'Time's Betrayal': Literary epic opens in Berkshires
David Adams Cleveland's hefty third novel, "Time's Betrayal," (released Oct. 1) is a genre-defying, 1,170-page work that tracks protagonist Peter Alden's quest to learn more about his father, a CIA agent who vanished during the 1950s. The story travels back in time to the Civil War and forward to the Cold War to reveal two families' pasts and scrutinize American wars' impact on the country's culture. But the book opens in the 1960s Berkshires, where the Aldens and another powerful, related family, the Williamses, share a summer woodland retreat called Elysium.
"It's sort of the central point of the book in terms of what home means, and the book, in many respects, is kind of Telemachus looking for Odysseus [in Homer's 'Odyssey']," Cleveland said during a recent telephone interview in advance of his signings Tuesday at The Williams Bookstore in Williamstown, on Wednesday at The Bookloft in Great Barrington and Thursday at the Barnes & Noble in Pittsfield.
The choice of the Berkshires was far from an afterthought; while setting is vital to any novelist, Cleveland fixates on it.
"I can't really write well or intelligently on a theme in a place that doesn't in some way inspire me, so place is a character in its own right in my book," he said.
Part of this focus stems from Cleveland's art background. He studied, among other things, art history as an undergraduate at Princeton University, and he worked as an arts editor for Voice of America. He now serves as an art adviser for artsy.net, the popular website his son, Carter Cleveland, founded. His expertise is in American Tonalism; earlier this year, he published an overview of the movement, titled, "A History of American Tonalism, 1880-1920."
"My feeling for landscape and the descriptive qualities that I try to get into my art history also overlap into my novels, and I've always been delighted to find that people really seem to appreciate that, that is the setting of the scene and the evocation of a landscape, a time and a place, which is what the Tonalist painters certainly did in their art," he said. "And I'm a great believer that — in novels and literature — setting a scene is really a critical element of engaging the reader's imagination, and so I try to do that, and I also tend to get artists in my book."
His latest book does includes artists, he says, though his first two novels perhaps more obviously deal with that subject matter. In "With a Gem-Like Flame: A Novel of Venice and a Lost Masterpiece," a scholar and art dealer searches for Raphael's "Leopardi Madonna," and in Cleveland's next major work, "Love's Attraction," the book's heroine is an artist.
Though it's a family drama, "Time's Betrayal" clearly offers a stance on history that extends beyond the Alden and Williams clans. "More than just an insider's chronicle of America's postwar ascendancy and ensuing decline — and the betrayals of love and principle that come in the wake of blind ambition — 'Time's Betrayal' portrays the agonized compromises to America's founding ideals as glimpsed through the privileged lives of the country's best and brightest," promotional copy on the author's website says.
With old stone walls running through farms across the landscape, the Berkshires provided the geographical means to highlight how generations intertwine.
"That is kind of the archaeological ruins of the Berkshire hills," Cleveland said of the stone walls. "And that idea about archaeology and about the past being deeply rooted plays a large role because both the hero and his father are, in this case, Princeton archaeologists."
Cleveland currently shuttles back and forth between his residences in New York City and the Catskills, but he used to frequently cover events at The Mount, Tanglewood and other Berkshires institutions. Moreover, he also has family ties to the county. His great-great-uncle was William Francis Bartlett, a Civil War general who spent the last part of his life in Pittsfield.
"It's a place that I dearly love," the author said of the Berkshires.
With friends in the area, Cleveland said he still visits often, including during the four years he was working on the book.
"I don't miss a year without getting up to the Berkshires," he said.
Meet the author
- 4-7 p.m., Tuesday at the Williams Bookstore, 81 Spring St., Williamstown
- 3-5 p.m., Wednesday at The Bookloft, 332 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington
- Noon to 4 p.m., Thursday at Barnes & Noble, 555 Hubbard Ave., Pittsfield
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