Launch: Linda Lappin’s Loving Modigliani
INTERVIEW BY TRACEY WARR
What is your ‘elevator’ pitch for this novel?
PARIS 1920. Dying just 48 hours after her husband, Jeanne Hébuterne—wife and muse of the celebrated painter Amedeo Modigliani and an artist in her own right — haunts their shared studio, watching as her legacy is erased. Decades later, a young art history student travels across Europe to rescue Jeanne’s artwork from obscurity. A ghost story, love story, and a search for a missing masterpiece.
You vividly evoke early 20th century Montparnasse and Paris. Did you visit there and if so were there details from your own journey that you wove into the novel? Did you use old maps?
To recreate Montparnasse in the early 20th century, and in “the other Paris” of the dead, I relied on old photographs and prints, postcards, paintings, vintage film footage, as well as descriptions in fiction, memoirs, and historical studies from the era. More than old maps, I used a deep map approach, as described in my book The Soul of Place. I am fascinated by the idea of “place” being more than just a setting – an actual entity interacting with characters and shaping their identities and stories. Loving Modigliani is also my love letter to Paris.
The book was assembled over a period of years, during which I had the opportunity to visit the city several times. Modigliani’s studio in rue de la Grande Chaumière is privately owned, and not accessible to the public. Old photos of the interior do exist, and several years ago, I found the door to the street open, and was able to poke around a bit. The historic cafes are still there, as are the art academies. There are areas of Montparnasse where traces of the old atmosphere remain, for example, Avenue de Maine, where Marie Vassilieff ran a cheap canteen for artists in her atelier frequented by Modigliani and his friends. Her atelier later became the Montparnasse Museum, which shut down several years ago, but that scrap of cobbled street with its low buildings covered in tangled vines gives you a sense of what it must have been like.
What kind of research did you complete? What research book did you pull off your shelf most often?
Loving Modigliani is the fruit of 20 years’ fascination with Jeanne Hébuterne, which began by accident, when I saw an exhibition in Venice in 2000 featuring some of her artwork, on display for the first time in 80 years. I was instantly captivated by her complex personality. I had stumbled upon the show while researching my novel on Katherine Mansfield, Katherine’s Wish because the exhibition included a portrait of South African writer Beatrice Hastings, Mansfield’s friend and rival who was another of Modigliani’s lovers.
Not much information was available about Jeanne’s life. Except for the biographies written by Jeanne Modigliani, Jeanne and Modi’s daughter, reliable biographical resources concerning Jeanne were scarce. Aside from the catalogue curated by Christian Parisot for the Venice exhibition, pictures of her artwork had rarely been published. I contacted Parisot, who gave me access to documents. I pieced together what I could from French newspaper archives, photo archives, exhibition catalogues, biographies of Modigliani, and memoirs by their fellow artists and writers such as Francis Carco, Andre Salmon, Marevna, Nina Hamnett and others.
Unlike the other historical figures who have inspired my novels, Katherine Mansfield and the British occult writer, Mary Butts (the inspiration for my novel Signatures in Stone) Jeanne left no textual evidence of any kind – memoirs, diaries, or letters that are publicly accessible. While researching Modigliani in the 1980s, the novelist Patrice Chaplin came across some letters reputedly written by Jeanne to a school friend. The letters were discovered after the death of Jeanne’s daughter, who had spent her adulthood painstakingly collecting documents concerning her parents.
For atmospheres, I relied on descriptions found in writings by Anais Nin, Jean Rhys, Ford Maddox Ford, Mary Butts, Gertrude Stein, and others visiting or living in Paris in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The research book I pulled off my shelf most often was Marc Restellini’s L’Ange Au Visage Grave, an exhibition catalogue.
Jeanne is not the first marginalized modernist female artist you have written about. What attracts you to this subject?
The protagonists of most of my fiction are women artists or writers of the 1920s. I don’t know why I am so keenly interested in that period, but I feel there is a correspondence between the 20s and the era in which I came of age, the 1970s, and a further correspondence with our own times. It was an era characterized by a desire to break with old patterns and embrace nonconformity, by a search for wholeness, a fascination with the unconscious as the fount of creativity. Women (and artists) are generally marginalized when they pursue paths of personal fulfillment that lead them outside the bounds of social convention and approval. Like many artists and writers, I suppose I have been there myself.
Are there particular challenges you encounter in writing fiction based on real people?
Counterpointing a character arc or storyline with the actual known events of the person’s life is one challenge. The story you are telling has to be shaped and pulled taut, whereas biographical details tend to conglomerate into big, baggy shapeless things – and you have to pick the story out of that mass of information and impressions. In Katherine’s Wish, I kept very close to the script – to the resources documenting Mansfield’s life, but I ended up cutting out a whole chapter because although it shed light on her marriage, it didn’t really move the story forward.
You describe Jeanne’s experience as a ghost, carted off by the dustman, unable to intervene while her possessions are picked over by erstwhile friends. What led you to write this novel as a ghost story?
I began writing this novel as a diary – Jeanne’s diary that she kept from the age of 16. The main problem with writing the novel as a diary was that Jeanne commits suicide. I could only get so far before the heroine dies. And I was also interested in Jeanne’s transformation afterwards, from a nobody to an avatar of Montparnasse, and the changes which have taken place in the way we see her.
Moreover, the conclusion of the novel could only be tragic and I didn’t want to write a tragedy, because despite all, alongside the immense pain, I felt there was joy in this story. Joy in loving Modigliani, joy in making art, and being part of an unrepeatable moment in the history of painting, of which I believe Jeanne Hébuterne was fully aware.
Then I saw a photo of Jeanne in which her latent toughness is discernible, along with a ghostly almost vampiric air, and I thought – why not start the story with Jeanne’s death and let her ghost narrate the tale? This allowed me to report the gruesome suicide with detachment.
I began writing what I thought would be a short prologue, but which gradually took on more substance, and shifted my genre focus from deeply-researched historical fiction to fantasy and magical realism. While two-thirds of the novel take place in the real world, the rest unfolds in the realm of myth, the underworld of the Other Paris. It’s a dusty, colorless city where the sun doesn’t reach, where music runs backwards, where the dead shuffle about looking for their lost loved ones and are judged for their misdeeds and failings in life.
What part of writing this book was the most difficult or challenging?
Letting myself go with my imagination to pursue the fantasy unspooling in the prologue. I knew I would lose some readers. I mean, a ghost and a talking cat! How preposterous! But I saw them so clearly in my mind: Jeanne in a long skirt, with Theo and Pierre, wandering through a derelict graveyard. They wouldn’t let me go. Another challenge was to allow myself to piece the novel together as a puzzle, or a triptych, mingling “reality” with myth.
What is the last great book you read?
We Are Pilgrims, by Victoria Preston – a work of nonfiction on the phenomenon of pilgrimage across the ages.
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