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Novel set across 20th Century PARIS (Montparnasse)

23rd February 2021

Loving Modigliani by Linda Lappin, novel set across 20th Century PARIS (Montparnasse)

Novel set across 20th Century PARIS

I think many people will have heard of the artist Amedeo Modigliani but few will have heard of Jeanne Hébuterne, his common law wife and mother to his child. I studied art history and had never heard of her until now. The author has chosen to set this woman centre stage in her novel. Hébuterne too was an artist but somehow never shone, as she lived her short life in the shadow of her husband, who was, at times, a feckless womaniser but a man with incredible talent.

The book is divided into different sections and the first one features Jeanne after she took her own life in 1920 (at age 22 and pregnant with their second child), just a couple of days after Modigliani died of meningitis. The story opens as she is lying dead on her death bed, observing the procession of people who are involved in the aftermath of her death. From where she lies, she is aghast at the pilfering of her personal belongings, yet she can do nothing. After interment, she descends into the underworld where she searches for Modigliani.  The narrative bowls along, with an impressive monochrome visual palette adding a real sense of bleakness, as she navigates her way among the dead souls, a mass of humanity. She is tried for the sin of suicide and eventually finds her way back to the surface where time has moved on and the Nazis have arrived in her home city. She discovers that Modigliani’s work is being censured, appearing in exhibitions of degenerate art.

I am not generally drawn to novels where the afterlife is part of the narrative but I felt this worked well, it is very atmospherically rendered and I found it very readable.

It is 1981 and an art history student has arrived in Paris, researching Manuel Ortiz de Zarate, who happened to live in the same building as Hébuterne and Modigliani, and she is seduced by the story she hears about Hébuterne: maybe some of the works of Modigliani were perhaps – at least in part – attributable to her? She is now on a quest to discover more.

The story continues and more is revealed about Hébuterne’s life. The author is incredibly good at evoking the sense of time and place and I felt transported back to early 20th Century Paris. I think it is wonderful that such a little known female artist has been given centre stage in this novel.

Here the author writes a piece for Travel Writing World about the setting of her novel, Montparnasse.

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