Curse of the white eyes

Just occasionally, it’s nice to be proved wrong.

I really didn’t want to go the Royal Academy to see Modigliani and his models. All elongated necks, odd-shaped faces, and out-of-proportion bodies. I knew what I liked – and I didn’t like Modigliani.

But I went.

Modigliani was born in 1884 in Livorno, on the Tuscan coast. His life is the classic riches-to-rags tale of so many artists. From a well-to-do Jewish family, he followed his dream and headed for the bright lights of Paris. And penury.

He was dogged by ill health for most of his life, and frequently went back to Italy to recuperate. But he always returned to Paris once recovered. Naturally (he was an artist, after all) he died young – aged just 35.

The paintings in the RA exhibition were just what I expected – almond eyes, oval faces, swan necks and stretched torsos. But the more I looked, the more I liked what I saw. The elongation was elegant. The eyes were mesmerising. The colours subtle and seductive.

I was entranced.

And yet art-as-marketing is something I increasingly find annoying. The Big Exhibitions at the RA and the National Gallery are often not worth the price – showing paintings you can see for free elsewhere, packing people in so densely it’s claustrophic, and probably dangerous.

But this was different. In the white cool of the upper floor at the Royal Academy, the crowds flowed smoothly and didn’t get in the way. And slowly, slowly, I was won over. His nudes were exquisite. His clothed models were elegant. And in Modigliani’s self-portrait, he looked sad and lost, and I recognised that look.

I was glad to have been proved wrong. I might even make a habit of it.

A sting in the tale

A few years ago, I worked with a woman who belonged to a book club. Once a month, on a Tuesday evening, she got together with her friends and discussed a title they’d all read.

I imagined highbrow conversations about literary theory, plotting, characterisation and language.

“Well, yes,” she said, “there is that. But mostly, we just get pissed.”

One evening, she was so drunk, she had to close one eye as she drove home to counter the effects of double vision. Eventually, she gave up and pulled over, to have a little snooze.

That’s when the policeman appeared.

“Oh hello, officer,” she slurred, winding her window down. “I’m afraid I’ve had too much to drink. I can’t drive home.”

And so it was that the policeman transferred her to the passenger seat and drove her home, depositing her in the arms of her embarrassed husband.

(This was Johannesburg in the 1990s – lawlessness has its advantages).

So I really didn’t know what to expect as I cycled to my first book club last week. It’s no ordinary book club, though, because all the books are in French. As is the discussion. In fact, that’s the only reason I went.

I’d read the book, made notes, downloaded an author interview from the internet, and felt very smug indeed. It didn’t last long.

‘Another man!’ someone shouted as I bounded up the stairs. Not very promising. I rounded the corner and crept into the room. 20 pairs of eyes greeted me, 19 of them female. A lone man sat quietly in the corner.

It started pleasantly enough. There were nibbles and wine, and after some polite small talk, we started.

“Who liked the book?” the moderator asked. Most hands went up.

“And who didn’t?” Two hands went up. So we started with them – which was a big mistake.

Speaking in beautiful, fluent, deadly French, a woman with silky hair and severe glasses took the book to pieces. Wielding her verbal scalpel with frightening dexterity, she attacked the form, the content, the language, the characters, the plot. Clichéd, predictable, slow, unoriginal, she said. Slash, slash, slash.

The book lay in ribbons before her. Her friend joined the massacre.

“I only read a third,” she said, “and couldn’t go any further.”

Somebody suggested that was cheating, but she ploughed on.

“Then,” she said, “I gave it to my mother. She said it was rubbish too. She didn’t finish it either.”

The evening started to slide slowly downwards. After that, any praise was impossible. I gabbled a few words, but felt in awe of the surgical strike, delivered in faultless French by the verbal assassin.

The moderator tried to halt the slide.

“Anybody seen any good French films lately?” she said. It was a game attempt to salvage the evening, but I knew it was doomed.

And then it came to me. Books are a personal pleasure. I really don’t care what other people think of them – it’s enough that I enjoy them.

And that’s when I realised that my first book club would also be my last.

My eyes travelled across the table to the wine bottle, and I fantasised about getting gloriously, uncontrollably drunk.

It certainly would have been more fun – though somehow, I doubt the local police would have been as understanding as their Jo’burg counterparts.