Gas lights and red crabs under a yellow moon

A novel about the artists and intelligentsia of war-time France is ruined by too much chat, says Carol Birch; Matisse's War by Peter Everett Cape, pounds 15.99

In its long and chequered history the novel has taken many forms but this is the first time I've encountered it in the guise of reference book. If you are interested in the intellectual, social and artistic elite in France during the Second World War, they are all here - Matisse, Picasso, Malraux, Bonnard, Aragon, Cartier-Bresson, Coco Chanel, Hemingway, Breton...

These are a few of the big names. The problem is, it's impossible to keep track of the literally hundreds of less illustrious names that are paraded through these pages. The book cries out for an index. When, for example, towards the end of the book you read of the death in Auschwitz of Daniele and Maie Politzer, you have a vague recollection of their appearance somewhere amongst the 300-odd pages; but you can't for the life of you muster much more than the fact that their names ring a bell. They probably joined in a three-page formal discussion on life, art or politics, then vanished. For of such the book largely consists.

Matisse, at 70, keeps his head down, pursuing a course of resolute non- involvement and worrying about the problems of getting art materials in wartime ("There is no joy to equal that of buying a kilo of blue pigment, or of yellow ochre; even of black."). "My function is to paint," Matisse goes on to declare, "not to bear witness."

The surrealist poet, Louis Aragon, and his wife Elsa Triolet join the Resistance. Aragon fights, witnessing the horrors of combat first-hand. And the war drags on. Matisse, we are told, "gave up seeking to extract the meaningful at the time as he gave up any interest in the audience's anticipation of narrative." Everett's book mirrors this.

Matisse's War is highly stylised, consisting of numerous short, unrelated sections through which the vast cast drifts, endlessly talking shop.

And how they talk. Like well-rehearsed guests in a studio discussion, like voice-overs for a highbrow documentary, they enlighten, inform, conjecture; flawless speeches are delivered word perfect, so long and textual that sometimes you lose the sense of the spoken word altogether and are pulled up short by the sudden incongruity of an inverted comma at the end of several weighty paragraphs. Everybody sounds the same.

Somewhere here there is a novel trying to get out. There is an old man worried about the effects of barbarism on his work, the patient ennui of ageing lovers, scenes of horror and pathos and the chronic disorder of war. The writing is polished and formal, the descriptions of Matisse's paintings glow: "My moon is yellow with a red spiral. You can see Antibes in the upper left of the painting; gas lamps light the sea to lure the fish, and a crab hangs on the rocks." But every novelistic shoot is drowned in an ocean of information.

Peter Everett is an erudite man, his research meticulous, but Matisse's War would have been a far more successful book if he had not tried to include everything. So great are his efforts to shoehorn in yet one more fact about the period, one more newspaper reference, that whole scenes and conversations seem contrived purely for this purpose. So great is the control that variation is banished, and the same tone conveys passion, pain, joy and outrage. Somehow, despite the depicted brightness of the Matisse canvases, all is monotone.

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