Note to self – don’t judge a book by its title. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love is not genre romance at all. I’d say it’s middle-brow literary fiction. The only love story in it is a small subplot. The rest is a delightful satirical romp through the world of masterpiece art collecting, complete with the avarice, pretence and money-laundering one would expect. ‘The Improbability of Love’ is the title of a painting by Antoine Watteau, a real-life French painter of the rococo period. At some point in its 300-year past the painting went missing and in this story it turns up in a junk shop in London and eventually into the hands of our clueless heroine.
The story integrates elements within the painting, the artist’s emotionally-wrought life and the painting’s history of ownership with a modern-day story depicting many of the same themes. While other novels have fused a painting into a storyline (e.g., Frayn’s Headlong, about a long-lost Bruegel), this is unique in giving voice to the painting – literally. In keeping with the painting’s provenance, the narrative voice of this masterpiece has traces of French and snobbery from years of living in grand homes, including a stint at Buckingham Palace. Rothschild wisely uses the painting to tell only part of the story, allowing for a more tradition third-person omniscient narrator for the bulk of the novel.
But the painting does get some of the best lines, such as this gem:
Like other successful religions, art has evolved and offers glorious temples and learned high priests as well as covenants and creeds. The new churches are known as museums, in which the contemplation of art has become a kind of prayer and communal activity. The very wealthy can create private chapels stuffed with the unimaginable rarities and guarantee a front row seat. It was ever thus.
Although The Improbability of Love is on the whole clever and imaginative, it does falter by bringing into the plot the Nazis and their notorious looting of art works. That plotline is getting worn out.
That aside, it’s an excellent book, deserving of its position on the Bailey Prize shortlist 2016.
My love affair with the writing of Elena Ferrante continues. This time with her third novel, The Lost Daughter, published in 2006. Leda is a divorced middle-aged professor with two adult daughters, who are away living in Canada with their father. On her summer break, Leda rents an apartment at a beach resort. Her observations and interactions with other holiday makers stirs up memories of her relationships with daughters and her now ex-husband. When a little girl loses her doll at the beach, a strangely twisted plot emerges.
Leda narrates the story with frankness and self-reflection which are as refreshing as they are brutal. This, along with the intrigue of the plot and subplots, kept this reader engaged to the very end.
Reading the Buchan novel in the present day, the hero’s language with its ‘good old fellow’ and stiff-upper lip euphemisms seems quaint and artificial. That aside, I did enjoy the sense of drama from this man-on-the-run thriller, along with its descriptive passages of the Scottish countryside and the humble and duplicitous characters that Richard Hannay encounters. But with this fictional drama, the true-to-life historical backdrop triggers a 21st century sense of foreboding.
Set on the eve of the First World War, the story is infused with political intrigue and spies, along with a strong sense of fear and uncertainty. As a modern-day reader, it’s hard to not think about the recent politically-motivated cyberattacks coming from Putin’s Russia, which has already displayed its military might in Chechnya, Crimea and Syria. Our present day also brings with it the destabilisation of America on the eve of the Trump presidency. We live in times that feel alarmingly pre-War.
The cliché about history repeating itself has become as worn and irritating as the need to use the other cliché – that people do not seem to learn from history. Such expressions bring with them the tendency to reduce and dismiss real dangers. Speaking more specifically and less glibly, in this week’s BBC Dateline, panellists brought in the analogy of how the First World War not ending with a viable treaty in Europe had set the stage for the Second World War being akin to the untidy fall of the Soviet Union leaving Europe vulnerable today. Given the mess that America is in at the moment, now is the time for a united Europe to do something to protect post-Soviet Europe. I don’t want to think that too much time has elapsed or that opportunities to do something have been missed. In this Dateline analogy lies a possibility of hope – agreements around trade, land and computer piracy need to be made with Russia to establish the rules of the new games. Will they break these rules? Probably, but doing so will be more difficult with international agreements in place and a united Europe to support these agreements.
As for me, I’ll stay politically active, with the occasional dip into escapism – classic thrillers, where the technology might be less sophisticated than today’s, but at least the good guy always wins.
Some years ago, I read James Shapiro’s 1599, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. I’ll admit I’m not one to read non-fiction books very often – outside of linguistics, of course. I tend to reserve book reading for fiction and occasionally poetry. Reading a year in the life of Shakespeare, however, was a different matter. Shapiro’s 1599 brought together history and social context with textual analysis of Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, along with some of the influences on Hamlet, which Shakespeare started in that same year. While some critics felt this volume was too encyclopaedic and lacking in soul, it certainly whetted my appetite. Unfortunately, I had to wait some ten years.
I’ve just finished reading Shapiro’s next instalment, 1606, which covers the context around the writing of King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. I’ve never been a strong fan of Anthony and Cleopatra as a play and was glad that it didn’t take up much of the book. Most of this volume is about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the ways it influenced the writing and performance of King Lear, and to a lesser extent, Macbeth. While the political climate of 1606 – and the reminder that Shakespeare was also a Jacobean – made for interesting reading, I found even more fascinating the textual analysis of Lear. Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s Lear drew from King Leir, the anonymously-authored Elizabethan play, and more importantly how it diverged from it, rendering a much more complex ending. Shapiro has also unearthed the influence and direct borrowings from Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, which gave guidance on how to spot people faking demonic possession – a popular topic at the time.
I could say a great deal more about both 1599 and 1606, but I don’t wish to give away any more than I already have. Yes, it sounds as if I’m talking about a novel and not a literary history – this is a sign of good writing coupled with captivating interpretations.