Mark Lavorato’s debut novel is aptly titled as the novel is equally divided between these two characters, a young woman who dances on stage and a young man who takes photographs on the streets. Through them, readers experience Montreal of the 1920s, from vaudeville to fascism, and women’s rights to French/English tensions.
Serafim discovers, early on, that he and his friend have a penchant for the candid shot, which sets them apart from the studio photographers. This is revealing, not only of Serafim’s perspective on the world, but also Mark Lavorato’s. The idea of capturing a moment, perhaps not the most obvious but certainly the most meaningful, is at the heart of Serafim and Claire.
“The gentleman certainly thought the approach unconventional, but he took it to be the way things were done in Portugal. Serafim and Álvaro shot a myriad of exposures, but agreed that the best shot was taken when the girl was participating in a scavenger hunt. The two young men were crouched down next to her as she searched a massive planter. Tiptoeing up and reaching inside, the young girl patted around in the underbrush, and just as she found something, she turned her head in excitement. Serafim and Álvaro captured the moment perfectly.”
Serafim is always striving to capture that which cannot be captured, which could also describe the work of a novelist. Perhaps this is why, although the novel opens with Claire, Serafim’s character seems to infuse the story, despite their shared status as central figures.
“It is a contemplative look, seemingly tight-lipped beneath the man’s bushy moustache. His eyes gleam moist. It is as if he is trying to communicate something to the photographer. Something where words will almost certainly fall short. Or already have.”
Words do not fall short in Serafim and Claire. If anything, some passages are ambitious about capturing context and background for readers unfamiliar with the time and place. Nonetheless, when this occurs, there is a consistent relationship to an aspect of the narrative so if somewhat long-winded, it is not gratuitous information. For instance, this explanation of the importance of Lionel Groulx in Quebec is followed by a connection drawn to Serafim’s work at a protest:
“Lionel Groulx, an activist, Catholic priest, and historian, was immensely popular with French Canadians at the time, and was also a firm proponent of corporatism, which he believed would one day replace class struggle with class co-operation, an idea shared with Mussolini. Fascists, and indeed the majority of Montrealers, were not exactly great sympathizers of leftist causes or ideologies like anarchism, so the turnout of protesters to rally against the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti was a rather meagre one. It was so unimpressive, in fact, that Serafim had only snapped a few exposures throughout, and when he developed them, he couldn’t find a single frame worth sending to Álvaro, who was used to seeing things of a much more dramatic and glamorous nature.”
Both Serafim and Claire experience frustrations with recognition in their chosen art form; the question of popularity versus artistry is raised and it is often difficult for these two to spot the line between opportunity and exploitation. When their paths finally cross, both are pressed and stretched by circumstances, and they are urged into a plan which seems to promise all the greatness that dedication and determination did not achieve.
The rhythmic format of the novel, alternating voices separated by a description of one of Serafim’s photographs which reflects a relevant reality in the narrative (sometimes directly, sometimes subtly), creates a quiet momentum, but the story’s dynamic remains subdued until the characters meet and their plan begins to unfold. Even then, the narrative is rooted primarily in character, secondarily in action. Serafim and Claire will satisfy readers who crave immersion in another time and place, particularly those with an affection for Montreal.