Thursday, 6 June 2013

Buckley: Nostalgia

Jonathan Buckley (2013) Nostalgia Sort of Books, London; 480 pp.; ISBN 978-1-90874531-6

Gideon Westfall is a successful artist but his works are out of favour with the art scene in London and his paintings are described as lifeless, nostalgic or even kitsch. After a particularly nasty review more than a decade ago, he decided to leave London and settle in the small Italian town of Castelluccio, not far from the cities of Pisa and Siena in Tuscany. In this community he is called ‘maestro’ and accorded the respect he craves. He also keeps to a busy and tightly regulated work schedule that results in many paintings of the local area as well as scores of female nude portraits using local women as models. One of the models, the barely adult Ilaria, has disappeared. Despite the reputation that many artists have of being over-endowed in the libido department, Gideon insists he has not had an affair with a woman in years and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise. He has devoted himself utterly to his art and in his life human beings come off second best.

Gideon’s assistant is Robert Bancourt. He is dedicated to Gideon, admires his discipline and artistic skill, and makes up for his master’s solitude and celibacy by moving from one woman to the next in quick succession. For most of this tale he is involved with a woman named Teresa, but you always sense it will not be ending up in conjugal bliss. While Gideon speaks only a few words of Italian, Robert is fluent and thus he acts as Gideon’s lifeline to the locals, including the police who are searching for the missing Ilaria.

Both Gideon and Robert are happy in the relative anonymity of Castelluccio. Gideon can enjoy acclaim and a valued place in local society far from the pesky critics and art dealers of London, and Robert has a job that requires a high degree of competence but demands no ambition. It is the ideal arrangement.

Then one day Gideon’s niece, Claire Yardley (yes, she likes perfume), appears in town. Gideon has not seen her since she was a child and is a bit perplexed by her arrival. Claire is divorced after her husband had several affairs, and her father (Gideon’s brother) recently died. Her mother passed away some years before but Gideon did not attend either funeral and had no contact with his relatives. Claire has come looking for some answers: why did Gideon abandon his brother? And why does he loathe the family so?

In a slow dance between these three characters – Gideon, Claire and Robert – we see layers of the past emerge and Claire’s early assumptions about her uncle are revised and made more complex, even as some of her questions remain unresolved. The town itself and echoes of past feuds and intrigues in its long history provide a backdrop to the interplay between Claire and the two men, and along the way we learn about some of the town’s characters and their own family sagas.

As well as getting to know Gideon in more depth, Claire uncovers differing judgements about Gideon’s art and his status in the art world. He is an aficionado of classical art and implacably opposed to modernism in all its forms. Claire does not share his attitude but she does come to respect his determination and self-assurance. They are qualities that both she and Robert have in far too little measure.

This is a very long novel and written in a clear, if pedestrian, style. There are many digressions that slow down the plot and add little or nothing to the story. Almost every mention of an animal leads to a description of it that reads like something from a school textbook. The same happens with mentions of buildings, Gideon’s paintings or famous old citizens of Castelluccio: we are fed information that would not sit out of place in an earnest but dull guidebook. It is difficult to see what Jonathan Buckley was intending with this odd approach.

There are twelve chapters, each divided into twelve numbered sections (yes, I know that sounds gross), and this straitjacket means the flow of the story is often broken. Many of the sections follow a standard form, opening with a tangential event before turning to the main point. Two-thirds of the way through I began to find this tiresome, reducing my enjoyment of the story.

In sharp detail, Buckley captures the small town atmosphere, the interweaving of lives and the rather sad asylum that Gideon and Robert have carved out for themselves, but more focus on the main characters and letting them tell the story would have made this a stronger novel. Too much of the narrative is drearily didactic and the result is that the world of Castelluccio always remains at arm’s length – interesting, but failing to stir the emotions.

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