Writers

Add to researchJonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

Chatto & Windus

Born
Paris, France
Genre
Short Stories, Non-Fiction, Fiction
 
 
Biography

Jonathan Keates was born in Paris, France in 1946. Educated at Bryanston and Magdalen College, Oxford, he teaches English at the City of London School.

He is the author of a number of acclaimed biographies, including works on Handel, Purcell and Stendhal, as well as a number of travel books about Italy. He is the author of the short story collections, Allegro Postillions (1983), which won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize, and Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1997). He is also the author of two novels, The Stranger's Gallery (1987), set in 19th-century Italy, and Smile Please (2000), a comedy set in the gay community.

Jonathan Keates is a regular contributor to a number of newspapers and journals, including The Observer and the Times Literary Supplement. His latest work is a book of non-fiction, The Siege of Venice (2005), the story of Venice's last stand in 1848, against its Austrian rulers.

Critical Perspective

Jonathan Keates is a prolific and eclectic author who has proved to be at ease with diverse literary genres such as fiction, biography, travel writing and critical essays.

His books also cover a wide range of topics and themes, from the contemporary London gay scene to classical music, from Italy’s Risorgimento to French Romanticism and British architectural and historical heritage. Keates has admitted to not having a specific field and to write 'to counterbalance egocentricity by sharing my enthusiasm and curiosity (almost the only decent qualities I possess) with others.' Keates’s curiosity and wide-ranging readings are certainly apparent in his sharp writing style which comfortably intersperses his narratives with learned literary references. Yet, the author’s strong ego does escape counterbalancing from time to time, sacrificing empathy to stylistic elegance. For example, one reviewer of his biography on the French Romantic writer Stendhal has claimed that Keates stands out as more interesting than the subject of his study: 'Stendhal's life story is extraordinarily dull ... Stendhal comes out as a curmudgeon grumbling about everything in sight ... Fortunately, Jonathan Keates himself has an extremely interesting mind, and many of his own words are considerably more interesting out of context than are Stendhal's'.

His collection of short-stories, Allegro Postillions (1983), his first novel, The Stranger’s Gallery (1987), and some of the stories in Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1997) are set in Italy. They reflect Keates’ interest for the art and history of the country to which the author has devoted several non-fiction volumes. All the four stories of Allegro Postillions share the same 19th-century setting of The Stranger’s Gallery. Both volumes, because of their historical milieu, have been favourably compared to the Italian classic The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The two volumes are concerned with the process of Italian unification (the Risorgimento), which does not merely furnish the historical background to the plot, but actively enters into Keates’s narratives. In 'Morn Advancing', the first story in Allegro Postillions, the Italian landscape and its alterations by the war of independence soon become the veritable protagonist of the narrative. The English painter Cattermole, who has 'an intense dislike of human intrusion in his pictures', wants to capture the beauty of the Southern Italian countryside at dawn. Yet, his endeavour is spoilt by a shoot-out between Italian patriots and the regular soldiers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. At the end of the fight, Cattermole discovers that the landscape 'was all different, thus horrible, spoilt irredeemably by the vulgarity of this action. Even the light now was barbarous. Nothing in the landscape agreed any more, lines were not articulate, shapes not harmonious. Those figures there, small, ideally insignificant in proportion though they were, seemed calculated to wreck the picture'. Cattermole has no sympathy for those Italians fighting for their freedom: 'In death, as in life, their affair could not possibly concern him'. His admiration for Italy is limited to its superficial landscape and not for the historical forces which are changing the country. Allegro Postillions  and The Stranger’s Gallery project simultaneously two hard-to-reconcile images of Italy: the romantic land of artistic masterpieces and natural beauties, and the war-torn nation in the making.

Cattermole’s comment at the end of 'Morn Advancing' represents a general problem with several of Keates’s characters: it is difficult to warm to them, sealed off as they are in their society of artistic refinement, totally unconcerned about the surrounding social realities. Whether straight or gay, the characters moving through Keates’s fictional world seem to relate to statues and paintings better than they do to human beings. The homosexual American professor in 'La Dolce Prospettiva', the fourth story of Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, 'had never believed in substituting the emotions aroused in him by others for the peculiar kind of truth accorded to his sensibilities by a picture or a statue'. He is being courted by a wealthy female friend while they are on their usual artistic tour of Europe, when, looking at a Saint Sebastian, he is reminded of Vance, the only man he has ever loved. Aesthetic taste is fundamental to Keates’s characters. One would dread to be stuck with them for very long.

Smile Please (2000), Keates’s second novel, is set in the contemporary London gay community. While always on the lookout for rampant sex, the main characters of the novel are equally aware of the importance of aesthetic penetration. One of the protagonists’ favourite gay bar is the Anvil, where, because of the well-read clientele, you can pause from sex 'to discuss early Antonioni or the Shostakovich cello sonata without feeling guilty that it wasn’t something suitably post-ironic like Karen Carpenter or Mommy Dearest instead'. Following the lives of Adam and of his flatmate Theo, the novel is elegantly constructed as a contemporary tale of young men (and, more marginally, women) about town. Smile Please is a social comedy of manners modelled after Restoration dramas with the same emphasis on sexual mores and on the contrast between the country and the city. Adam falls for Francesco Damiani, 'the celebrated divo' of American choreographer, while his flatmate Theo, a black actor, has just started a relationship with the wealthy Guy, whose life beyond a flat in Bayswater remains a mystery. There is a sense of doom hanging over these relationships from the very start and characters are unable to find a sense of purpose in their actions, finding them harder to master than the cultural references which abound in their snobbish conversations (from the latest Alan Hollinghurst’s novel to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida). Keates wittily parodies homosexual (and heterosexual) lives in contemporary London, zeroing in on a society of masquerade where seeming is being, surface is all, and deception is the main rule in the game. Yet, one is left with the fact that no-one in contemporary queer London seems able to hold a steady relationship so busy as they all are with 'a clusterfuck' at the Holloway Road sauna and a night at the opera.

Luca Prono, 2004

Bibliography

2005
The Siege of Venice, Chatto & Windus
2001
Short Stories, Hamish Hamilton
2000
Smile Please, Chatto & Windus
1997
Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, Chatto & Windus
1995
Purcell: A Biography, Chatto & Windus
1994
Venice, Sinclair-Stevenson
1994
Stendhal, Sinclair-Stevenson
1991
Umbria, photographs by Joe Cornish, George Philip
1991
Italian Journeys, Heinemann
1988
Tuscany, with photographs by Charlie Waite, George Philip
1987
The Stranger's Gallery, Hamish Hamilton
1985
Handel: The Man and His Music, Gollancz
1983
Drawings and Sketches of Oxford by William Bird, editor, Salamander
1983
Allegro Postillions, Salamander
1980
The Love of Italy, Octopus
1980
Canterbury Cathedral, Summerfield
1979
The Companion Guide to Shakespeare Country, Collins
1979
Leeds Castle: An Illustrated Guide, with Angelo Hornak, Philip Wilson
1979
Historic London, with Angelo Hornak, Letts

Awards

1983
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), Allegro Postillions
1983
Hawthornden Prize, Allegro Postillions

Author Statement

'My answer to the question "Why do you write?" is "Because I'm still alive". I wrote my first original non-scholastic composition, a play about King Charles II's escape after the battle of Worcester, at the age of six, and have been scribbling ever since. It's something I can't not do, something as instinctive to me as breathing. I don't have a "field" or a "hat", which exasperates a lot of people and means nobody takes me as seriously as I'd like, but too bad. I'm not a novelist or a biographer or a musicologist, but I've enjoyed working in all these areas and shall certainly do so again. I like to write the books that aren't there and ought to be. Inherently selfish, I use writing to counterbalance egocentricity by sharing my enthusiasm and curiosity (almost the only decent qualities I possess) with others. You could say that writing for me was a kind of expiation, an attempt to clear my name with God, a sort of "justification by works" - a surprisingly Catholic attitude in someone as viscerally Protestant as I. The exhilaration, the sense I have of existing most completely with a pen in my hand, derives partly from this power to be generous, but just as much from a pleasure all self-respecting writers presumably experience, that of managing now and then to strike an ideal relationship between what I want to say and how I say it.'