Book reviews: Early One Morning by Virginia Baily

Author Virginia Baily. Picture: Contributed

Author Virginia Baily. Picture: Contributed

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Virginia Baily’s wonderfully-imagined Italian novel tells of love, responsibility and tangled emotions, writes Allan Massie

Early One MOrning

by Virginia Baily

Virago, 389pp, £12.99

After the Fall of Mussolini in the summer of 1943, the German Army occupied Rome. Virginia Baily’s second novel starts that October. Chiara Ravello, a young woman responsible for her epileptic sister, Cecilia, is preparing to leave the city to take refuge with her grandmother in the country. Venturing into the old Ghetto, she comes across the Jews being rounded up. A woman with a small boy looks at her imploringly. On an impulse Chiara claims the boy is her nephew, not a Jew at all. She gets away with it. The boy, Daniele Levi, is handed to her. He will never see his mother again. It is weeks before he will speak, months in the country before Chiara wins his confidence to any degree. She will love him as her son, and he will cause her much pain, great grief.

In the 1970s Chiara is living alone in the heart of the old city, just off Campo de’ Fiori. She works as a translator – her literary English is better than her spoken English – and her closest friend, Simone, was once her father’s mistress. One day she gets a telephone call from Wales: a girl, Maria, tells her Daniele was her father, though she has never met him. She wants to come to Rome to stay with Chiara, the only connection to Daniele she knows of (though she believes she was his landlady. The call is disturbing. Chiara doesn’t want to see the girl; that would bring back much that she has buried. But of course she eventually says “yes”.

The novel moves back and forward in time between the last months of the war in Italy and the Seventies. Its subjects are love and responsibility, both of which may be at once damaging and rewarding. Chiara gives her heart to the boy she has saved, and this comes close to breaking her. A single act, a moment’s impulse, has determined her life. She is a wonderfully imagined character who rings absolutely true.

In contrast, Maria is uninteresting, a necessary convenience, and one thinks that some of the passages where she is centre-stage might with advantage have been shortened.The war years – the journey from Rome and the months spent at the grandmother’s – are exceptionally well done. It is a time when everything in life is provisional, when you are never free from fear, when even apparently well-meaning strangers may provoke alarm. There is tension even though, because this is told in flashback, you know that Chiara and Daniele at least will survive these months at the grandmother’s small farm. Nevertheless there are other deaths, and one at least will weigh heavily on Chiara’s conscience.

For some, the chief pleasure of this admirable novel will be the evocation of Rome. Virginia Baily evidently knows the centre of the city very well; she shows how Romans live their lives in compartments, openly and socially in the streets, piazzas, bars and cafes, privately and excludingly at home.

There is comedy in the relations between Chiara and Simone, and the relationship of the free-thinking Chiara with her loyal, devout and often disapproving maid, Assunta.

Anyone familiar with Rome will delight in following Chiara’s movements about the city. She is a true Roman, infuriating and delightful. Her life has been difficult, but even in her lowest moments one is aware of her vitality. She has paid the price of devoting herself to another who has done her great damage which she cannot regret. In the end the girl Maria, whom she has received so reluctantly, will enable her to repair the damage.

Virginia Baily is a natural novelist; she even makes the normally irritating present-tense narrative acceptable. She has a keen eye and ear, and, best of all, an understanding of the vagaries of feeling. She knows, for instance, how closely gratitude and resentment may be linked; how much harder it may be to receive love than to give it.

She cherishes the details of daily life and this gives the novel so much of its vitality, but it is her ability to evoke tangled emotions and present them convincingly that makes her book remarkable.

Graham Greene, who himself possessed this gift, gave one of his novels an epigraph from Conrad: “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost”.The tie Chiara has formed – a tie which has in a sense and in her memory been forced irrevocably upon her – does indeed come close to destroying her. She suffers what is a sort of breakdown in middle life. Yet this same tie is what sustains her, serves as the justification of her being. So this novel really comes to a denial or refutation of Conrad’s melancholy dictum; what damages you may also make you stronger and wiser. Chiara didn’t want Maria to visit, thought several times of cancelling the invitation but hesitated to do so. Yet it is the girl’s presence which enables her to unlock the past, and perhaps come to terms with it.

The novel is so engrossing that I can’t imagine a reader caught up in the story who doesn’t hope that it will arrive at a happy ending. But it would be wrong for a reviewer to say whether it does or doesn’t – enough to say that the ending is justified.

ALLAN MASSIE

Think Like An Artist...And Lead A More Creative, Productive Life

by Will Gompertz

Penguin, 208pp, £9.99

There’s something about the title of this book that sets the teeth on edge. Is the BBC’s arts editor, you wonder, really going to try and distil all the wisdom he’s gleaned from interviewing some of the most creative people on the planet into a corporate-sounding self-help manual? But then you notice the way the title echoes the robot-speak in Radiohead’s dystopian 1997 track Fitter, Happier (“Fitter, happier, more productive…”) and it occurs to you that perhaps this is going to be a cunning spoof of a self-help manual in which Gompertz pretends to be addressing the avaricious CEOs of tomorrow while actually having fun at their expense.

But no, unless he’s being incredibly subtle, this really does seem to be a book about how “the ways of working and thinking that enable [artists] to excel creatively” can be “universally applied to anyone wanting to get creative”. So, with sincere apologies for having failed to turn this review into a Powerpoint presentation, let’s see how he gets on…

Even before he’s written his first sentence, Gompertz sets himself up for a fall with the sweeping generalisations of his chapter titles. By calling his first chapter “Artists Are Enterprising”, for example, he instantly paints himself into a corner, having to justify this first questionable statement with yet more questionable statements. “An enterprising outlook is essential for creative success,” he asserts, blithely excluding at a stroke many outsider artists for whom making money was never a motivation.

Indeed, there appears to be little room in Gompertz’s narrative for creatives who are not also cut-throat capitalists. Artists, he writes, “will beg and borrow to pay the rent on their studio, to buy the necessary materials, and to feed themselves during the long months of endeavour. All in the hope that they can sell their artwork at a price that will cover their costs and leave enough (profit) to reinvest in the next piece.” By this rationale, presumably the great Scottish outsider artist Angus MacPhee got himself locked up in an asylum on purpose so he could make art, free from financial constraints for 50 years. How ingenious.

The failures of logic continue into the second chapter, somewhat ironically entitled “Artists Don’t Fail,” in which Gompertz recounts how the poet John Betjeman left Oxford without a degree. “As we know, he subsequently wrote some of the twentieth century’s most enduring poems,” writes Gompertz. “Was he the failure at Oxford or the other way around?” Well, if Oxford had been in the business of assessing poetry in the late 1920s, you could perhaps argue that they had failed by failing Betjeman. They weren’t, though, so it’s a pointless thing to say.

Things do get better. The chapter “Artists Steal” has interesting things to say about how sparks of originality can be generated by bringing together disparate ideas, with reference to Picasso’s Blue Period.

Similarly, Gompertz’s visit to the studio of the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans in the chapter entitled “Artists Think Big Picture and Fine Detail” sheds fascinating light on how this particular artist is able to focus on the micro and the macro at the same time. (But do all artists do that, as implied by the chapter heading? It would be tricky to come up with a definitive answer without undertaking an almighty survey.)

Gompertz can’t be expected to justify every single statement he makes, but as the unqualified generalisations pile up it becomes difficult to take him seriously. There’s a worrying lack of rigour in the proofreading, too, which further undermines confidence. How the editors managed to muddle up a scene of First World War devastation by Otto Dix with a scene from Goya’s Disasters of War is a mystery probably best left unsolved.

There are some extremely worthwhile passages scattered throughout this book; it’s just a shame they couldn’t have been assembled with a little more precision.

ROGER COX

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