I am not sure to whom this quote is attributable, but whoever said that Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be got it right. Seeing the glazed expression on my guitar-playing son’s face as his parents reminisced about 70s concept albums made me feel like I’d reached another of life’s milestones: complain to the next generation about the present not matching up to the past. Tick box. I guess it is just part of the human condition to insist that the grass, or someone else’s grass is – or rather was – greener, and that better barbecues, juicier gossip, profounder insights, better dressed women and funnier jokes all took place on said lawn.
I am a fan of Woody Allen (you’ll see where I’m going with this in a minute) and for all the pleasure he has given me over the years I will forgive him a lot. His most recent cinematic offering has been getting some good press. Gritty realism I was not expecting; beautiful images, slick, funny dialogue and a great score I was. Midnight in Paris did not disappoint and I came out of the cinema with a big smile on my face. One of the themes Allen explores in his story is a nostalgic yearning for former times. Michael Sheen is the latest in a long line of the kind of pompous, self-satisfied, intellectuals who periodically appear in Allen’s films (remember the Diane Keaton character in Manhattan or Alvy (Woody Allen) arguing about Bergman with the guy standing in a cinema queue in Annie Hall?). Sheen tells Woody Allen’s indecisive alter ego – a writer, beautifully played by Owen Wilson - that his problem is Golden Age Thinking. He is in love with the idea of 1920s Paris, the Paris of Ernest Hemingway’s The Moveable Feast (“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”) It was as if history had deliberately arranged to gather together some of the most captivating artistic personalities of the age in the same place and at the same time: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Scott Joplin, Picasso, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali... How much richer and more interesting his life would have been, thinks Wilson, if only he could have been around then. Sheen informs him that this kind of Golden Age Thinking stems from "a flaw in the romantic imagination of people who find it difficult to cope with the present."
A photogenic Paris delivers its magic and, as midnight strikes, Wilson is transported back to the 1920s where he is befriended by Fitzgerald and Hemingway, where he falls in love (of course) with a beautiful girl currently dating Picasso, where Gertrude Stein critiques his ailing manuscript, and where he has nightly helpings of Hemingway’s ‘moveable feast’. Who wouldn’t be enchanted? But where will it get you, this emotional attachment to a time that is not your own?
I won’t spoil the film by revealing Woody Allen’s take on the theme. But afterwards it did make me question to what extent historical novelists are in love with the period they write about and, taken to extremes, is it good for them? Do they choose the period or does it choose them? Can you talk about having a ‘taste’ for a particular period (as in, oh no, I’m a Victorian man myself – wouldn’t touch the Middle Ages)? Was, say, C S Forester (of Horatio Hornblower fame) ever tempted by the Tudors? Did Mary Renault ever consider abandoning the classical era and relocating her narratives into more modern times? Perhaps it is simply a question of specialism: research is, after all, both time-consuming and addictive. But I do wonder if there is an element of Golden Age Thinking in some historical novelists’ choice of subject matter. And if there is, is there anything wrong in that?
Speaking for myself, I can only say that – so far – what I have wanted to say both fits well into and is enhanced by an historical setting. And given that part of what I wanted to achieve was to open a window onto another time, the setting itself has become a principal theme. The period which appeals to me most is the eighteenth century. Why? I won’t try and dress up reasons which are personal. I like the sound and rhythm of eighteenth-century English; I’m fond of Gainsborough’s portraits and Hogarth’s political engravings; I love those cartoons of fleshy, red cheeked Georgians whose utterances are squeezed into elongated speech balloons. And then, I suppose that at various points in my life I have been strongly drawn to literature that had it roots in the Age of Reason. It was a century that hosted two revolutions and the dawn of democracy. On the other hand, I certainly don’t wish that I had lived in the eighteenth century. I’ve only got to look at Hogarth’s Gin Lane to prick the bubble of any Golden Age Thinking I might be harbouring. Interviewed about his film, Woody Allen commented that nostalgia is a trap. Belle Epoque Paris, he said, seems beautiful until you “realize that if you went to the dentist, there was no Novocain, and that's just the tip of the iceberg...” Ask me if I would travel back in time and I would say: Yes, please! But only on condition that I could have a return ticket. I’d love to know, though, how many readers of this blog might be happier if their ticket was one-way...
Linda Buckley-Archer’s Time Quake Trilogy is published by Simon & Schuster