IN PRAISE OF BOOK CLUBS

I was contacted a few weeks ago by Diana Rendeki who belongs to the Thursday Book Club based in Ashford. She had picked my book The Return of the Courtesan for their next meeting and I was thrilled. I sent her an adapted version of a talk I gave recently at The Alderney Literary Festival about some of the real life characters that appear in my book: Titian, Pietro Aretino and Veronica Franco. It also gave some information about Venice in the sixteenth century, the setting for the historical part of the book. I also sent the group post cards of The Man with the Blue Sleeve and some pictures of Aretino and Veronica Franco. It was fun for me to be involved in this way. After all where would writers be without their readers?

The evening before they met Diana sent me this wonderful photo of a cake she had made.

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Diana’s spectacular cake!

I was so thrilled! There is the lovely Man with the Blue Sleeve sitting in a very beautiful black and gold gondola and floating above the delicate blue and gold bodice of the courtesan. I don’t think any book I have written has ever inspired a cake before. And since I am a devotee of cake I felt envious of their meeting…

They then also sent me this photo of the group on the night and gave me written feedback about the book:

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The Thursday Book Club

Diána: “I loved every single page of this beautiful novel. I am glad that I recommended it to the Book Club Members; it was lovely to hear from them that they enjoyed it and treasured it as much as I did.”
Rachel C.: “Fabulous book, off to Venice in June.”
Steph: “A fantastic read, I liked the combination of the old and the present day, as I read I kept thinking about how the different stories would link together. Made me want to visit Venice sooner rather than later! “
Barbara: “I enjoyed it but always struggle when there are so many “time zones” in a book.”
Alison: “I was swept up in the beautiful setting, history and story lines. I was sad when it ended – great book.”
Clair: “This book was so refreshingly different, it was so rich it was like drinking fine wine, full of colour, culture and heart warming characters that you really rooted for!”
Maddy: “I really enjoyed this book! It was a beautifully written look at humanity and all that binds us together. Loved it!xx”
Lindsey:  “I thought the writing was so evocative of the time and place – I was lucky enough to visit Venice last summer and that really helped me to picture some of the scenes. A thoroughly absorbing read. “

It was altogether a lovely experience for me to be involved with them. So hurrah for book clubs, the Thursday Book Club in particular and a big thank you to Diana for getting in touch with me in the first place.

Are you in a book club?

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WALKING WITH THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

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An afternoon walk with THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE is always enjoyable. Here he is worried that he might be outdone by some very beautiful wisteria … Of course nothing can be more beautiful than him …

handkerchief treeAnd here he is in contemplation of the handkerchief tree or if you’re that way inclined Davidia Involucrata, a deciduous tree from SW China that happens to be in my local park. Family Nyssaceae (don’t ever get me to spell that again).

If you want to visit him he will welcome your attendance in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He always has a lot to say for himself unless he’s on loan which is wearisome.

THE 2017 BOAT RACE

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Gerolamo Barbarigo by Titian 1510

The Man with the Blue Sleeve (Titian 1510) at the start of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in Putney a few days ago. Is that sleeve light blue or dark blue he wondered?  Today he decided it was light blue when the women raced (they won) and dark blue when the men raced (they won). He is a winner after all. But he wants to make it clear that he wouldn’t be seen dead in anything other than a gondola. And that he doesn’t like to exert himself in any way whatsoever. Well, that’s all clear then. Oh, and he knows you would like to buy my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN in which he figures in a very gratifying way. Buy it and you will find out all about him. He knows you want to. Or at least go and visit him in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He is definitely worth it.

THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE #2

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Venice – Home for The Man with the Blue Sleeve

Many thanks to all those who sent me their reactions to the painting of The Man With The Blue Sleeve. It was fascinating. Here is a summing up of your responses:

  • cocky, flirtatious, silky to the touch
  • good looking, a bit flirty but in a nice way, on closer inspection disgusted, contemptuous or perhaps hurt, vane, his eyes are different colours
  • fanciable, slightly naughty
  • cheeky looking, looks like he is up to no good
  • supercilious, far too good looking for his own good
  • full of revelations which are as yet hidden but not to me (I’m not sure about that but thanks for the thought!)
  • one of you had a poster of him hanging on your wall when you were a student which shows a level of good taste and sophistication sadly lacking in myself at that age
  • one of you had a mother who had a poster of him hanging in the dining room and apparently he frightened people because they said his eyes followed them around the room and since he was a dead person he must have been a ghost!

So my man has got about a bit. The man is certainly a member of the patrician class in Venice because that sleeve is probably breaking all the sumptuary laws going but he has the money to pay the fine. Titian was only about twenty when he painted him, so he would have been looking for rich patrons to support him and maybe that explains the rather contemptuous look on the man’s face. The Man with the Blue Sleeve at this point in the painter’s life is the one with the power, with the patronage. I think he looks like he’s had a night on the tiles. That eye is very pitted. Interestingly his eyebrows look as if they’ve been plucked. Later on in his career of course it was Titian who had the power and he had princes, popes, doges, kings and emperors queuing up to be painted by him.

It is fascinating and almost impossible, in a time when any one of us can pick up a phone and create an image of ourselves, to think of the power that a portrait had in the 16th century. You had to go to a lot more trouble and have a great deal more money to produce an image of yourself.

What happens in my book is that an actor who is undergoing an emotional crisis goes to visit the portrait and then a conversation ensues …

But you don’t think I’m going to tell you what he says, do you? I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait until January 26th to find out. All I can say is that when The Man with the Blue Sleeve speaks, it will be absolutely … No, I’m not even going to tell you that. But thank you all for taking part!

Do you have a favourite painting? One that you absolutely love. Tell me why.

Photo: courtesy of Letitia Blake 2016

THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE #1

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Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve

Ah, isn’t he lovely! This is Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve. A painting that has such a prominent place in my novel Titian’s Boatman that it is also its sub-title. The book is published at the end of January by Black and White publishing. This fine fellow was painted by Titian in 1510, when the painter was twenty years old and hangs in The National Gallery in London.

So this is the story of me and The Man with the Blue Sleeve and how he muscled his way into my novel.

I was between books. Never a good time. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, for whatever reasons, I need to write and I need to be working on a story and if I’m not the effect isn’t good and the effect is physical. It’s like having the ague. A more modern version would be that it’s like the first few days before you know you’ve definitely got the flu. You don’t feel ill enough to go to bed but you know something is going on and it’s not good. In the meantime you irritate everyone you come in contact with. I hesitate to quote Boris Johnson but I was definitely in a state that might best be described as a  whinge-o-rama. My partner had had enough of me, pointed at the door and said, ‘Be gone.’ So out I went.

There was a 22 bus and I got on it. The bus went into town and I got off at Piccadilly Circus. I wandered. There was The National Gallery. I went in and my wander took me, as it often does when I’m in this condition, to the room with the Titians, currently Room 2.

And there was The Man with the Blue Sleeve and I stood in front of him and stared and I realised I had been here many times before. And then I felt it, the thing that makes a writer know that this is the trigger, (the poncy word is donné) the thing that sparks the beginning of a novel. The thing that is given to you. There he was. There I was. And I knew my next novel was spluttering into life.

“We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.”

GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

It was only once I was up and running with the book and was telling people about it that I realised how many other people loved the painting. You have to develop a shorthand description for works in progress because often the simple truth is you have no idea what you’re doing but it’s embarrassing to say that because you sound like a driveling idiot.  So I started saying, ‘It’s about Titian and The Man With The Blue Sleeve’. ‘Oh, yes, isn’t he lovely?’ was a fairly common response or, ‘Oh yes, I love him.’ I was mildly miffed at times. Something that I thought was a private obsession was, I quickly realised, shared with the world and her husband. I was not alone in my adoration of The Man with the Blue Sleeve. He was everyone else’s man as well. Of course he was, he was a masterpiece.

Why him? Well, partly I think it’s because I’ve always been rather better one to one than in groups. It’s not that I don’t play well with others but my instinct has always been to the tête à tête. Those huge paintings with large amounts of religious or mythological symbolism make me feel overwhelmed, as if I’ve walked into a room filled with strangers talking in tight groups and they are not going to move one inch to welcome me or let me in. It’s a sort of sensory overload. There’s too much to look at and I feel I need to read a great many books to work out the symbolism. I’m OK with the distorted skull in the front of The Ambassadors. Yes, yes, we’re all going to die. That’s not hard but some of the others …

There’s a simplicity to looking at a portrait that I like. There’s not so much I feel I need to know to enjoy it. The date: 1510. The painter: Titian. Titian’s age: 20. That’s enough and then you can just get on with looking at him. There’s not much to distract you. And what do you see? No, seriously what do you see? What sort of man do you think you are looking at? What do you think he’s like? Fill my comment box below lovely people! I’m really curious to know what you think. And then I will do another post on my lovely man which uses your lovely comments as my jumping off point.

P.S. The painting has had various titles over the years: The Man with the Blue Sleeve, A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and finally Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, 1510. I eschew all those other than the one I’ve used above because that is what he was titled when I first encountered him and also I’ve never heard anyone call him anything other than The Man with the Blue Sleeve. I like the mystery and anonymity of it and it allows projection aplenty, always useful for a novelist.