By the bestselling, prize-winning author of When God was a Rabbit and Tin Man, Still Life is a beautiful, big-hearted, richly tapestried story of people brought together by love, war, art, flood… and the ghost of E.M. Forster. Here, Sarah Winman introduces the novel to readers.
Set in Florence between the years 1944 and 1980, Still Life is the story of Ulysses Temper, one-time soldier and globe-maker and sexagenarian Evelyn Skinner, art historian and possible spy. Ulysses and Evelyn meet during the war, on a Tuscan roadside, where a chance encounter with a hidden Renaissance masterpiece becomes a defining moment in their lives.
It’s a novel about a flood, art, death, connection, opportunity, class. But ultimately, like all my books, it’s a story about love.
It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment when story and writer meet. Although my suspicions fall on a chance meeting at I’Brindellone, a neighbourhood restaurant near the Piazza del Carmine in Florence. It was January 2015. I was surrounded by empty tables littered with the remnants of feasting. The strong aroma of coffee in the air. I was alone and half-way through my late lunch when I noticed on the walls, photographs of the city underwater. The Piazza Santa Croce inundated, the statue of Dante rising from the mire. A city that looked, in that stark moment, more like Venice. I asked the manager about the photographs and he brought out a book called “L’Alluvione” – a photographic testament to the great flood that befell the city in November 1966.
That afternoon, I began to notice the flood markers on the sides of buildings. Seven feet here, eighteen feet there. Eventually I learnt that the flood water travelled at forty miles per hour and left behind a ton of mud for every citizen, a noxious mixture of heating oil and sewage that coated everything. Tens of thousands of people were made homeless, a third of the National Library’s collection was damaged and thousands of works of art too. Days later, into these scenes of despair and chaos came hundreds of young people to begin the clean-up. They would become known as the mud angels. In photographs, they’re wearing Sixties attire and are covered in mud, sitting on pavements against walls, smoking or handing around a bottle of wine. Their eyes glazed with exhaustion and meaning. And they saved paintings and books and they fell in love. Some stayed, others returned year after year to remember that sweet moment that defined their lives…
Out of all my books, this was the most joyful to write and certainly the most fun to research. To the booksellers who have been so generous over the years with your support, I hope you enjoy it.
We just need to know what the heart’s capable of, Evelyn.
And do you know what it’s capable of? I do. Grace and fury.
It’s 1944 and in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as the Allied troops advance and bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening together.
Ulysses Temper is a young British solider and one-time globe-maker, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and relive her memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.
These two unlikely people find kindred spirits in each other and Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.
Moving from the Tuscan Hills, to the smog of the East End and the piazzas of Florence, Still Life is a sweeping, mischievous, richly-peopled novel about beauty, love, family and fate.