The small Tuscan town of Castelluccio is preparing for its annual festival, a spectacular pageant in which a leading role will be taken by the self-exiled English painter Gideon Westfall. A man proudly out of step with modernity, Westfall is regarded by some as a maestro, but in Castelluccio - as in the wider art world - he has his enemies, and his niece - just arrived from England - is no great admirer either. And a local girl is missing, a disappearance that seems to implicate the artist.
But the life and art of Gideon Westfall form just one strand of Nostalgia, a novel that teems with incidents and characters, from religious visionaries to folk heroes. Constantly shifting between the panoramic and the intimate, between the past and the present, Nostalgia is a fiction into which are woven the kaleidoscopic narratives of art, architecture, history, legend and much more.
Praise for Nostalgia
Publishing, as everyone knows, is a classic winner-takes-all system, in which a few big names dominate at the expense of everyone else. English fiction, in particular, continues to reflect closely the functioning of the English class system: a small group at the top table demands so much of our time and attention that we seem incapable of admitting that anyone else produces work of any interest or value.
Nonetheless, Buckley continues to write fiction as if it mattered . . . Nostalgia is his eighth novel, and is as strange, as nuanced and as peculiar as everything else he’s done, and certainly as good as anything by the dozen or so big brand names of contemporary Eng Lit.
The hook of the book is the story of Gideon Westfall, an English painter who has long been living in a small Tuscan town, Castelluccio, and who may or may not be implicated in the disappearance of a young girl, Ilaria, who has been working for him as a model. Gideon has an assistant, Robert Bancourt, “a disenchanted former student of art”, who dutifully answers Gideon’s emails, deals with dealers, and keeps away unexpected and unwanted visitors. One such visitor, Claire Yardley, turns out to be Westfall’s niece. There are various family scores to settle and rifts to heal. Gideon, Robert and Claire form an intriguing trio at the centre of the book, but the real interest lies elsewhere, in Buckley’s panoramic depiction of the town of Castelluccio itself. Nostalgia is a novel that comes close to being a guidebook for a place that does not exist.
Or rather, which does and does not exist . . . Castelluccio is no
Oz, no Earthsea or Laputa: it’s not a place of fantasy. It’s more like
Hardy’s Wessex, or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha – a place both imagined
and disguised . . . One character in the novel is described as having
a head that’s a “magnet for facts”. Nostalgia is the novel as magnet.
While written in the understated style that critics of Jonathan Buckley’s seven previous novels have so admired, Nostalgia is rather more ambitious in scope. Its main plot concerns Castelluccio’s most famous resident, an English artist called Gideon Westfall – a defiant exponent of the classical tradition working in self-imposed exile – who, out of the blue, receives a visit from his niece . . . But Gideon and Claire’s situation is only one aspect of a panorama that takes in the lives of many locals – among them the aloof Danish composer Albert Guldager; the smooth, well-dressed Father Fabris; and Gideon’s best friend Carlo Pacetti, a former mechanic renowned for his conspiracy theories – as well as the town’s architecture, folklore and wildlife. Interwoven are accounts of Gideon’s work; some observations come from critics and interviewers whose writings are “reproduced” here . . .
Buckley has said in relation to this novel that he is fascinated by
twentieth-century music that is “rich in incident while being underpinned
by a mathematically rigorous structure.” Perhaps Nostalgia owes its
framework to Arnold Schoenberg, who is quoted in the epigraph and whose
twelve-tone serialism ensured that each chromatic note of the octave
was given equal weight. It certainly works on the reader like a symphony:
discursive yet ordered, its many strands held together by an intelligence
that is broad in its sympathies and finely attuned to absurdity and
pathos. Even an informative chapter on the Italian cypress takes on
an emotional resonance in this context. . . .
Gideon, we learn, “is prone to nostalgia, as is everyone, but his nostalgia is not for his own life – it’s for a more distant past, a Golden Age that perhaps never existed”. According to one of his critics, his mind has been “disabled” by it. But his mind is something of an enigma. Is he really a great artist? What lies beneath the pomposity and self-obsession? While those aspects of his character are a strong source of comedy, the picture is gradually complicated by small details. At a late stage in the book, Claire notices with surprise that Gideon, that inveterate deliverer of monologues, has remembered everything she’s ever told him about her job; and our sympathy is piqued by a quiet premonition of his death: “In the ambulance, as the paramedics work on him, he will speak these words: ‘Nobody knows what has really been at the centre of my life’”.
According to Father Fabris, nostalgia is sometimes “only sentimentality
. . . But sometimes it is a beginning”. Even if we’re never quite sure
why – perhaps it is partly thanks to Nostalgia’s depth and range, which
are somehow moving in themselves – this book leaves us thinking of
Gideon more in terms of the latter.
THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
Gideon Westfall lives in the Tuscan town of Castelluccio, working
away at his defiantly old-fashioned figurative painting. His well-ordered
life is troubled when his niece arrives from England, questioning why
he’s turned his back on his family, and is further troubled when one
of his models vanishes. Aside from these mysteries, Buckley’s novel
is impressive for its meditation on art and its rich descriptions .
. . The book is filled with plausible information – conjuring up the
fictitious town, with its history and fauna, and Gideon’s career, with
reviews and interviews – showing Buckley to be a quietly brilliant
writer, almost eccentric in his craftsmanship.
THE SUNDAY TIMES
By its poignant conclusion, this affecting, inventive novel is enough
to make you hunt down Buckley’s previous works if this is the first
time you have come across him
THE SUNDAY HERALD.
Jonathan will be participating in a discussion of his novel Nostalgia at Much Ado Books (8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UX), at 3pm on July 14th. Further details can be had at the Book Group web page
by Jonathan Buckley
Sunday Times - Book of the Year
A novel consisting of a journal written by a dying man disabled and disfigured by a rare disease sounds an unlikely candidate for the year’s liveliest and most elating read. But Buckley’s extraordinary tour de force is just that. Responding to the world around him with creative zest, its narrator brims with relish and perceptiveness. Verbal bravura, sardonic wit, and keen and funny insights embellish his pages. Mortality may shadow the book but it radiates vitality. (Sunday Times 27/11/2011)
Daniel Brennan, approaching the premature end of his life, retreats to a room in his brother’s suburban house. To divert himself and to entertain Ellen, his carer, he writes the journal that is Telescope, blurring truth, gossip and fiction in vignettes of his own life and the lives of those close to him. Above all he focuses on his siblings: mercurial Celia, whose life as a teacher in Italy seems to have run aground, and kindly Charlie, the entrepreneur of the family.
Enriched with remarkable observations on topics ranging from tattoos and Tokyo street fashion to early French photography, Telescope is a startlingly original and moving book, a glimpse of the world as seen by a connoisseur of vicarious experience.
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