Poet Chris Greenhalgh’s debut novel, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, romanticizes a brief affair between the Russian composer and the iconic fashion force. The novel was then redeveloped into a screenplay and the resulting film closed the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Before I began reading Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, I was thoroughly intrigued by the premise of the novel and eager to learn more about the lives of these two powerful artistic individuals. I was soon disappointed as much in this fictionalized biography is imagined and rings false. There would be a beautiful symmetry if these two important players in music and fashion connected and positively influenced each other, but the novel is not convincing that their summer romance was significant.
The novel opens with the debut of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring in May of 1913 in Paris when the audience rioted in reaction to the radically different music. Coco is in the audience that night and deeply moved by the spectacle. Seven years later, Coco meets Igor at a dinner and subsequently invites the struggling Russian refugee and his family to live in her summer cottage. She provides him with a study for his piano, enrolls his children in school, and provides for the family thanks to her considerable wealth. Living in such proximity, Coco and Igor soon engage in a torrid affair while still sharing her home with the rest of Igor’s family, including his bedridden wife.
The problem is that most of the novel is told in a stilted omniscient present tense voice that reads more like directions for a movie script. The author constantly shifts between characters’ viewpoints, often mid-paragraph, making it tough to keep track of whose head the reader is in at a given time. “Seeing Igor’s hands ripple across the piano, she experiences a slow inflammation of her senses. Her mind made up, she shuffles silently out of her skirt, which falls in a wrinkly heap at her feet.
Igor becomes abruptly aware of her presence, sensing her nearness like an animal. He stops playing, but does not turn around, remaining frozen in midgesture, his fingers tense and arrested above the keys. Coco moves like heat behind him. Two deft hands steal over his eyes.
She whispers thrillingly in his ear.”
Greenhalgh pays a great deal of attention to Stravinsky’s music, even giving the novel 88 chapters to correspond to the numbe of piano keys. He describes the days of music eminating from the study as Stravinsky worked on new pieces through so many different viewpoints that it seems the music is omnipresent. In contrast, Coco Chanel’s fashion seems to take a back seat. Little time is spent describing her creative process other than detailing her trips into Paris to check on the finances of her shop and her trip to the South of France to choose the fragrance for Chanel #5. Stravinsky is painted as a genius while Chanel seems to be a shopkeeper with ambitions beyond her station.
I believe it was this imbalance in the portrayal of their creative process which kept me from believing that the relationship held such significance for the two. The closing chapter depicting Chanel’s death scene and her last thoughts for Igor was the last straw. Having had such a long life filled with so many accomplishments, I found it completely incredible that she would spend any of her last thoughts for a summer-long tryst with a married man who she then tired of.
Although I was left unconvinced by Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, I did enjoy the prose and was struck by the power of many of the images created by Greenhalgh. I wouldn’t recommend the novel, but perhaps readers with more familiarity with musical history would enjoy it more than I did.