Daily Info reviewer Helen Ward gives her thoughts on local writer Martin Pevsner's latest novel A Still Life, and interviews the author about the ideas behind the book.
A Still Life, the latest offering from local writer Martin Pevsner is a bit of a puzzle. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Or is it, in the words of the narrator, "not a story, not a novel" but "a eulogy to a lost soul…a guide book, a catalogue to a collection"?
Our guide is a girl on the edge of puberty, a ghost in the Ashmolean, who lives outside time and is simultaneously as old as the contents of the museum and a perpetual twelve-year old. Although she interacts with the artefacts, paintings and other ghosts, her real interest is in the "guardians" - the attendants who keep watch over the museum's displays.
Pevsner has chosen to publish this work as a weekly online serial. Most of the weekly episodes consist of a self-contained story about the life of one of the guardians, with P. (the narrator) entering into and observing their life and thoughts. Intertwined with this are clues about P. herself - who is she? How did she die? And why is she here? (The mystery is eventually revealed in the closing episodes.)
After an uncertain start, I enjoyed A Still Life very much. The short story is a challenging form, but Pevsner pulls it off in his exploration of the trials, disappointments and occasional victories of the guardians (look out for the not-so-common angler), but without compromising on the overall integrity of the encompassing novel.
The online presentation could, perhaps, have been a bit slicker - A Still Life should probably have been given its own website, rather than being mixed up with a lot of Pevsner's other material, but that's a minor point and easily correctable.
A Still Life is available to read at http://martinpevsner.wordpress.com.
Helen Ward: Where did the idea for A Still Life come from?
Martin Pevsner: I've known the Ashmolean since childhood, but until 2011 I always preferred the shadowy, cluttered charm of the Pitt Rivers. In that year I started working at the Ashmolean as an attendant and continued for the next 20 months (I still do the odd shift once a month or so). For the first six months there was a "honeymoon" period as I explored the galleries and discovered all of their treasures. I was blown over. It's a fantastic museum, particularly if you consider its provincial location and free entry. After that initial period, it became more important to me to have something to occupy myself with mentally while I was rotating around the galleries. That's how A Still Life was born, all those hours standing around the galleries surrounded by the rich diversity of the museum's collection on display. It was quite inspirational and part of the motivation in writing A Still Life was to acknowledge that buzz.
One of the things that struck me most when I started at the Ashmolean was how interesting my colleagues were - musicians, artists, archaeologists, jewellers, writers, photographers, psychic healers, people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. One thing that I noticed was that everyone carried a pen and paper, I'd watch them jotting things down and wondered what they were recording, writing, composing, designing, planning - it got my imagination working - why not create a set of purely fictional guardians and use their scribblings as the key to unlock their personal stories?
I needed a unifying character. Many of the longer-standing members of staff have their own stories about ghostly sightings at the museum. That's how P. was born. Once created, she needed a backstory - who was she? Where did she come from? Why was she roaming the galleries of the museum?
From my first days at the museum I had been struck by the Ivanov painting, Study of Heads (Gallery 53, Second Floor). Have you seen it? If you can't get to the museum, you can look it up online. Once I decided to use this as the link between the ghost's present and her past, as the key to her presence in this museum, the five faces provided wonderful possibilities for the ghost's backstory. It also provided me with a time/place to set P's backstory - Rome, circa 1830.
I liked the idea of the ghost "entering" each attendant to share with us his/her story and it provided me with the chance to use the first person plural "we" form for the narrator, which I enjoyed as a writing exercise.
HW: What made you choose to release A Still Life online and in serial form?
MP: I got tired of sending the manuscript to agents and getting rejected! I also liked the idea of harking back to an earlier literary tradition - writers like Dickens and Hardy had serialised their works in weekly or monthly instalments. Another reason was that I have a blog but I'm not very good at populating it with chit-chat so the serialisation provided me with the opportunity to post something at least once a week.
My idea is to complete the serialisation in the next couple of weeks, then make it available to buy as print-on-demand and ebook. I'll take it off the blog and immediately start serialising another of my novels (A Still Life is my seventh novel). For anyone interested, the blog link is http://martinpevsner.wordpress.com.
HW: Do you see the work primarily as a novel or a collection of linked short stories?
MP: It's definitely a novel in my eyes, though perhaps my definition of what constitutes a novel might be looser than that of some others. There's a unifying feature. It begins with a query and ends with a climax/revelation/resolution. P. helps us explore the guardians' stories but equally the way P. interacts with the guardians reveals important clues about her own life and character.
HW: P., the narrator, is a girl of about 12. How does a middle aged male writer get inside the head of a young girl on the edge of adolescence?
MP: He uses his imagination. I liked the juxtaposition of youthful girl/world-weary spirit, of the naive and the jaded. Also, once I'd committed myself to basing the ghost's backstory on the Ivanov painting, I came up with the idea of the boarding house where he was staying and where the five characters in the painting could be residing. I then needed a character that could move easily between all of them - a child was the obvious answer.
HW: A Still Life is based in The Ashmolean and features stories about the private and inner lives of people who work there - especially the guardians who mind the displays - what sort of reaction have you had from the real-life guardians?
I was aware from the start that to create a team of purely fictional guardians to exist alongside the real living attendants that I worked with could be risky. In fact, there was only one crossover between reality and fiction - one of my workmates was truly obsessed with fishing for carp and he provided the inspiration for the fishing background of the psychopathic angler character. When I finished the chapter, I asked him to proofread it to ensure the fishing details were authentic - he said he really enjoyed it and gave me some useful tips. Just for the record, I'm pretty sure he's never murdered anyone himself. Other colleagues have given encouraging feedback. I think on the whole they like the idea of a fictionalised world that they can nevertheless recognise as familiar. I like the thought that every staff member could write their own work of fiction based on the museum and they'd all be completely different - how about that for a collective project?