Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden review – how to reconcile life and art?

Colin Grant
·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

The credits and deficits of an artistic life are the focus of Diary of a Film. The protagonist, a director called Maestro by all those around him, arrives at a film festival in an unnamed Italian city where his latest work, a tragic romance based on William Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf, will premiere. The homosexual passion of two young men, the film’s key theme, is echoed in Govinden’s novel through the vicarious pleasure that Maestro takes from his brash yet beguiling American leads, Tom and Lorien, enacting a real-life version of their characters’ story.

Govinden is especially attuned to the fragility of their early relationship, when tender moments can be lost to a misplaced word or misunderstanding, and the romantic spell seems broken and impossible to repair. Maestro is enthralled by his actors and, when socialising with them, his near-anthropological observation of Tom and Lorien chimes with his sense of the primacy – the nobility, even – of reaching for an elusive truth and putting it on the silver screen.

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Central to Diary of a Film is the question: how do you reconcile life and art, and not settle for a life deferred while art is being made? Maestro’s film is widely expected to win the major prize at the festival, but he is as unsettled and subdued as the director/protagonist of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. Wandering the streets before the screening, a chance encounter with a stranger, Cosima, appears to sweep away any threat of melancholia and gives him a sense of direction for his next project.

As they walk through the city, Maestro learns, in dialogue-heavy scenes that call to mind Éric Rohmer’s films, that Cosima is a grief-stricken author. She stopped writing after publishing her novel, a memorial to her lover, an unknown graffiti artist who killed himself decades earlier.

Govinden is clearly drawing parallels with the sexually confused hero of Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf. Tragedy lies in the gulf between the desire to express oneself fully and the courage to do so, in life or art. Govinden casts Maestro as a proxy for all obsessional artists whose focus on their subjects is a means of deflecting from the hollowness of their own lives.

Maxwell once described the writerly ideal as one in which “the line of truth [is] exactly superimposed on the line of feeling”. Both Maestro and Govinden strive to realise that ambition. In Diary of a Film it is within touching distance.

• Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden is published by Dialogue (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply