The following passage occurs early in Olaf Olafsson’s new novel, Restoration.
“I live on a farm in the south of Tuscany. Chianciano, the nearest village, is twelve miles away, the railway station six. Our house stands on a hill with a view of the wide valley….I never want to leave.”
Instantly I am reminded of a passage at the outset of Iris Origo’s The War in Val d’Orca:
“We live on a large farm in southern Tuscany—twelve miles from the station and five from the nearest village. The country is wild and lonely: the climate harsh. Our house stands on a hillside, looking down over a wide and beautiful valley, beyond which rises Monte Amiata, wooded with chestnuts and beeches. Nearer by, on this side of the valley lies slopes of cultivated land: wheat, olives and vines but among them stay still stand some ridges of dust-couloured clay hillocks, the crete senesi—as bare and colourless as elephants’ backs, as mountains of the moon.”
Everything begins to sound very familiar. Like Origo, Alice Orsini in Restoration, was born into a wealthy English family, grew up in Florence, married an Italian, purchased a large farm in southern Tuscany, restored the main villa, San Martino, and outlying farmhouses, built a school, had an affair with a friend of her youth, and struggled to survive as World War II came to her bucolic estate.
What is one to make of these similarities? As I read the novel, they didn’t enter my mind much or intrude on the pleasure I had in reading it. I thought it was not much different than a film version of a novel about historical event or person.
However, after the novel ended, Olafsson writes this postscript: “While Alice Orsini undoubtedly shares similarities with Iris Origo, it is important to stress that the former is a purely fiction construct.” “Purely?” Come now, Olaf.
In countless respects Restoration draws heavily on Origo’s The War in Val d’Orca—its characters, their histories, the restoration of the villa and surrounding farm houses, and more than anything the way San Martino became a refuge for partisans and Allied soldiers during World War II.
The novel is also the story of another woman, Kirstin Jonsdottir, a young painter who lives in Rome. She befriends a Robert Marshall, an expert in art restoration, becomes his apprentice, quickly surpasses his ability and soon thereafter becomes his lover. However, when it becomes clear the married Marshall is not about to leave his wife and that he sells his restored paintings to the Nazis, Kirstin contrives an act of revenge.
Her technical skills enable her to create what appears to be an unknown work of Caravaggio. She tricks Marshall into believing she has restored a badly damaged but unknown work of this highly regarded painter. He sells the work to the Germans who bribe Alice to hide the work in a vault near her villa.
Many years later, the National Gallery in London acquires the fake Caravaggio and Kirstin, who is living in London then, is invited to its opening presentation. As David Levitt suggests in his review, by ending the story this way, Olaffson may be inviting the reader to wonder if originality is required to create a work of art.
Kirstin’s part-creation-part restoration is clearly a work of art and to a certain extent not original. Similarly Restoration is a work of art and yet not by any means original. But as is often asked lately, is anything truly original these days? Perhaps it is more a matter of the degree to which such works deviate from their sources. But then, other than outright plagiarism, does that really matter? It didn’t in my reading of the novel.