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.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders