A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR AND CO-SCREENWRITER CHRIS GREENHALGH
Coco & Igor, THE BOOK
After two collections of poetry and more than one prestigious award, english author Chris Greenhalgh elected to tell the story of the still-alleged love story between the greatest composer and the most celebrated designer of their times. His novel, "Coco & Igor", written in 2002, is a romantic reconstruction of the passion that played out between the walls of Chanel's house, 'Bel Respiro'. "Who would have thought so at the time, who would believe it now?" asks the writer. Through this artistic and sentimental encounter, the novel explores the creative development and birth of their great works: "The Rite of Spring" and the bestselling perfume ever, Chanel Nº5.
During his investigation, Chris Greenhalgh discovered that Stravinsky's music was described by a contemporary critic as "Russian vodka with a French perfume."
His aim and his task were to bring out the obvious connections between these two great revolutionary destinies. The works of the modern lovers haven't finished crossing each other's paths. Seven years after completing his novel, Chris Greenhalgh has adapted "Coco & Igor" for Jan Kounen's film. The lovers are immortal.
How was the idea of your book "Coco and Igor" born?
I saw a photograph of Chanel and Stravinsky together. A strange couple, I thought. And then I did some research. It turned out they lived almost exactly parallel lives. Stravinsky died at the age of 88, while Chanel died in her 87th year. This struck a chord because I knew there were 88 keys on a piano keyboard. And I liked the parallel of the senses, too - music and perfume, and the connection of black and white motifs - the black and white of the piano and the black and white of CHANEL's designs. This sense of parallel lives, meeting in the middle and influencing each other before moving off, was how the novel was born.
What was the process of investigation like?
I read every book and biography I could about Chanel and Stravinsky, as well as about Misia Sert and Diaghilev, another strangely parallel pair. It took quite a long time. I discovered that Chanel, quite by chance, had been present at the riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in 1913. It was the first classical concert she had ever been to. She was invited by her dance teacher, a Greek woman called Caryathis. They were accompanied by Caryathis' wealthy German lover Von Recklinghausen and his friend, the actor Charles Dullin. Seven years later, Chanel had invited the newly exiled and impoverished Stravinsky, along with his consumptive wife and four children, to stay with her in her villa, 'Bel Respiro', outside Paris. There the couturiere and the composer had a brief but intense affair. Robert Craft and Steven Walsh, Stravinsky's biographers, attest to this, as does Paul Morand, a confidant of Chanel's.
What elements were known for facts when you first started?
That Chanel attended the premiere of "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, that Stravinsky lived in her house, with his wife and 4 children in 1920-21, that Chanel Nº5 was 'born' in 1920-21, that they both died in the same year, having been born just over a year apart, that Chanel sponsored the revival of The Rite in 1920-21 and continued to act as a patron for Stravinsky's music many years afterwards
What did you find out that wasn't known at all?
All the information was available, but no one before had made the connection of their parallel lives, or of the fact that CHANEL Nº5 coincided with the revival of "The Rite" in 1920-21, when they were living together. This was the main discovery.
How did you have to "complete" the story using your imagination?
Aside from the 'facts' above, there is little information about their relationship, no letters or correspondence survive between them, where they went, what they did, so I was able to take the essential facts and imagine and invent the rest.
What did you learn during the writing process?
The process made me realise the need for a clear structure. The novel is in 32 parts and reflects the structure of Bach's "Goldberg Variations", with the first and the last part being very similar. The first and last parts are also in the past tense, while the middle 30 chapters are in the present tense. This allowed me to bring the story alive more, and make it seem like it was happening now. This made it seem less stiff and taxidermal.
What do you think this passion was made of?
The passion of their relationship comes from an artistic and creative meeting of minds. Also, Chanel was in grief over her lover Boy Capel's death, while Stravinsky was coming to terms with his wife's illness - tuberculosis. In that sense, they both needed love to affirm themselves at this time.
Are you convinced that both "The Rite of Spring" and the "CHANEL N°5" perfume bear the traces of their encounter?
The Rite was already in place in 1913, but the revisions made in 1920 perhaps bear the marks of a revived passion. CHANEL Nº5 may have a connection to Stravinsky's "Five Easy Pieces" first performed in 1919 and his "Five Finger Exercises" written in 1920, probably in Chanel's villa. The perfume bottle itself is, of course, a testament to cubism and the world of the Modernists. Stravinsky was already a close friend of Picasso, and so Chanel completed the triangle - or rather the cube!
Your book became a film for Jan Kounen, for which you also wrote the screenplay. Did the fact of re-thinking this unbelievable love affair for the screen bring the story a new perspective?
Yes, because the parallels had to be hinted at or suggested rather than fully developed or stated, and the information conveyed much more visually rather than merely through description or dialogue. Also, there was a necessary process of distillation, as there was not enough time or space in the film to fit everything in. Jan was fantastic at recognising the essential elements and knowing what to cut.
Now that the film made your initial vision come true, is it a way of finally making your story even more real?
It gives it the strength of a visual image, which I hope will endure. It also makes the villa a strong presence, and almost another character in the story. But I also hope that it is a convincing love story in its own right, and has universal appeal beyond any narrow interest in two historical figures.