Henry James once said novels deal with the “palpable present-intimate” and the two novels I’ve been reading this month, this and The Night Watch, are both massively successful at enthralling through an intimacy of observation. Both novels are set during WW2, both are superbly researched, soundly constructed, character-driven and intelligently eloquent without indulging in any literary sleights of hand or innovative technique. In short, both are excellent examples of riveting straightforward storytelling.
The Way Back to Florence is an eloquently written and moving WW2 novel set predominantly in Florence, Italy. It focuses on three characters all of whom are forced by the dictates of fascism to forge identity in different ways. One of the novel’s themes is the struggle to preserve identity – as bombs drop and the outward world changes its shape it becomes increasingly difficult for the characters to keep their inner shape. Memory, of course, is the medium of identity and the precarious nature of memory plays a big part in the narrative. “Florence exists to educate our memory,” says one character. War, in this novel, constantly threatens to erase memory. Isabella, a painter and the novel’s central female character, observes while looking at bomb damage – “The ripped open houses with their exposed arrangements, their laid bare secrets, are like portraits. Each one has its own individual facial expression. More identity is on display in the midst of the destruction. More intimacy. It makes her realise how vulnerable these achievements are. Identity. Intimacy.”
Her husband Freddie’s sense of self is represented by a portrait of him painted by Isabella and the fate of this painting will mirror in many ways the fate of Freddie himself. Paintings, an emblem of the transcendent power of memory, are often lost or defaced or forged in this novel. Freddie and Isabella meet at a Florentine art school where they study together. They forge their romantic bond during breaks when they go and sit in the nearby English cemetery – not the most auspicious place to put down roots. By 1943 they have become memories to each other. “She steps out of the silver dress and takes a simple black dress from the wardrobe where some of Freddie’s clothes still hang. She tries to remember if Freddie began buttoning his shirt from the top or the bottom. She tries to remember him tying his shoelaces. The images she sees of her husband nowadays are washed out and ghostly as if consisting predominantly of reflected light.”
It’s also a novel about displacement and the concurrent yearning for homecoming. War, while ostensibly defending the concept of home, also of course threatens its very existence. The measure of war’s ability to remove all the securities of home is a constant feature of this novel, most chillingly when the narrative takes us to the death camps of Mauthausen and Auschwitz.
It begins with Freddie Hartson, a Lancaster bomber pilot, who is told in the briefing hut that tonight’s mission is Florence. Florence, we learn, is where his wife, a painter, lives. The target is not far from the art school where he met Isabella and where his former teacher still works. He has to drop bombs on his own home. Before every operation he has to write a farewell letter to Isabella, his wife, in case he doesn’t return. “When he thinks of his wife now it is like walking barefoot down steps to the sea at night. A secretive act. A moment of wonder he treats with caution as though shielding a buffeted flame.”
Life at the station and especially on board the aircraft is vividly evoked, especially the bomb run itself with all its perils and mayhem – “The radar directed flak intensifies. Like swarms of angry red-and-yellow-eyed snakes slithering up invisible ropes in the sky. The sky around them is a glittering maelstrom of light. The stars pale into insignificance. Down below the city is lit up in sections as shockwaves fan out in kaleidoscopic bursts. Shell smoke rising up from the ground. On his right a burst of flame and a thick guttering of black smoke lit up by the geometry of the searchlights.” Provides a moving insight into what those men went through – the dangers of ops over Germany, the fears, but also the moving nature of the fellowship shared by these airmen. There are some memorable scenes too, like when, in thick fog, they nearly land the aircraft on a Luftwaffe base in France, thinking England is below and when they have to crash land in the North Sea. Freddie has a shaming secret.
Isabella is painting when the bombs fall. Later, an SS officer takes a fancy to Isabella at a party and confides that it is his job at present to find two famous paintings that Mussolini has promised to Hitler but that have gone missing. Isabella’s teacher will later persuade her to forge one of these paintings, Pontormo’s portrait of St Anthony, patron saint of lost things. Meanwhile Isabella has had a brief guilty fling with a member of the resistance and has to rely on the SS officer when she is arrested by the sinister Fascist secret police. The tension mounts as she plays a dangerous game.
The third central character is Oskar, a friend of Freddie and Isabella’s from their pre-war time together at a Florence art school. He’s a German Jew whose sense of self is bound up in protecting his young daughter. When his wife is caught in the Paris round-up of Jews Oskar manages to escape with his daughter. He makes his way south to Italy but his arrival coincides with the Nazi occupation of Italy. Needless to say, the Gestapo is never far away. The author does a great job of making you fearful for Oskar and Esme.
Florence, the city, is the novel’s other major character. We get a beautifully visual portrait of the city where I live. “The sky is a virginal blue translucence as though bereft for a fleeting moment of the effects of both light and darkness. A crimson streak smoulders over the outline of the hills, a simmering bloodline. There is a solitary canoe on the water. A cold white sheen rises from the water. She holds her breath. As if to stop any more time from passing, to stop the future happening. The peacefulness of the morning is almost heartbreaking in its fragility.”
There’s also a lot of warmth and wit in this novel, momentum and vitality. It’s written with lots of heart and an imagination at high tide. And we encounter both the kindness and cruelty of strangers in the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that exists in an occupied country. One scene particularly when a woman makes her young son cajole a little Jewish girl into church to see if she crosses herself. The woman has her eye on the reward offered for information on fugitive Jews.
Architecturally it plays safe. Emphasis is on storytelling – following a straightforward flight plan, rather like the flight plans of the Lancasters themselves when they set off on an operation. It’s not a novel of versatile innovation or structural sleights of hand. It abides by its limits and as a result is a thoroughly engaging novel pulsing with moments of high tension, poignant sadness and life affirming beauty which also at times illuminates some of the more shrouded areas of human motive