A S Byatt

They Sang Against Each Other Most Harmoniously

Matisse's War

By

Jonathan Cape 352pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

Peter Everett’s 1960s novel, Negatives, was innovatory and gripping, intelligent and strange. I have been conscious of a space where he should have been in our fictional landscape, an emptiness, ever since. Now he is back, and his new novel is also technically brilliant, fiercely intelligent and moving.

It tells the story of the Second World War in two juxtaposed and interwoven narratives. The first is the story of Matisse, the sacred monster, for whom in 1939 ‘the only threat to this day-to-day pleasure, this routine, is Hitler’s war aims in Western Europe’. Matisse’s narrative is in the present tense, and its characters are the colours he chooses to transfigure objects and human bodies, the dead painters who are his mind’s companions, colleagues and rivals, the sense he has that his art is ‘a timeless yet modern embodiment’ of Mallarmé’s description of music as the ‘sum of the relationships existing among all things’.  

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