If I could choose one other city in the world to live in, it would be Florence. The art, the architecture, the food, the wine. It’s a beautiful city, passionately loved by many, many people. Such as the characters in Sarah Winman’s new novel, Still Life.
A quick spoiler-free summary of the plot before I get onto two themes – one that works well, and one that I think doesn’t.
In the opening scenes, we’re introduced to the two key characters towards the end of World War 2: an art critic in her sixties who has loved Florence since she was young, and a much younger man making his first visit as British troops are busily rescuing Renaissance masterpieces from their bombproof hiding places. Over the course of one day, the young soldier, Ulysses Temper, is introduced to the city and its inhabitants and is changed for ever.
After this introduction, we meet those who share their peace-time lives. Ulysses is part of a very close London canal-side working class community centred on the local pub. Evelyn Skinner, on the other hand, returns to her life in the art world, her painters and students and past lovers. But neither of them forgets Florence, and nor do they forget each other and their shared kinship as lovers of Florence.
When Ulysses gets the chance to live in Florence with a child, a friend and a parrot, he relishes the chance to go back, while simultaneously experiencing intense regret for those he’s leaving behind. One person in particular. Gradually, over decades, the movement between the two cities increases, as those in Ulysses’ world also fall under Florence’s spell.
In some ways this is a Forrest Gump book – it walks through history showing our characters interacting with real world events (and, a couple of times, real historical figures.) Unlike Forrest Gump, the history is more low-key, or art-focussed, from E.M. Forster needing a room with a view to the impact of Fellini’s films.
So why is it called Still Life?
The idea of still life paintings is to show a slice of life, curated to depict either a theme of the painter’s choosing or simply some beautiful items. I think the reason for the book’s title is that this is what Sarah Winman has done here, arranging characters she enjoys in a city she loves.
A strange by-product of this is that the characters seem to essentially stay the same throughout the novel. Sure, they develop a love of Florence and they all have to handle the different challenges life throws at them, but they seem to essentially be the same people throughout.
That’s quite possibly deliberate. After all, a still life painting doesn’t change over the decades either. And, just as with a still life painting that we might see more in as we continue to gaze at it, we see more deeply into each of these characters as time passes – their own issues and their relationships to others.
I just had one major problem with the book, and it’s one that raises its head every time we look at historical ideas through the prism of our own day.
The problem is that we have 1940s or 1950s characters with 2020s mindsets. Time after time, the book’s characters seem to make choices as if they lived in our decade rather than their own one. To me, this is disrespectful to the genuine 1940s (or whatever decade you choose) people, who have their own culture that they have grown up among. It seems to me to be a sort of cultural colonialism, to be honest.
It can feel judgmental. Now, that’s fine if you genuinely intend to portray the past as worthy of judgment. I’m sure the racism and sexism were far, far worse in the 1940s than today, for instance. But if you’re setting up that time and place as a beautiful idyll, is it fair to also dismiss its actual values? Just one example among many, but can you genuinely love the community spirit of Florence while keeping the Catholic church’s part of that spirit at arm’s length?
My other issue with this sort of historical judgmentalism is about whether the judge realises that future generations will also judge our generation by these standards. For all we know, those 2020s mindsets shown by the characters here are possibly going to be seen as far more ridiculous than the 1940s ones they seek to replace.
All in all, I enjoyed this book. If you love Florence, or the idea of Florence, then read it. If you love tracking through history, you’ll enjoy this too. However, if you want to read about the past through its own eyes rather than through today’s, you might want to look elsewhere.