Review: Vivien Horler
Still Life, by Sarah Winman (4th Estate)
Two chance encounters in and near Florence in 1944, as the allied forces retake the city, will shape the life of a young British soldier forever.
Private Ulysses Temper – whose father named him after a winning greyhound – first meets British art historian Evelyn Skinner a few nights before Florence is liberated. She has come to the area to make contact with the Allied Military Government and help salvage art treasures which have been hidden all over the countryside.
Ulysses gives Evelyn a lift in his jeep to a villa where his boss, Captain Darnley, and various other troops have uncovered not only a number of art treasures, but also a cellar full of wine the Germans had overlooked.
Darnley is distinctly under the weather (“Temps, we’ve been drinking all bloody day. I think I’ve drunk myself sober.” Ulysses: “Not yet you haven’t, sir.”). But Darnley too is knowledgeable about art, and over two bottles of red, with Ulysses listening avidly, Darnley and Evelyn discuss priceless masterpieces and beauty and truth and their importance to the world.
Evelyn, who is in her 60s and has had a love affair with Florence all her life, tells Ulysses to open his heart to city. “Things happen there, if you let them. Wonderful things.”
Days later, Ulysses is driving Darnley into Florence when he is told to stop the car in a small piazza. “You need to spend time in this city, Temps. I promised Miss Skinner, didn’t I? But back before nightfall.”
And so Ulysses finds himself wandering through lanes and alleyways and into a square dominated by a church. He sees a group of people gesturing wildly at a man on the roof of a building, who is clearly intending to jump.
And as Ulysses races up stairs to reach the man on the roof, he has his second chance encounter – and his life is changed for good.
Back in England after the war we meet the people who love Ulysses – his wife Peg, who it turns out is pregnant but not by Ulysses; Col who suffers from heartburn and runs the pub where Ulysses works; Cressy, a pub regular; Pete the piano player – oh and Claude, the blue-fronted Amazonian parrot who perches on the bar and is given to quoting Shakespeare.
Still Life is something of a saga, starting in mid-war and ending in Florence in the late 1970s when Evelyn is celebrating her 99th birthday. She is surrounded by all those who love her, who by this time include all the people who love Ulysses, such as Alys, Peg’s daughter, and a motley cast of another dozen or so people we’ve come to know and admire.
And during her party she tells her friends how she first came to Florence, unchaperoned, aged 21, and fell utterly in love for the first time
The characters in the novel are great, but perhaps the main character is Florence itself, golden, umber, its domes and churches and ancient paving stones glowing in the soft evening light.
Sarah Winman, author of the delightful When God was a Rabbit, has written a fabulous book, full of love and loss – but more love – and humour too. At their first meeting, Ulysses tells Evelyn how a sniper’s once bullet creased his face as he was lighting a cigarette. He says: “Nearly took my lips off, though. Then where would you be?”
To which Evelyn replies drily: “Struggling with my plosives, Private Temper.”