Does Life Imitate Art or Is It the Other Way Around?

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Fiction

“Still Life” includes a flood that paralyzed Florence, Italy successful  November 1966.
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Nov. 2, 2021

STILL LIFE
By Sarah Winman

Historical fabrication hits closest to the bony erstwhile it illuminates what we cognize to beryllium true: that we determination done capital-H History, but successful each moment, the spotlight shines brightest connected the unremarkable details of our ain lives. Momentous events occur, and sometimes we’re caught up successful them, but we are — simultaneously, inescapably — the main characters successful our ain stories. Sarah Winman’s sweeping “Still Life” is simply a parade of tiny stories, intimate connections and analyzable characters whose lives illuminate the tedium and cataclysms of the 20th century.

Ulysses Temper is the modest, searching, wandering protagonist. (We’re told aboriginal that he’s named aft a winning greyhound, but sometimes a cigar is not conscionable a cigar.) We conscionable him arsenic a young worker successful Italy successful 1944; astir instantly helium crosses paths with Evelyn Skinner, a 64-year-old person of beingness and an enthusiastic creation historian. She imparts life-changing contented astir emotion and creation and the metropolis of Florence. Their paths diverge, and helium takes her words with him backmost to London, wherever helium resumes moving astatine a pub. Soon enough, Ulysses and his makeshift household — his ex-wife’s young daughter, Alys; his person Cress; and a talking parrot named Claude — determination to Italy, wherever Ulysses has inherited a ample flat that they person into a thriving pensione. Cress, who was capable to pass with trees successful London, tin besides pass with trees successful Italy.

It’s hard to encompass each that happens successful this whopper of a book, partially due to the fact that it spans 4 decades (and much than 450 pages), but adjacent much truthful due to the fact that overmuch of it is conscionable the worldly of life, suffused with copious dialog truthful casual and idiomatic that it astir subverts its ain request for attention. Ulysses’ wife, Peg, falls successful emotion with different soldier; she gets pregnant. Ulysses continues to emotion Peg and yet raises the kid connected his own, since Peg is not acceptable for motherhood. One quality finds emotion successful his aureate years. Another finds emotion early, and thing other compares. During the war, Ulysses saved a beingness successful Florence. Some years later, helium is repaid for his kindness.

What holds these characters unneurotic is the emotion of a chosen household and the relation of creation successful maintaining their commitments to 1 another. Much of the communicative takes spot successful Florence, and 1 peculiar capital-H Historical infinitesimal is the 1966 flood of the Arno, during which millions of books and works of creation were destroyed, and countless livelihoods were obliterated — each, Winman reminds us, meaningless without the other.

The novel’s articulation of religion is spoken by Evelyn, who rhapsodizes successful the aboriginal pages, “Beautiful creation opens our eyes to the quality of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our show and judgment.” This is simply a taxable that runs done the novel, and it’s a bold authorial move, insisting upon the transformative powerfulness of aesthetics. Winman makes the lawsuit implicit and implicit again that quality is truth, information beauty, and of people it raises the reader’s expectations. If the publication itself isn’t transcendent, the scaffolding volition not hold.

But the scaffolding, for the astir part, does clasp (although I could person done without the talking parrot, who seems to person flown successful from different story). The existent magic of “Still Life” is the elevation of the ordinary, the unabashed consecration of quality experiences.

Early successful the novel, aft Ulysses’ woman asks for a divorce, and past sleeps with him, helium ruminates connected the scope of his life: “Somewhere betwixt an atom and a prima was this.” He orders a meal: “He asked her what the specials were, and she moved adjacent to his ear. Tortellini successful brodo, she purred. It was arsenic erotic a infinitesimal arsenic he’d had successful years. He felt giddy and stumbled against the chair.” These are humans successful orbit, connected by the staying powerfulness of heartbreak and kindness. And present is Winman describing an mean Italian summertime day: “Golden airy edged astir the acheronian grey clouds and Cress utilized the operation ‘unconscionable beauty’ successful describing the garden. Cress was becoming poetry.”

Sentence aft sentence, quality by character, “Still Life” becomes poetry.

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