In Nostalgia, Jonathan Buckley has done for the Tuscan town of Castelluccio what William Nicholson did for the Sussex town of Lewes (The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life) by writing a novel which captures the essence of people and place as he gently unpacks the life of its inhabitants for the delight of his readers.
The Castelluccio of Nostalgia is small enough to be a backwater, but large enough to have enough cafe’s, restaurants and other locations in which various social set-pieces can take place. The town is steeped in history, and the author regularly diverts into descriptions of people and events in the town’s past which together build up to make a fascinating background to the unfolding events which make up the novel.
Gideon Westfall is an elderly artist who has exiled himself from the London art-scene in protest at their rejection of the “representational art” which goes to make up the majority of paintings in galleries around the world. Critics describe Gideon’s paintings as “nostalgic”, and despite their popularity with wealthy purchasers around the world, they do not appear in any of the great London galleries. Customers commission his portraits because he knows how to create a likeness with just a touch of flattery which will lessen the effects of age, while still being recognisable. The work he produces without commissions sells equally well, with elegant and tasteful nudes predominating.
Gideon has an assistant, Robert Bancourt, a painter himself but one who realises that he will never make the grade as a professional artist. Robert deals with emails, contracts, websites. He makes frames for Gideon’s paintings and arranges exhibitions and other publicity in exchange for a reasonable salary and a near-perfect life in Tuscany.
One day, a woman arrives to see Gideon. At first Robert tries to turn her away, but she persists in demanding an appointment and on seeing Gideon announces that she is his long-lost niece, Claire Yardley. Claire’s father has recently died and she has found a number of family photographs of Gideon and his brother which she thinks may be of interest to Gideon. Claire knows that the two brothers fell out long before she was born, and in coming to Castelluccio she hopes to find out the background to this family rift.
Gideon is clearly reluctant to look at the photographs and while he is welcoming to his niece he is extremely evasive about the reasons for his falling out with his brother; “we were never close”. Claire is rebuffed when she tries to probe more deeply but Gideon seems pleased to find that she is staying on in Castelluccio for a few days and he arranges to meet her later in a local restaurant.
Over the next few days, Gideon and Robert show Claire around the small town and the local places of interest and Claire explores on her own using Gideon’s old car. Towards the end of the week she does in fact receive the revelation she desires about the two brothers but it is somehow deeply unsatisfying to her (although readers may think otherwise).
On the face of it, this may seem to be quite a thin premise on which to hang a novel but in some ways, Claire’s quest for the truth about her family is not the point of the book at all, for this is as much the story of Castelluccio and it’s people as it is the story of Gideon Westfall and his brother. We also have a minor mystery story going on in that one of Gideon’s young female models, Ilaria, has gone missing and her family are deeply concerned and wonder if Gideon knows anything about what happened to her.
Jonathan Buckley also spends a large part of the book going back into the history of Castelluccio and its people with countless little stories often going back centuries in time to early inhabitants of the town and the anecdotes surrounding them. This gives a timeless quality to the novel and slows down the whole reading process – it is tempting to pass over these but as I read them I found myself drifting into an almost timeless state of mind where the centuries seemed to roll by in an endless stream.
Another theme amply covered by the book is the debate in the art-world about the value of representational painting. Gideon is a neo-classicisist who cares deeply about his work. He seeks to uncover the soul of his subjects and devotes many hours of work to each portrait, caring deeply about light and form, while not forgetting the importance of knowing about pigments, canvases and the technicalities of painting. He suffered much at the hand of London art critics who seemed to be in thrall to “installations” and abstract works, deriding his own paintings as “anachronistic shit” despite their obvious quality as fine art.
Despite its extremely slow pace this is what might be called an “enchanting” novel. It is difficult to think of any other book which conveys such an elegant word-picture of a town and the people that live in it. Although it focuses on the artist and his associates, it travels far and wide and back in time, to build up an impression of this small town which is hard to forget. By the time I finished the book I felt I had been staying in Castelluccio myself, so vivid is the picture which builds up in the mind.
Nostalgia is published by Sort Of Books and is currently available on Kindle at a bargain price despite it’s newness.