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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor