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

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STILL LIFE
By Sarah Winman

Historical fiction hits closest to the bone when it illuminates what we know to be true: that we move through capital-H History, but in each moment, the spotlight shines brightest on the unremarkable details of our own lives. Momentous events occur, and sometimes we’re caught up in them, but we are — simultaneously, inescapably — the main characters in our own stories. Sarah Winman’s sweeping “Still Life” is a parade of small stories, intimate connections and complex characters whose lives illuminate the tedium and cataclysms of the 20th century.

Ulysses Temper is the modest, searching, wandering protagonist. (We’re told early that he’s named after a winning greyhound, but sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.) We meet him as a young soldier in Italy in 1944; almost immediately he crosses paths with Evelyn Skinner, a 64-year-old lover of life and an enthusiastic art historian. She imparts life-changing wisdom about love and art and the city of Florence. Their paths diverge, and he takes her words with him back to London, where he resumes working at a pub. Soon enough, Ulysses and his makeshift family — his ex-wife’s young daughter, Alys; his friend Cress; and a talking parrot named Claude — move to Italy, where Ulysses has inherited a large apartment that they convert into a thriving pensione. Cress, who was able to communicate with trees in London, can also communicate with trees in Italy.

It’s hard to encompass all that happens in this whopper of a book, partly because it spans four decades (and more than 450 pages), but even more so because much of it is just the stuff of life, suffused with copious dialogue so casual and idiomatic that it almost subverts its own demand for attention. Ulysses’ wife, Peg, falls in love with another soldier; she gets pregnant. Ulysses continues to love Peg and eventually raises the child on his own, since Peg is not fit for motherhood. One character finds love in his golden years. Another finds love early, and nothing else compares. During the war, Ulysses saved a life in Florence. Some years later, he is repaid for his kindness.

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    What holds these characters together is the love of a chosen family and the role of art in maintaining their commitments to one another. Much of the story takes place in Florence, and one particular capital-H Historical moment is the 1966 flood of the Arno, during which millions of books and works of art were destroyed, and countless livelihoods were obliterated — each, Winman reminds us, meaningless without the other.

    The novel’s articulation of faith is spoken by Evelyn, who rhapsodizes in the early pages, “Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgment.” This is a theme that runs through the novel, and it’s a bold authorial move, insisting upon the transformative power of aesthetics. Winman makes the case over and over again that beauty is truth, truth beauty, and of course it raises the reader’s expectations. If the book itself isn’t transcendent, the scaffolding will not hold.

    But the scaffolding, for the most part, does hold (although I could have done without the talking parrot, who seems to have flown in from another story). The real magic of “Still Life” is the elevation of the ordinary, the unabashed consecration of human experiences.

    Early in the novel, after Ulysses’ wife asks for a divorce, and then sleeps with him, he ruminates on the scope of his life: “Somewhere between an atom and a star was this.” He orders a meal: “He asked her what the specials were, and she moved close to his ear. Tortellini in brodo, she purred. It was as erotic a moment as he’d had in years. He felt giddy and stumbled against the chair.” These are humans in orbit, connected by the staying power of heartbreak and kindness. And here is Winman describing an ordinary Italian summer day: “Golden light edged around the dark gray clouds and Cress used the phrase ‘unconscionable beauty’ in describing the garden. Cress was becoming poetry.”

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

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