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Still Life

June 6, 2022

Soon I’m going to get to travel to Italy, if all goes well. Our plan is to see Venice, Florence, and Rome. So I’ve been reading some fiction about Italy, although I haven’t found anything I thought was especially compelling. Angela Petch’s The Postcard from Italy was a fairly standard romance novel with some genealogy content, alternating chapters between the present and the end of WWII. The postcard, sent by a grandfather, spurs the present-day protagonist to dig into her family history.

Still Life, by Sarah Winman, is a little better and a lot longer. It also begins at the end of WWII but does not alternate every chapter between past and present. Some of the characters get very old, like Evelyn, who meets the other main protagonist of the novel, Ulysses, in Italy during the war while looking at a painting, Pontormo’s Desposition. She talks to him about art, saying “what it’s always about, for me, is response” and replying to his question about whether art can be more important than people with a lecture on beauty:
“Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgment. Captures forever that which is fleeting. A meager stain in the corridors of history, that’s all we are. A little mark of scuff. One hundred and fifty years ago Napoleon breathed the same air as we do now. The battalion of time marches on. Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn’t exist without the other. Art is the antidote.”

Evelyn and Ulysses go back to England after the war but later Ulysses moves with his adopted daughter and his old friend Cressy to Italy, where he and Evelyn have a few near-misses before finally meeting each other again (these near-misses are always narrated, as when Evelyn turns left and we’re told that “had she turned right, however, she would have bumped into the man who had been on her mind at that very moment”). Still Life is a found family saga, mostly effective but occasionally a bit precious, especially concerning Cressy’s supposed prescience and their pet bird’s ability to say the right thing at exactly the right time.

The description of setting gets dialed up to eleven whenever Cressy is in a scene, as when they visit an island: “Cressy was the first onto the island; all he needed was a flag to plant. He looked about at the bounty of existence, full consciousness in the soles of his feet.”
And it seems overly indulgent storytelling whenever Cress and a tree have a conversation:
“the tree said, That can’t happen. Love’s the way. And its leaves quivered as the breeze came in from the southern hills. Tree said, They’re starting the grape harvest somewhere.
That so? said Cress.
And the swallows are lining up to leave.
I’ll miss them, said Cress.
It’s just the way of things.”

Animals exist in this novel merely to illuminate the actions of the humans. A brief description of Evelyn’s dog, who would “sleep on a blanket under the desk” while she taught art history at the Slade, ends with the information that “he died peacefully during a long and tedious talk on Giorgio Vasari. Evelyn was surprised more hadn’t succumbed. It wasn’t one of my best, she’d said. Midway through, even she had felt for a pulse.”

Some of the description is lovely, especially the moments when a character consciously stops to remember, as when taking a photograph:
“Behind them, the terrace is flush with color. Geraniums of course, but lavender too, and dahlias of vivid orange and red. The glimpse of a trestle table with the remains of fried fresh anchovies and tomatoes galore and fagioli with clams, the menu devised and cooked by Ulysses. Two bottles of the crisp white ansonica wine native to the island can just be seen over Massimo’s shoulder. One of the bottles is half full. Above them, the grapevine is thick and established and the grapes hang low.”

There’s a very baby boomerish section of the novel detailing how the characters feel about what’s happening in 1968, how it seems to them the end of a better era:
“Cress and Evelyn were on the stone bench together the day they learned Bobby Kennedy had been shot. Cress said he feared for mankind, and hand in hand they walked silently back home.
Cress took to his bed and Evelyn settled on the sofa and started a letter to Dotty about the end of goodness….Turbulence and heartbreak overshadowed everything that year and man’s first orbit around the moon failed to lift Cressy’s spirits to the dizzying heights that science and achievement often did.”

Periodically the novel reminds us of what is happening in the world as the characters go about their business, and when we get to “nineteen seventy-eight and abortion was finally made legal in Italy” and are told it was “ a milestone in women’s bodies becoming their own,” it feels less like a march of progress. That the years passing is supposed to make readers feel a sense of progress is explicit, particularly when the characters discuss A Room With a View, saying it features “an endemic English quality, believing only the educated middle class know the secrets of art.”

Evelyn is the character who makes no progress of her own, who appears fully formed as an art critic and walks through the world showing others how to see. From her first visit to Italy, when she describes what she has observed outside her window, she demonstrates how to turn “looking into loving,” which an older woman tells her is “the first rule of art.”

I liked the way this novel always comes back to a consideration of art, but found its descriptions of love overblown, as if a situation lightly sketched by E. M. Forster has been drawn and then heavily overdrawn, in case anyone could possibly miss the point.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2022 11:56 am

    Hm, books set in Italy … not long ago I read Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, an entertaining mystery set in Sicily. And The Wolf Den really made me want to visit Pompeii!

    Hope you have a great trip. I was hoping to get to Athens or Rome this summer myself but I need to spend more time sorting out the eating situation. We’ll stay in the mountains here, which is certainly nice enough if not quite so culturally exciting.

    • June 7, 2022 10:44 am

      I’d love to see Sicily and Pompeii, but not this trip. One has to start somewhere, and try not to rush all around too fast in an attempt to see everything!

  2. June 7, 2022 7:02 am

    Of course as soon as you said “trip to Italy,” the only Italy book I could think of was Enchanted April! Which of course it’s never a bad idea to reread, if you’re in the mood for it. I hope you have a wonderful wonderful fantastic time in Italy, friend!

    • June 7, 2022 10:43 am

      I think I read Enchanted April (and saw the movie) recently enough. There are so many books set in Italy–probably a big part of why I chose it.

  3. lemming permalink
    June 7, 2022 10:24 am

    This sounds like a book in which I would have written snarky comments in college, and today would abandon round about the third time Evelyn opened her mouth. re: Italy – it’s non-fiction, but I highly recommend “Under the Tuscan Sun.” It’s nothing at all like the movie.

    • June 7, 2022 10:41 am

      Oh yes, I’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun! I never saw the movie.

  4. June 9, 2022 5:03 pm

    One of my very favorite books is set partly in Italy, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Hope you have a fantastic time!

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