Sex, food, family and film

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James Ivory’s captivating, digressive memoir was first published as a series between 2014 and 2017 in a minuscule print run by Shrinking Violet Press, with each luxury volume hand-sewn and swathed in antique silk. Now the emporio version has arrived, expanded and newly edited by Peter Cameron, Shrinking Violet’s director. It seems appropriate that a film director such as Ivory, known for his beautifully upholstered adaptations of literary works, should have initially released his life story in the form of a gorgeous collectible bibelot.

The focus in this affordable edition is still on a life lived richly and well. Recollections of Shakespeare Wallah, Maurice and Howards End surface only sporadically, although it’s a pleasure to read of Ivory’s on-the-job training on the set of the great Indian film-maker Satyajit Ray. The one film to merit its own chapter is the more recent Call Me by Your Name, for which Ivory won a screenwriting Academy Award after being unceremoniously ditched as co-director by Luca Guadagnino. Ivory is far too well mannered to gloat, but is as pleased as punch that Guadagnino comes away with nothing, not least because of his justifiable annoyance that the director deleted much of the explicit sex Ivory put in the script.

No danger of that in Solid Ivory, as the incidentally priapic title might seem to suggest. (In fact, rather sweetly, “Solid Ivory” was the name of a comedy routine he performed for his friends as a teenager). Ivory has had a lot of sex over the years, and he emerges as a connoisseur of the penis, from the “garden-hose variety” endowing a high-school crush to Bruce Chatwin’s “uncut, rosy, schoolboy-looking ready cock that seemed to match his high-coloured, fair schoolboy’s face”. Ivory came of age in 1940s Oregon, a time of sideways glances and long-cultivated tendresses. He describes his experiences of bullying and queer-bashing with undaunted spirit and powerful pride in his sexuality.

Sex, food, family and film emerge as central themes, not necessarily (although not necessarily not) in that order. Like his lover and creative partner Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005, Ivory is “interested in having nice things to eat on all occasions”, which as a life principle appears more profound the more it is considered. A surreal moment sees the Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – who seems never to have entered a kitchen, other than to give instructions to the cook – suddenly conjure up an immaculate blanquette de veau at Ivory’s home in upstate New York. (She never does it again.)

Ivory gives us country-house good living aplenty (a ball at Wilton House, a weekend away in a palace in Jodhpur), and pen portraits of friends and muses that only occasionally descend into name-dropping. The green-room gossip is subtle but rewarding: Vanessa Redgrave reminds Ivory of A Room with a View’s Charlotte Bartlett (not a compliment); Daniel Day-Lewis is a diva who won’t trim his fingernails. Ivory writes beautifully and delicately, and emerges as a true cinematic rarity: the auteur who wants everyone to have a nice time while they make their best work.

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