As part of Bas Bleu’s 2017 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
Our May Book a Month selection, The Improbability of Love, is a high-energy romp through London’s art world, a multi-character saga—one of the novel’s narrators is a centuries-old painting with a very high opinion of itself—that is by turns romantic, heartbreaking, and laugh-out-loud funny. Recently, we chatted with novelist Hannah Rothschild about her inspiration, the cultural value of art, and more.
Bas Bleu: The Improbability of Love, the painting at the heart of your novel, is not real, but its painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, is. Of all the artists you’ve studied throughout your life and career, why did you choose his work as the root of your debut novel?
Hannah Rothschild: As a young, lonely sixteen year old on a school exchange to Paris I happened upon Watteau’s painting of the clown known as Gilles. Although the painting and its subject were several hundred years older than myself, I felt the shock and comfort of empathy—here was a man who felt as lonely and awkward as I did, here was a figure who “understood.” I wanted Annie, the heroine in my novel, recently abandoned by her long-term lover, adrift and alone in London, to experience the same shock of recognition and empathy and chose Watteau as the artist best able to deliver these feelings.
BB: Your novel boasts a large cast of narrators, which could become confusing and chaotic but, in this case, doesn’t. How difficult was it to navigate between the disparate primary characters, without short-changing any of them? Did you focus on writing the individual character arcs one at a time, or did you shift between them as the story progressed chronologically?
HR: In any story set in the art world, there were obvious “types” to include such as dealers, artists, conservators, collectors, and thieves, but although I knew the story I wanted to tell from the beginning and the general cast, I let each evolve organically. Some like Vlad, the Russian collector, started off as a bit part player but was so much fun to write that I couldn’t resist giving him larger scenes. I had intended the painter Janacek to be a major character, but perhaps as he barely left his studio, he only appears in one brief scene.
BB: The Improbability of Love provides a glimpse into the rarefied world of high-dollar art deals, which, if your novel is to be believed, can drive wealthy and powerful people to behave rather badly. And yet in her review of your novel for the Washington Post, Joanna Scutts wrote, “Given this cutthroat game that governments and public museums can barely afford to play, a cynic would conclude that there’s no such thing as inherent value: A painting is only worth what someone will pay.” What are the risks and rewards of “perceived value”?
HR: The price of a work of art is set by desire, how much someone is willing to pay for it, but its value is made up of different factors—the provenance, the rarity, beauty, fashionability, totemic nature, history, and a myriad of other factors. With each generation, the “perceived value” changes. There have been huge fluctuations in the prices achieved by artists—sometimes Caravaggios were unsalable, now he is one of the most sought after. So buying art for investment can be a risky business. The best thing is to completely ignore the market and buy what you love—that way its value can fluctuate but your reasons for owning it never will.
BB: Your book makes a strong case for the power of art to inform and enrich our emotional lives. There currently is an ongoing budget debate in the United States about the value of arts and humanities programs. As an author, filmmaker, and museum trustee, what argument would you make for the importance of funding for the arts when there may be no measurable results to justify the investment?
HR: There is a—sometimes disputed—story from the Second World War which makes the point well. Someone suggested to the great Winston Churchill that he cut the culture budget and allocate it to the war effort. We could do that, replied Churchill, but what then would we be fighting for? A healthy, productive developed society needs to offer its citizens different experiences. It needs to celebrate the past and the present. It needs to provide safe places, havens for contemplation and solace. In my opinion, museums and great works of art offer an essential front-line service. Not everyone will decide to read a book, attend a play, listen to a piece of music or visit a museum, but thank heavens these glorious respites from everyday life exist.
BB: Much of your career has focused on documentary filmmaking. In 2008 you produced a film, The Jazz Baroness, about your great-aunt Pannonica de Koenigswarter (née Rothschild). Four year later, you published a biography about her, The Baroness. Do you prefer one medium over the other? Can books tell a story in a way that film cannot?
HR: I see myself as a storyteller who works in many different media. The beginning, middle, and end in each might be the same but the way you navigate each is totally different. Filmmaking is collaborative, writing is solitary. One is about trying to create an atmosphere using the collision of sound and images, with the other, you only have words. My film The Jazz Baroness featured lots of music while the book focused more on relationships. I saw the two works as complementary and yet distinctive.
BB: Your protagonist, Annie McDee, is an artist in her own right, but her medium is food. Her extravagant dinners are a wonder to read about, a sensual smorgasbord for food-lovers and art-lovers alike. Were her art-inspired meals based on your own experiences? Are there chefs who create such masterpieces, and, if so, how can we snag a dinner invitation?
HR: Many great artists are great cooks. I was lucky enough to eat a woodcock cooked by the great Lucian Freud and a thanksgiving dinner prepared by the artist Marc Quinn. I hear that Francis Ford Coppola is a brilliant cook—do you think he’d have us all to dinner? I’d love to meet him and taste his food, wouldn’t you?
BB: Though it touches on the Holocaust, corruption in modern Russian politics, the perils of social climbing, and family dysfunction, at its core The Improbability of Love is focused on art, love, and food. In your own life, how do these three priorities rank?
HR: I am a pretty hopeless cook but a champion eater; I have devoted much of my life to the study of art but can’t sketch an apple; I believe passionately in love and am still looking for Mr. Right.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
HR: I have always been a compulsive reader. The first books I read (which my mother tried and failed to ban) were by Enid Blyton. Soon I was reading everything and anything I could find, from cheap thrillers to Turgenev, from Monica to Charles Dickens. Now, perhaps because time is shorter, I can’t stomach a badly written book but in those days I gobbled up anything.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
HR: Recently I have read and loved, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth; Sebastian Barry’s Days without End, Colton Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Martin Gayford’s biography of Michelangelo, and Kent Haruf‘s Plainsong series.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
HR: I am writing a novel about family and inheritance, and The Improbability of Love is being adapted into a television mini series.
BB: Many thanks to Hannah Rothschild for sharing her insights—and for teaching us more about fine art in this terrific novel!
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