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David Nicholls — loneliness is the driving force of “Sweet Sorrow”

David Nicholls arrives in Milan to present his latest book – Sweet Sorrow – two days after the UK general elections. Boris Johnson’s Tories have won over Corbyn’s Labour party with a vast majority: Brexit now seems like a done deal. After a direct question from someone in the audience, Nicholls declares to have no idea how Britain’s future outside the EU will influence his and most of his colleagues’ writing – at the moment the thought of Britain outside the EU just seems depressing. Like all depressing thoughts and facts, it will have to be processed before writing something about it: no matter how pro EU Nicholls and most other UK writers might be, an author has to offer a wider perspective involving all parts and at the moment it’s way too soon for anyone to have one.  

The general sense of nostalgia moved by a novel set in 1997 – at the dawn of the European Union and with a newly elected labour government after years of conservative leaders, one of which was Margaret Thatcher – is enhanced and almost breaks the boundaries with escapism. 1997, pre-digital era. No internet, no social media, no mobile phones, no dating apps, no texting, sexting, whatsapping, facetiming, skyping or tik-toking. Having to leave the house in order to meet people and fight boredom and loneliness. It’s June, the last day of the last year in school with its embarrassing school ball, the beginning of the summer, thinking about what’s to come with a mixture of fear and excitement, hanging out with friends, the first hangovers, the first cigarettes, the first wet kisses and of course, the first love story. Sweet Surrow is a romantic novel. Nicholls chooses to focus on the love story we can all connect to, the first one: that messy, uncool thing which we all remember. Suddenly being entirely self-conscious, aware of how we look, of our body odor and of the shape and size of our private parts. Awkward, but at the same time pure: no domestic worries, no talking about college debts or mortgages, no discussing how to educate the kids, no fighting over piles of dirty laundry, just love.

The forementioned boredom and loneliness happen to be the driving force of Sweet Sorrow‘s love story. As the protagonist and narrator, Charlie Lewis, says: «There was no flourish on the harp and no change in the lighting. If I’d been busier that summer or happier at home, then I might not have thought about her so much, but I was neither busy nor happy, so I fell». It’s so like Nicholls to insert sharp, razor-like, British-humored sentences in what is ultimately a delicate book. The years have gone by and as adults we look back at the emotional roller-coasters of our teen-hood in a lucid, sometimes cynical way. We have to, it’s our job as grown ups. It’s also our job to avoid being judgmental, towards our teen self and towards teens in general. On the other hand, it’s a teen’s job to be unforgiving. Once again Nicholls allows Charlie Lewis to act as voice of truth: «The greatest lie that age tells about youth is that it’s somehow free of care, worry or fear».

Charlie is a sixteen-year-old boy with a broken family and bad exam results hanging over his head like Damocles sword. Nicholls stresses about his anonymity: in the class photo nothing defines him, nothing makes him stand out. He’s there and that’s what he’s remembered for: being there. He incidentally meets pretty and lively Fran Fisher during one of his lonely and boring summer days. Totally against his – conscious – will, moved only by the desire to see her again, he finds himself part of a theater company, a group of amateurs led by some young actors who are putting together a ‘rather unprecedented’ version of Romeo and Juliet. Nicholls deliberately pays a tribute to Shakespeare not only with Romeo and Juliet, but also by making things happen the moment Charlie leaves the uninspiring setting of his suburb and ventures out in the countryside: As you like it, A Midsmummer’s Night Dream… in Shakespeare things happen when you set out in the wild. 

Fran is Juliet, and Charlie finds himself playing Benvolio. «School is a kind of masquerade, where everybody wears an ever-changing costume. Kids try different roles, they change attitude, they change hairstyle, signature, music, political vision», Nicholls explains. «Charlie doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to be a part of this generational movement. He has problems with expressing his personality. He doesn’t think that art or music are in any way something for him, he has no story to tell. By becoming part of the theater company, Charlie faces true challenges, not only placing himself in a decent light in front of his beloved Fran, but also finding ways of expressing himself. I wanted to show how things change for him over the summer. How there can be something more exciting than his gloomy present, perhaps also a better relationship with the parents. I plan my novels very carefully when I start writing and in my plans Charlie was going to become Romeo, he was going to work his way up in the cast until he was playing the lead role and he was going discover this new, surprising, acting talent. Then I decided that this wasn’t really the point. It wasn’t about being the lead and it wasn’t about theatrical ambition, Charlie was much more suited for a side role like Benvolio, somebody who watches, observes and understands»

Romeo and Juliet was written in the 16th century. Talking about  Shakespeare’s most famous play today anywhere outside a classroom or a theater is a challenge and a risky business. In fact, it’s a risky business also in school and on stage. In 1996 Baz Luhrman released a movie version of the ‘the greatest love story of all time‘ keeping the original verses but setting in modern times. Luhrman’s signature capability of creating spectacular scenes, together with Prada costumes, Radiohead and Dire straits and an angel-faced Leonardo Di Caprio, successfully brought Shakespeare back in the spotlight and on the walls of every other teenager’s bedroom (including my own). Still, that was more than twenty years ago. Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo, but what do this story and woe look like to a contemporary boy or girl? «I think probably people, young readers especially, always have the same caution and hesitance and weariness towards Shakespeare», says Nicholls. «thinking it’s a different language, it’s boring and by now irrelevant. Also they have the same surprise when they see it done well and they realize it’s engaging and exciting, romantic and physical. When I was writing the novel I interviewed an actress who is in a very good production of Romeo and Juliet which I went to see several times. Yes, it was the same as when I was a kid, there were a lot of school kids in the audience who were bored or resentful and determined not to enjoy it, but they were all swept along by the story because it’s a short play, it’s a very violent story and it’s also very sexual, so there’s a lots there for a sixteen-year-old to hold on to. I think it would be great if someone could give it the urgency and the excitement that Luhrman gave it in 1996. Luhrman’s film is perhaps a little dated now but at the time it did feel very fresh. A good, youthful production, well performed, that isn’t stuffy and old fashioned can still be very exciting». 

Romeo and Juliet themselves, their love and the feud between their families, may seem outdated today but they are just teenagers clumsily moving their first steps in the adult, it’s just a matter of how they are represented: «The last production I saw, I was struck by two things: one was that if the play is done by older actors or film stars it isn’t very interesting. If Romeo and Juliet are played by real teenagers, with all the awkwardness and the gaucheness and the energy and the frustration of that age, I think it can be really effecting and emotional. The second thing that struck me is that Juliet is a more interesting character than Romeo. In the second part Romeo just goes into exile and hides, while Juliet keeps pushing, she keeps moving the plot forwards, she keeps coming up with ideas. She keeps the story alive and  has all the best speeches. It doesn’t take much to portray Juliet as a modern feminist: she’s rebellious, brave, eloquent and more an interesting part than she’s sometimes imagined to be»In Sweet Sorrow Fran, who is aware of her femininity and of her sex, decides to play Juliet as a peer, someone who is driven by her same, identical desires. A passionate, sexy Juliet. Interestingly enough, this year, photographer Paolo Roversi’s theme for the yealy Pirelli Calendar is Looking for Juliet; Roversi asked women such as Mia Goth, Claire Foy, Emma Watson and Yara Shahidi to interpret their own version of Shakespeare’s character.  

It’s Shakespeare’s protagonist, together with his own experiences, which guide a grown up man into creating teenage characters. The story itself will somehow seem like a period piece to most Millenials (not to mention Gen. Z), the fact that there’s no digital communication will be strange to a contemporary sixteen-year-old. In the end that is just the backdrop. As Nicholls says, «the emotional under line, the desperate desire to create a certain impression and the joy and the pain of it all is a constant throughout the ages». Even Romeo and Juliet still has moments of joy, desire and frustration which are vivid and modern. Romeo and Juliet’s love story simply happens, they fall in love with each other without exchanging a word, they barely speak to each other throughout the entire play and when they do so they do it it’s with perfectly harmonized sonnets. They kiss and then they decide to marry. As simple as that. The first love has no why or how, it doesn’t have any reason and very little philosophy or discussion. It just happens. Of course, the moment it happens, you kind of now that it’s doomed. That just serves the purpose of the story because, as Nicholls says, «what’s really interesting in a love story it’s the beginning and the end»

Building plausible teen characters as an adult is a challenge, but perhaps it’s even more of a challenge to build characters of parents, maintaining the perspective of a teenager, when you are a parent yourself as Nicholls is. The parents in the book were built from a child’s point of view, therefore in the narrative you live the experiences and emotions of a child and you guess the experiences and emotions of the parent through what the child says. Charlie’s relationship with his parents is, like in most cases, a controversial one: there’s love and affection, but there’s also a great difficulty in communicating which generates confusion on all sides. In the book, Charlie’s mother leaves her broke and depressed husband for another man. She also chooses to take Charlie’s younger sister with her but leaves Charlie behind. 

As a parent, this entire passage is unsettling and almost unrealistic: which mother, providing she has means, would deliberately choose to leave her son behind although he is clearly asking to come along? Then again, this is from a child’s point of view, a child’s common fear: mum’s leaving, she’s taking my sister but not me (she doesn’t love me as much), and I have to stay behind and look after dad instead of living my life. Things like this happen, children know it, adults tend to forget it unless they are confronted with unpredictable turns in life.  When asked about the character of the mother and her unpopular decision, Nicholls says «This situation is painful and terrible, and it also happens sometimes. I try not to be judgmental, even if the characters are furious. I need to present both sides, I can’t just label villains, even if the characters are appalled. For the mother in the novel to have the son there is of great comfort to both her and the father. It means the dad isn’t abandoned. There’s always a motivation».

In life we rarely say what we mean or what we want. A big part of acting training is working out what the characters really mean and what’s the subtext to what they’re saying. That’s a big part of writing too. «You’ve got to write dialogue that’s not just what the character says but what they mean to say as well», Nicholls explains. «All of that is part of acting and part of writing. The difference between what we say and what we mean, between what we do and what we feel. They are very rarely the same thing»As a former actor, and as someone who today also writes for the screen, Nicholls looks back at his years in drama school and at his experiences on stage: I never had that much training as a writer, everything I learned, I learned watching actors. I wasn’t a very good actor myself but I could see actors respond to scenes and I could see when they were enjoying something. As an actor you can feel when the scene is too long, when something doesn’t  feel quite right. The questions I ask myself when writing a novel are very similar to the questions an actor asks himself when preparing a character, you want to give precise cultural references to your character. What did he grow up watching? What shoes is he wearing? How does he walk? How does he feel about himself? What does he want? All those questions you ask as an actor I ask as a novelist and even though I didn’t know it at the time, all the time spent in rehearsal talking about these kind of things ended up being really useful».

Besides the awkwardness and the beauty of the first love, the controversial parent-child relationship and the very Shakespearean ‘theater in the theater?, there is another very contemporary topic that emerges from Sweet Surrow: art as ‘something for rich people’. In the novel, Charlie and his friends insist on how artistic disciplines are for rich kids, taught only in high-end schools and accessible only to those coming from middle-class families. Consequently, and perhaps as a response, those who don’t have these kind of facilities end up scorning anything that has the slightly artistic declination, including any form of self expression. It is not by chance that Charlie’s Juliet, Fran, comes from a different background: her parents are ‘educated’, she is surrounded by beautiful objects, spoon-fed art and literature from a very young age and her acting talent looks like a natural consequence of her upbringing, something to be proud of and, as a parent, to encourage. Charlie’s parents also love music, his father is a musician, but his working-class background eventually prevails over his talent and his ambition. 

In Britain, and not only in Britain (in Italy it’s been like this forever), there is today a sought of class division when it comes to education in art: It’s no accident that most of the successful British actors today are expensively educated in schools that have theaters, film cameras and editing suites, where arts in every form – visual arts, performance and music – are part of the curriculum. The fact that now you have to pay for your education and get in debt means that people from poorer backgrounds are frightened, and for good reasons, of perusing a career that is maybe more risky and with a less clearly defined path. That reflects in any film office or theater company you walk into:  it’s a very middle-class world and and it’s just getting worse. I went to a very poor state school but we still had music and drama, but now that’s not the case, schools can’t afford music and drama teachers and it’s a shame. Eddie Redmayne went to Eton, they all went to private schools and that can’t go on»This last statement is a strong one and it’s hard not to agree, but at the same time, unintentionally, it just brings us back to the initial point, of the book and of this article: nostalgia.

English version:

David Nicholls, Sweet Sorrow, Hodder & Stoughton, 2019

Italian version (translated by Massimo Ortelio):

David Nicholls, Un dolore così dolce, Neri Pozza, 2019

The book presentation took place at Mondadori Megastore in piazza Duomo, followed by a dinner in honor of the author at Cova Montenapoleone, made possible thanks to Maison Ruinart and American Express.