During modules on European Literature(s) at university, I often felt that the novels I read had started with the ideas, that the characters were there primarily to explore philosophical avenues of thought and living. By contrast, the majority of British and American writers I was encountering seemed to be putting characterisation first, building their story out of a situation. Neither approach is better than the other, but I think they do tend to produce writings with very different flavours.
I had no real knowledge of the writer or her novel when I picked up Poets, Artists, Lovers for the first time. I like to come to a new novel by a new writer (for me at least) without any preconceptions – as far as this is possible. As I read it, my over-riding feeling was that this is primarily a novel of ideas – big ideas, spanning classical music, philosophy, sculpture. Tudor’s characters, a coterie of interlocking pairings of musicians, writers and artists, live their lives and make their choices according to their desires and their intellectual discussions. I felt that the European/Anglo-American distinction seems to be borne out by Tudor’s novel which, I finally allowed myself to check, is set in Romania – it’s ambitious and grand in its aims, although I sometimes wanted the characters to be more than vehicles for arguments about sensations and experiences. However, the lines of argument they pursue are undoubtedly interesting, and Tudor has obviously thought deeply about this aspect of her novel.
Whilst one or two of her lines jar a little with a breezy casualness, there are some beautiful lines and observations here. One of the characters, Anca, writes a poem called Tell Me which, ‘considered whether life is ever more than swapping in a kitchen over a poor man’s meal shared threeways, each bite charmed with sunlight and music.’ Elsewhere, we’re told that, ‘for the first two years after their mother’s passing, even as they lived together, the sisters avoided each other – and avoided facing their past, even as they dealt with it in their work.’ At her best, Tudor is beautifully simple in her expression.
One of the more marginalised characters tells his girlfriend, ‘I want to understand why people do what they do.’ This is something which seems to exercise most of Tudor’s characters. Most of the relationships evolve around the enigmatic Panfil, who seems to collect women who play the piano, but I felt that the more convincing conversations took place between Tudor’s female characters, in particular between the sisters, Henriette and Alice, even if some of the romantic intellectual atmosphere was diminished by the later focus on weight loss and diets. I didn’t need so much detail about their clothes – this seemed at odds with the philosophical and artistic discussions being had – but I liked the emphasis on food and cooking, another sensory element in her narrative.
The one key issue I struggled with was the shifts in time. Whilst they do add to our sense of the characters’ histories together, I sometimes found it hard to keep up and, because some of the male characters are quite lightly dealt with, I often struggled to keep them in sight at times.
Ultimately, this is an ambitious exploration of the lives of young bohemians who are driven by their desires and minds. It isn’t always the most coherent of narratives but it is interesting and I think Tudor is a writer to watch in the future.
My thanks to the author for providing a free copy for an honest review.