Wednesday 2 November 2011

Golden Age Thinking by Linda Buckley-Archer

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


Mary Hoffman said...

Fascinating, Linda!

I do think you are right both about historical novelists "falling in love" with their period and the nostalgia trap.

I haven't seen the new Woody Allen and am not actually a big fan. I know everyone but me loved Annie Hall. And the 18th century is one that doesn't appeal to me.

So isn't it good that we like different things?

Katherine Langrish said...

Interestingly, Mary Renault's first four novels were contemporary ones. 'North Face'. 'Kind Are her Answers,' 'The Friendly Young Ladies' and - perhaps her best ever novel to my mind, 'The Charioteer' are all set in the late 1930s or early 1940's, many in the hospital settings which she knew so well, having been a nurse. I suspect she moved to Ancient Greece so she could explore gay relationships in the context of a society and civilization which accepted, even honoured them - and in that sense, the past gave her more freedom than the present.

Linda B-A said...

Yes, Mary, it certainly is a good job we all like different things! Your fondness for Renaissance Italy was actually in my mind when I wrote my post.

And thanks so much for the fascinating footnote re Mary Renault, Katherine. She wrote so beautifully I will certainly look out 'The Charioteer' as you recommend it.

michelle lovric said...

I loved Midnight in Paris too. My smile just got wider and wider as i thought to myself, 'Now he'll go and see Gertrude Stein'. And he did. 'I bet that's Hemingway over there.' And it was. 'Please can we meet Dali' now?' Oh, hello Salvador!

All the boxes were ticked one by one. I don't know about Moveable Feast but it was certainly the Literary and Art Nerds' Picnic!

When the conductor checks my ticket to the past with children's books, it comes back to me with notches - one is for fantasy and one is for whichever period I'm working on. They are both different destinations even if in the same country and century.

Like you, I am drawn to the 18th and one of the reasons, for me, is that it seems a good time for women. Womanly characteristics were valued. The Romantics tended reduced women to two roles - Mother of Tragic Hero, and Abused Girlfriend of Tragic Hero. I know that's a simplistic take! But I am not interested in writing about those women.

adele said...

Adored this movie as well, Linda and you've made a very interesting post out of having seen it! I'm also drawn to certain periods: Edwardian, Victorian, classical...and not others. I guess each of us has her favourite times as well as her favourite themes. And places.

fionadunbar said...

Linda, I find I'm rather fixated on 18th Century England too – and in the series I'm writing, the idea is to touch on many different eras, so I find I'm having to wrench myself away from it! And like you, I'm a big Hogarth fan, so I think that has a lot to do with it.

I'm reading this piece just after having read Eve Edwards' post on historical misconceptions, so here's my little piece of nerdish pedantry about Midnight In Paris: when Owen Wilson's character leaves the restaurant where he has just met Ernest Hemingway for the first time, then returns moments later to find it's a launderette – well, it isn't. That restaurant – Polidor – is very much still there! I think Allen could actually have played with that: had Polidor still in place, only crammed with 21st century tourists wielding guide books. I also think Gertrude Stein, though beautifully played by Kathy Bates, might have been a tad scarier – at least to start with.

Melissa Amateis said...

What a thoughtful post. I've been captivated by the past for as long as I can remember. But like you, I'd love to visit as long as I had a return ticket!

Since I now write during the WW2 period, I admit there is a fascination with the glamor of the 1940s and such, but then when I get into the nitty gritty of my research, I realize I have no desire to really live back then.

It is true that nostalgia can be dangerous - but I only think it is dangerous if we ignore the truth of what times were really like. We can enjoy the era and all that it offers without having to live it - and really, that's a gift.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I'm even captivated by the immediate past... and like your son, mine often rolled their eyes when I spoke of the 70's or 60's. Recently it was brought smartly home to me when I passed Woody Allen in the Kings Road and couldn't contain myself and mentioned it to a shop assistant in Peter Jones... who rolled her eyes and said Who's he? When I started reeling off films to her I saw her eyes glaze over... of course she wasn't even born at the time of Annie Hall.