Niven Govinden’s sixth novel is a short and sparely written account of a director’s trip to an Italian film festival. Unfolding across three deceptively uneventful days, Diary of a Film is told in the first person, giving auteur-like control over what the reader understands.
The narrator has travelled to the festival to promote his film, “The Folded Leaf,” an adaptation of a William Maxwell novel with its own layers of artifice. The film’s young American actors, Lorien and Tom, who accompany the narrator to the festival, address him fondly as “maestro”. He grew up in eastern Europe, although after hinting that he might belong to the tradition of great Polish film-makers, he refers to Poland as “not quite my country, but close enough.” He misses his husband and son but work is his abiding obsession.
When he meets Cosima, a middle-aged writer, in a café, she takes him to see a mural painted by her late boyfriend. The narrator is captivated by what he interprets as a visionary portrait of the local community: “I was floored by the detail of it, and by the fact that the hands which created it were no longer here to create again . . . Its critical eye, its humour, needed to be seen.”
As the story builds towards his film’s premiere, the narrator is haunted by the mural and decides he wants to adapt a novel by Cosima for the screen. He drifts around town at all hours, musing on creativity, sexuality, privilege, and the fear that making art out of life puts him at a remove from it. The key to balancing film and family might be in the agreement he has reached with his husband: “I can go alone and give myself fully to everything that’s required, so long as I do the same when I’m at home with the family.”
Govinden dispenses with paragraph breaks and quotation marks, which some readers may find frustrating, as it blurs the lines between thinking and speaking. But it is an effective technique for an immersive novel that deliberately loosens the boundaries between internal and external events.
The warm climate and bright natural light of the coastal town, as well as the festival’s unreal atmosphere, give the novel the dreamlike quality of an experience that is destined to become a vivid memory. The Italian setting, and brevity of the book, may make the reader think of novels by Cesare Pavese and Natalia Ginzburg, although there is also some of the uncanniness of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, in which a concert pianist drifts around a mysterious city.
The transience of all things is everywhere in Diary of a Film. “I never want the present to be over,” says the narrator and later describes the “dreaded free fall as each film wrapped”. Of Tom, he observes: “In time, he would learn to hold back feelings from showing on his face, but this was now, and the beauty of it was overwhelming.” This is a wise and skilfully controlled novel that can be read in an afternoon, but which radiates in the mind for much longer.
Diary of a Film, by Niven Govinden, Dialogue Books, RRP£14.99
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