Still Life, by Sarah Winman

I was expecting to like Sarah Winman’s Still Life.  It’s had very positive reviews, it was longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and I liked her previous novel Tin Man, declaring that it was rare to find a novel that is so much about love and kindness and friendship without descending into sentimentality. Alas, Still Life is an English fantasy of Tuscan postwar life: sunshine and weather mild enough for shorts; good food and nice wine; appealing scenery round every cobblestoned corner complemented by splendid Florentine art; and a language easy to learn between the sheets should you need to know more than the vocabulary for food.  Yes, there are occasional problems such as the 1966 flood, but such difficulties are overcome by the niceness of people who come together as a genial community, and Brits who flit in to help without any clear idea of what to do can still manage to access the essentials of life such as a bath and a decent meal. Plus, this Florence is, despite Italy being a Catholic country, easy-going about gays and lesbians; and it’s tolerant of stuffy English people and an excess of tourists.  Most remarkable of all, they have an impressive ability to transition briskly from a military dictatorship under Mussolini with no hard feelings about who was on which side. All this while Britain was enduring postwar austerity and Germany was rebuilding the ruins. The story starts outside Florence during WW2 with the meeting of Evelyn Skinner the art historian and the soldier Ulysses Temper, named not after the Greek hero but after a racehorse.  This detail is important because it establishes Ulysses as an ordinary unpretentious fellow who is nonetheless charmed by the whimsical Evelyn and he earnestly imbibes lessons about Florentine art.  While there are inconclusive hints that Evelyn might actually be a spy, if that’s what she is then her cover is not very convincing.  It does seem somewhat unlikely that any English art conserver, much less a woman, would be dodging artillery fire on the front line, and indeed if she or any other English person were there at any time when the Germans were there as well they would have interned her as a matter of course. Besides, surely Italy  had plenty of art historians of its own… Anyway… This meeting takes place as the characters are cheerfully looting a Tuscan cellar after the German retreat.  While I suspect that the Tuscans wouldn’t have begrudged their liberators, it doesn’t alter the fact that the military is not supposed to help itself to the possessions of the locals, who presumably need what remains of their surviving stock to earn a living after the war.  Italian superintendents are mentioned but they seem to be there to protect what remains of the art after the German departure, and it wasn’t made clear whether these characters in the cellar were there by invitation or not, or whether they paid for the splendid bottles of wine which they drank with such sophisticated appreciation.  A minor detail, but truth be told, I am always more likely to notice minor details if I’m not much engaged in a novel.  And I was often bored by this one.  Yes, bored. This book is much too long for itself. Anyway Ulysses the dutiful soldier meets the art historian Evelyn across a social divide bridged by war, and then the war moves on and they are parted by more than just the decades between their ages.  He goes back to Britain to an inconclusive relationship with a rather bad-tempered woman called Peg, but with the proceeds of a lucky bet, goes back to live in Florence with an assortment of other male companions and Peg’s school-age daughter by another man (for whom she’s still carrying a torch).  The novel then proceeds to tease the reader with reunions that would have occurred had only Evelyn done this or Ulysses done that.  Although I did entertain what turned out to be a fruitless interest in the spying side of things and I  wondered if Ulysses would ever stop hankering after Peg and find the love of his life, I grew tired of these inconclusive meanderings of the plot, such as it was. Why then did I continue reading the book?  I chose it from the TBR after reading Mercé Rodoredo’s Death in Spring, because I wanted something less harrowing. And I knew how that this book is dearly loved by many people, so I kept expecting that something would illuminate it for me, and then I would love it too. It just didn’t happen for me. Read the reviews of readers who loved it here, and here and here. Author: Sarah WinmanTitle: Still LifeDesign and Illustrations by Ellie GamePublisher: Harper Collins, 2021ISBN: 9780008283360, pbk., 436 pagesPersonal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

I was expecting to like Sarah Winman’s Still Life.  It’s had very positive reviews, it was longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and I liked her previous novel Tin Man, declaring that it was rare to find a novel that is so much about love and kindness and friendship without descending into sentimentality.

Alas, Still Life is an English fantasy of Tuscan postwar life: sunshine and weather mild enough for shorts; good food and nice wine; appealing scenery round every cobblestoned corner complemented by splendid Florentine art; and a language easy to learn between the sheets should you need to know more than the vocabulary for food.  Yes, there are occasional problems such as the 1966 flood, but such difficulties are overcome by the niceness of people who come together as a genial community, and Brits who flit in to help without any clear idea of what to do can still manage to access the essentials of life such as a bath and a decent meal. Plus, this Florence is, despite Italy being a Catholic country, easy-going about gays and lesbians; and it’s tolerant of stuffy English people and an excess of tourists.  Most remarkable of all, they have an impressive ability to transition briskly from a military dictatorship under Mussolini with no hard feelings about who was on which side.

All this while Britain was enduring postwar austerity and Germany was rebuilding the ruins.

The story starts outside Florence during WW2 with the meeting of Evelyn Skinner the art historian and the soldier Ulysses Temper, named not after the Greek hero but after a racehorse.  This detail is important because it establishes Ulysses as an ordinary unpretentious fellow who is nonetheless charmed by the whimsical Evelyn and he earnestly imbibes lessons about Florentine art.  While there are inconclusive hints that Evelyn might actually be a spy, if that’s what she is then her cover is not very convincing.  It does seem somewhat unlikely that any English art conserver, much less a woman, would be dodging artillery fire on the front line, and indeed if she or any other English person were there at any time when the Germans were there as well they would have interned her as a matter of course.

Besides, surely Italy  had plenty of art historians of its own…

Anyway…

This meeting takes place as the characters are cheerfully looting a Tuscan cellar after the German retreat.  While I suspect that the Tuscans wouldn’t have begrudged their liberators, it doesn’t alter the fact that the military is not supposed to help itself to the possessions of the locals, who presumably need what remains of their surviving stock to earn a living after the war.  Italian superintendents are mentioned but they seem to be there to protect what remains of the art after the German departure, and it wasn’t made clear whether these characters in the cellar were there by invitation or not, or whether they paid for the splendid bottles of wine which they drank with such sophisticated appreciation.  A minor detail, but truth be told, I am always more likely to notice minor details if I’m not much engaged in a novel.  And I was often bored by this one.  Yes, bored. This book is much too long for itself.

Anyway Ulysses the dutiful soldier meets the art historian Evelyn across a social divide bridged by war, and then the war moves on and they are parted by more than just the decades between their ages.  He goes back to Britain to an inconclusive relationship with a rather bad-tempered woman called Peg, but with the proceeds of a lucky bet, goes back to live in Florence with an assortment of other male companions and Peg’s school-age daughter by another man (for whom she’s still carrying a torch).  The novel then proceeds to tease the reader with reunions that would have occurred had only Evelyn done this or Ulysses done that.  Although I did entertain what turned out to be a fruitless interest in the spying side of things and I  wondered if Ulysses would ever stop hankering after Peg and find the love of his life, I grew tired of these inconclusive meanderings of the plot, such as it was.

Why then did I continue reading the book?  I chose it from the TBR after reading Mercé Rodoredo’s Death in Spring, because I wanted something less harrowing. And I knew how that this book is dearly loved by many people, so I kept expecting that something would illuminate it for me, and then I would love it too.

It just didn’t happen for me.

Read the reviews of readers who loved it here, and here and here.

Author: Sarah Winman
Title: Still Life
Design and Illustrations by Ellie Game
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9780008283360, pbk., 436 pages
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.