.
And I sit in a sandbox, a man of almost sixty. The chill air has made the sand a bit too tough for the smaller kids to dig; besides, the field's changing sunlight is too tempting, so everyone else is out there charging at shadows, and I'm left to myself.
We begin with apologies:
For the soft notebook pages you hold in your hands, a sad reliquary for my story and apt to 0 rip, but the best I could steal. For stealing, both the notebooks and the beautiful lever-fed pen I'm writing with, which I have admired for so many months on my teacher's desk and simply had to take. For the sand stuck between the pages, something I could not avoid. There are more serious sins, of course, a lost family, a betrayal, and all the lies that have brought me to this sandbox, but I ask you to forgive me one last thing: my childish handwriting.
We all hate what we become. I'm not the only one; I have seen women staring at themselves in restaurant mirrors while their husbands are away, women under their own spell as they see someone they do not recognize. I have seen men back from war, squinting at themselves in shopwindows as they feel their skull beneath their skin. They thought they would shed the worst of youth and gain the best of age, but time drifted over them, sand-burying their old hopes. Mine is a very different story, but it all turns out the same.
One of the reasons I sit here in the sand, hating what I've become, is the boy. Such a long time, such a long search, lying to clerks and parish priests to get the names of children living in the town and suburbs, making up ridiculous aliases, then crying in a motel room and wondering if I would ever find you. You were so well hidden. The way the young prince in fairy tales is hidden from the ogre: in a trunk, in a thorny grove, in a dull place of meager enchantment. Little hidden Sammy. But the ogre always finds the child, doesn't he? For here you are.
If you are reading this, dear Sammy, don't despise me. I am a poor old man; I never meant you any harm. Don't remember me just as a childhood demon, though I have been that. I have lain in your room at night and heard your breathing roughen the air. I have whispered in your ear when you were dreaming. I am what my father always said I wasI am a freak, a monsterand even as I write this (forgive me) I am watching you.
You are the one playing baseball with your friends as the sunlight comes and goes through your golden hair. The sunburned one, clearly the boss, the one the other boys resent but love; it's good to see how much they love you. You are up to bat but hold out your hand because something has annoyed you; an itch, perhaps, as just now your hand scratches wildly at the base of your blond skull, and after this sudden dervish, you shout and return to the game. Boys, you don't mean to be wonders, but you are.
You haven't noticed me. Why would you? To you I am just the friend in the sandbox, scribbling away. Let's try an experiment: I'll wave my hand to you. There, see, you just put down your bat to wave back at me, a smile cocked across your freckled face, arrogant but innocent of everything around you. All the years and trouble it took for me to be here. You know nothing, fear nothing. When you look at me, you see another little boy like you.
A boy, yes, that's me. I have so much to explain, but first you must believe:
Inside this wretched body, I grow old. But outsidein every part of me but my mind and soulI grow young.
There is no name for what I am. Doctors do not understand me; my very cells wriggle the wrong way in the slides, divide and echo back their ignorance. But I think of myself as having an ancient curse. The one that Hamlet put upon Polonius before he punctured the old man like a balloon:
That, like a crab, I go backwards.
For even now as I write, I look to be a boy of twelve. At nearly sixty, there is sand in my knickers and mud across the brim of my cap. I have a smile like the core of an apple. Yet once I seemed a handsome man of twenty-two with a gun and a gas mask. And before that, a man in his thirties, trying to find his lover in an earthquake. And a hardworking forty, and a terrified fifty, and older and older as we approach my birth.
"Anyone can grow old," my father always said through the bouquet of his cigar smoke. But I burst into the world as if from the other end of life, and the days since then have been ones of physical reversion, of erasing the wrinkles around my eyes, darkening the white and then the gray in my hair, bringing younger muscle to my arms and dew to my skin, growing tall and then shrinking into the hairless, harmless boy who scrawls this pale confession.
A mooncalf, a changeling; a thing so out of joint with the human race that I have stood in the street and hated every man in love, every widow in her long weeds, every child dragged along by a loving dog. Drunk on gin, I have sworn and spat at passing strangers who took me for the opposite of what I was insidean adult when I was a child, a boy now that I am an old man. I have learned compassion since then, and pity passersby a little, as I, more than anyone, know what they have yet to live through.
Reading Group Guide
1. What did the novel's epigraph and opening sentence mean to you when you began the book, and what do they mean to you now? Are they romantic notions, statements on the hopelessness of love, or perhaps something in between?
2. When you began this book, did you consider growing younger to be only positive? Do you believe that now? Looking at Max's life, what are some of the advantages of old age?
3. In his focus on Alice, has Max missed the one person who truly loved him his whole life
Hughie? Is it ever easy to recognize such devoted people in our lives?
4. What is society's basis for determining whether a lover is an appropriate age? In what ways does Max's condition actually help illuminate his true character?
5. Max loves Alice as a daughter, as a wife, and as a mother. How does this echo the various roles a lover plays in our lives? Which of Max's roles is he best suited to? Do we always take on recurring roles when it comes to love?
6. Are Max's fears of infancythe inability to walk independently, care for himself, and articulate his needsvery different from the traditional fears of growing old?
7. Max's first role in Alice's life is as her
"Shabbos goy." Does Max later continue to be the "houseboy of her heart" in some wayan aid in her life?
8. Is Max's reverse aging the only thing standing in the way of his happiness? How much of his outcome is affected by his personality, fate,
and other factors?
9. Max's condition gives him unusual opportunities
for instance, having access to his son's life that few fathers have ever had. Does it deepen or erase his role as a parent? Though they both appear to be boys, is there still a generation gap between Max and his son?
10. The word confession carries connotations of wrongdoing or scandal on the part of the speaker. To what is Max Tivoli confessing in his "memoir"? Is first-person narration crucial to this plot?
11. Alice is not a typical Victorian woman. She is hotheaded and freethinking; what do you think of her as a match for Max? Is she merely selfcentered and flaky, or do you agree with Victor
Ramsey's theory that she changed her life through the only means available to women during that time period: marriage? What is
Alice's ultimate reason for leaving Max?
12. Max struggles to make his outward appearance both socially acceptable and less at odds with his psyche. Describe what your external appearance would look like if it were a pictureperfect representation of your psyche.
13. How did you feel when you read of Hughie's death? Why do you think he killed himself?
Did the modern idea of a "gay man" exist back then? Given that at the time even openly gay
Oscar Wilde had a wife and children (as
Hughie did), what options did gay men and women have for happiness or love?
14. What would you have done with a life like
Max's? Is he an idealist, an artist in a world not made for him, or a brute who squandered a potentially happy life? What are the sources of a truly happy life? In what ways have you
"grown younger" in your own life?