Forever Nude, By Guy Goffette

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The Independent Culture

If you can overlook the dodgy title, this diverting novelette proves a nostalgia-filled introduction to the work of French artist, Pierre Bonnard. Related in brief, impressionistic chapters, Guy Goffette, a Belgian poet, re-imagines the life of a painter now best known for his dreamy depictions of women at their toilette.

At the heart of the novel lies Bonnard's relationship with his wife and long-time muse, Marthe de Meligny. The two met by chance in 1893, when Bonnard, a 26-year-old lawyer spotted a young woman having trouble crossing the busy Boulevard Haussmann. The mid-traffic encounter proved pivotal, and for the next 50 years, despite a succession of marital crises, Marthe became Bonnard's favourite model. Don't expect any post-modern insights into the couple's relationship. Goffette's meditative account (translated by Frank Wynne) concentrates on matters artistic. The diminutive Toulouse-Lautrec makes regular appearances, while Marthe hides in the bedroom to avoid Bonnard's more pretentious pals. Goffette evokes Bonnard's oils in soft-focus prose, devoting an entire chapter to the artist's fascination with black stockings - "the Eiffel Tower is a woman's leg in a fishnet" - and Marthe's "rounded derrière".

The last act of Bonnard's life is not a pleasant one. Following Marthe's death in 1942, the artist went into slow decline, his considerable estate fought over by Marthe's four surviving nieces. Rudely dismissed as "a piddle" by arch-detractor Picasso, here Bonnard receives the more poetic write-up he deserves.