In Love and War
352 pages, £14.99
“‘Florence.’ The pilot turns in his seat and winks, as if the flight is a secret or a first. Esmond repeats the word in his mind and releases a shiver.” Preston opens his novel with showman-like ostentation, thrusting the novel’s subject centre stage: ‘Florence’. Irresistibly, he charts the infectious excitement the city inspires: first the pilot names the city, then Esmond repeats it mentally. The next link in the chain of excited repetition, Preston implies, is the reader. Like his pilot, Preston fizzes with impatience to whisk the reader into the skies of narrative. Understandably too: the adventures of a bisexual British fascist running a radio station in Florence on the eve of the Second World War provide an indisputably great idea for a novel. The sheer virtuosic originality of the scenario is a magnificent rebuke to every wannabe novelist struggling to think of a decent plot. Preston rightly joys in unveiling this world to his readers. He plays with the narrative view-finder, focusing in and out, offering the reader strange glimpses before finally allowing a scene to clarify, piece by piece. Esmond’s physiognomy is revealed through a semi-competent drawing of him by his sister; his intellectual character is hinted at by the books that bounce off the back of his head in an episode of turbulence. These are the novel’s best moments and it is noteworthy that they are inspired by Preston’s excitement at his concept; as the novel progresses it is impossible to escape the feeling that he is unable to summon an equal enthusiasm for its execution.
Esmond is the son of Sir Lionel Lowndes, a British Union of Fascists big wig and friend of Oswald Mosley, ambitious for his son’s career on the far right of European politics. Unfortunately Esmond’s artistic and sexual inclinations are at odds with his father’s plans. He is sent down from Cambridge after being found in bed with his best friend Philip, and packed off to Florence to start an English radio station with the aim of fostering sympathy between the peoples of Britain and Italy. 1930s Florence, though, has richer pleasures for a young man. Esmond quickly takes up with a group of aesthete dilettantes and spends the first portion of the novel enjoying threesomes, picnics in the Tuscan countryside and lunch with Bernard Berenson. Unfortunately, history intervenes. War breaks out and the plot gathers pace; Esmond is drawn into the Italian resistance. Sex and chianti are swapped for shoot-outs and car chases.
In a neat conceit, the novel’s central ‘historical’ matter is told through the sort of material a modern historian might root up in an archive: letters, telegrams, and Esmond’s audio diary efficiently sketch the events of the war and the growing success of the radio station. In these sections the story fairly trips along. However, the cursory manner in which these ‘bridging’ sections routinely despatch years of history in the space of only a few pages suggest a lack of real authorial involvement in the book’s narrative. The feeling is unavoidable even in the novel’s lushest set pieces. Towards the end of the novel Esmond and Ada, his resistance lover, are holed up in an attic at the magnificent Villa l’Ombrellino in the hills outside Florence. It is a fantastically romantic invention. And Preston summons a range of charming details: the lovers install a triptych by Fillipino Lippi at the end of their bed and spend the long winter dressing up in the old-fashioned clothes of the villa’s previous occupants, dancing to their old records, drinking their fine wine. Such episodes, though, tend to draw attention to a thinness in Preston’s prose that fails to match the superfluity of his invention, resulting (to paraphrase David Jones) in a certain ‘sterile ornament and pasteboard baldachin’ quality. The problem may have its roots in Preston’s admiration off J.M. Coetzee; many Coetzee hallmarks are evident in the novel: love of the present tense, abundant allusion, and short sentences. However, the austere, reflective style that evoked so well the deprivation and loneliness of a young man coming of age in post-war London in Coetzee’s novel Youth seems ill matched to gorgeous, adventure-packed wartime Florence. In luxurious set pieces like Esmond and Ada’s winter at l’Ombrellino it is hard to feel Preston is convinced by his narrative or seeing Florence anew when he tells us tritely that the lovers watch the “sun stroll from rooftop to rooftop”. Metaphorical inadequacy also leads to moments of unintentional humour, as when they hear their snow-packed roof “groaning like a whale in the night” (I imagined a roof-stranded cetacean uttering Marge Simpson groans of frustration). Such descriptive lapses contribute to the feeling that Preston is unable to sustain serious interest in his narrative beyond those initial sparkling ideas.