Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths
The first chapter sings out with the tones of a siren.
Griffiths voice, his eloquence, entices us in. He brushes aside our protestations.
We want to urge him to be more careful, we don’t want to be told, we want to be shown. But he communicates through a third-person, a character without literary aspirations, the voice of Daniel Wright. And Wright wouldn’t understand, or care. He is not a literary man . . .
There is so much that is good here. Italy unfolds before us in a few quick strokes. We turn the page, and then another page, and we know that this is not another one of those books that isn’t going to last the pace. We are going to read right through to the end.
Wright is a true obsessive. Someone who goes away ‘on a job’ for twelve weeks only a fortnight after getting married. And at the same time he is someone who can be forgotten by his new wife only hours after he’s left her side.
The characters unfold slowly. The writer is in no hurry to let us in on whatever is happening. At first there is little plot to carry us forward, just the slow dawning of who is who and what their relationships might be.
There is always a problem with fictional policemen, and this book is no exception. Can we really believe that this cultured, sensitive man is a cop? Can we believe his history, that he was forced into this work because the ‘real’ art world rejected him?
It is a lot to ask. But we agree to suspend our disbelief.
Daniel Wright, the narrator, finds himself in a private gallery in Florence where only four pictures are hanging, one on each wall:
I spin on my heels to take them in. It is a bold curatorial decision, hanging such strong paintings together. Each painting cannot be looked at for long without the viewer feeling the energy of another exerting itself, a beckoning presence. This not a ‘stop-and-look-at-the-pretty-pictures-room’. This room has a centrifugal force that keeps you here. Spinning from one painting to another. There are two tonalities in the room, bisecting it almost. The Cezanne and the El Greco, golden, shimmering, diffuse, yet somehow still sharply present, reach into the room like sunlight; the Rothko and the Velazquez, both recessively dark, shy almost, yet with equal presence, cross the room like moonlight. Each tonality has its beauty, its magnetism. If there is an idea behind this room, it seems to me to be saying art affects the world beyond its details, its emotions, its surface, beyond the intellect and even our emotions. It is saying art fundamentally alters our perception of the world – it has phenomenological sway.
Writing of this calibre deserves a wide audience. One hopes, for Neil Griffiths’ sake, that his potential readership is not confined within a single genre.
This is a writer with a feeling for landscape, character, plot and narrative, and with a sure and deft touch and understanding for language and its ability to move us. I was reminded of Graham Greene.
London, Florence, Naples. The wasted and forgotten landscape of Calabria.
In Neil Griffiths central character I have met a man at a crossroads, but at the same time a man convinced that he’s on an open motorway.