In Love and War, by Alex Preston, Faber, RRP£14.99, 352 pages

In an exhilarating opening scene of Alex Preston’s new novel, protagonist Esmond Lowndes, recently kicked out of Cambridge after being caught in flagrante with another young man, climbs aboard a biplane bound for Florence. Attending on the Tarmac are his mother and father, Sir Lionel and Lady Lowndes, his adored sister Anna and his uninteresting younger brother Rudyard. It is 1937 and his parents are proudly sporting their black shirts. Esmond is also wearing the black uniform of the British Union party. He is going to set up a commercial radio station, Radio Firenze, with the backing of Sir Oswald Mosley.

Esmond’s first few weeks in Florence, billeted at the British Institute, are idyllic: he spends his time strolling the city, taking in the artworks, reading literature and falling in love. But at a time when the empire’s salmon-coloured swath still dominates the world map, suspicion of British motives is rife. When a party at the institute is brutally broken up by Mussolini’s thugs, a Florentine warns Esmond: “You British must understand. This is not your city. We will not be another pink-shaded nation.”

Esmond is a changeable young man, his mettle as yet untested. He is writing a novel, when not engaged in strenuous sex with his two new lovers, one male, one female. Entitled In Love and War, the novel concerns his father’s friend, the (real) influential critic TE Hulme, killed in the trenches of the first world war. Sent to Faber & Faber, it is rejected at second-draft stage as being well-written but lacking in life experience. Preston’s In Love and War sees Esmond at last gaining that experience, at enormous cost.

In this, his first historical novel, Preston’s flair for recreating atmosphere and contemporary speech is immaculate. (His first two novels, This Bleeding City and The Revelations, dealt with the emotional fallout, post-crash, among City workers.) Many layers enrich and deepen the story. An Italian fascist writes to Esmond: “I like the idea of using the novel, with its mutability, its openness and its place at the heart of middle-class life, to address historical figures, situating them in moments of great political unease” – a nod to Preston’s intention.

We come across a roll call of well-known historical figures, including the writer Norman Douglas, who cuts a shabby figure; Alice Keppel, former mistress of Edward VII; Diana Mosley, who brushes Esmond’s genitalia through his trousers; and Ezra Pound, recruited as a correspondent for Radio Firenze.

A bundle of Esmond’s varied correspondence from 1937-1939 gives the reader a hint as to the destiny of this vague young man. There are letters from his family; from Ezra Pound (“YES! In a word. In rather more I might say to you how long I have been waiting for an opportunity of this sort . . . I will talk about the JEW”); from Faber (“we won’t make you rich . . . but we’d be very glad to have you on board” – one imagines Preston’s wry smile); and postcards from Philip, his Cambridge inamorato, fighting in the Spanish civil war (“Everything’s buggered. I’m in Barcelona . . . that sod Chamberlain’s to blame”). As well as showcasing Preston’s skill, this section provides a lively intermezzo before events grow increasingly grim.

Preston captures the wildly changing fortunes of the Italian city, through Mussolini’s reign to the long aftermath of his downfall during which life gets ever harder for the partisans and resistance fighters. It becomes impossible for Esmond to remain a neutral observer and, following the twists and turns of his moral choices, Preston keeps the tension mounting to the final pages.

For much of the time Esmond is holed up with a female companion in a crumbling palazzo on the outskirts of the city. The combination of setting, Renaissance art and two mutually attracted foreigners may remind some of The English Patient.

Preston asks the same question as Michael Ondaatje: what is left of civilisation after the inhumanity of war? Today, “David” still stands in Florence, an imperturbable rebuke to an epoch of torture and terror.

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