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Writerly magic

A frock that shocks, a terror-filled red coat and diamonds of seductive power are all promised next week in an alluring late-night series on Radio 3 (produced by Duncan Minshull).

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

A frock that shocks, a terror-filled red coat and diamonds of seductive power are all promised next week in an alluring late-night series on Radio 3 (produced by Duncan Minshull). Listener, They Wore It gives us five 15-minute essays about clothes. Not a subject I would normally bother with, never being someone noted for my sartorial elegance or originality. But by chance I opened up one of the preview discs and was hooked immediately. The novelist Tracy Chevalier is talking about the impact on her teenage self of Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘The Necklace’. Chevalier based an entire novel on a pearl necklace so she knows the value of wearing the right beads.

In Maupassant’s story, Matilda, the bored wife of a lowly civil servant, borrows from a rich friend what she believes to be a priceless diamond necklace when she and her dull husband are invited to a town ball. She has a thrilling evening, but by the time she gets home the necklace is no longer round her neck. Naturellement, Matilda is too weak-minded to own up to the loss. Instead she saddles herself and her husband with a decade of debt by buying a hugely expensive replacement.

This being a classic Maupassant story, there’s an ironic twist at the end, deliciously explained by Chevalier. She rereads the story as a mature woman (who’s made enough money from her books to own any number of diamonds), and finds all sorts of other nuances in what is actually only a seven-page unsettler. Maupassant, says Chevalier, conjures up a precise picture of Matilda’s flawed character, and then by writerly magic ensures that we as readers get our own come-uppance by allowing ourselves also to be sucked into believing that a bunch of sparklers (which Maupassant never describes in any detail) can effect a life-enhancing transformation.

Make sure you’re tucked up early enough to catch this series in bed (it’s not on until 11 p.m.). Although you might want to podcast essay number four and only listen to it in the reassurance of daylight. Peter Bradshaw’s contribution takes us into the horror-filled world of Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now, where all the terror is focused on a red coat. Is it the red plastic raincoat of the child who was drowned? Or a figment of the grieving husband’s imagination? A flash of red is all that the husband sees but it’s a powerful enough device to lure him deeper and deeper into the dank and murky backwaters of Venice, where he has taken his wife for a brief vacation in the hope it might bring their failing marriage back to life. Big mistake.

Bradshaw tells us why that red coat has resonances far beyond the details of the story. In Venice in the 16th century, the immigrant Jews were forced to wear red. These essays last for only 15 minutes but they’re packed full of such telling details.

The short talk is a brilliant radio device, based on the scientifically based evidence that we can only really concentrate for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time (some of us for much less). When talking, less is usually more, which is always a useful thing to remember. They’re cheap to make, too, which means that more time can be spent on thinking up projects, on planning and devising.

Laura Cumming bravely uses her slot to talk about a picture: John Sargent’s notorious 1884 portrait (now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York) of the Parisian society beauty, Madame Gautreau. I confess that while listening I did succumb to temptation and took a peek at it on Google Images. Don’t. It ruins the image that Cumming brings to mind as she describes this most daring of little black numbers — a full-length slash of heavy black silk, nipped in tightly at the waist, and split in half across the bosom into two very low-cut cups that barely cover Madame Gautreau’s pearly white cleavage. The dress dominates the canvas, flaunting all that the Madame can offer, its jewelled straps far too thin, you might have thought, to ensure it doesn’t fall off, rather like Liz Hurley’s safety-pins.

In stark contrast, Justin Cartwright’s choice of clothing is the suit of an ordinary man, the chief character in Sloan Wilson’s 1950s American novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. A demobbed soldier buys the suit (costing $70, or about $600 in today’s money) for a job interview. Society expects him to forget all that he has seen and done in the war and to buckle down to a boring office job and the dull conformity of ‘decent, honest, enthusiastic’ suburban life. Cartwright gives us just enough information about the hero as he struggles not to remember the German soldiers he has killed in battle, but not too much, so that it becomes necessary to find a copy of the book and read the whole thing. Who would have thought a grey flannel suit could be so enticing?

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