The Curious Case of Writing Novels about Art By Brian Howell
We all know the adage about those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. I can apply this not only to my total lack of ability to draw or paint (despite some noble juvenile failures), but also to my wannabe non-status as an art historian (which I definitely am not). I do teach language, though, for my sins. If I could start all over again, I think I would be very happy to retrain as an art historian, probably with a focus in one specific field, that of Dutch painting of the Golden Age.
Where my own obsession comes from, it is hard to say but the routine experience, in Britain, of being able to see Dutch genre paintings—many of them very modest in scale—in almost every English country mansion at little expense may have a lot to do with it. To this, I would add a strong interest in cinema from my earliest days, as well as the fact that Dutch painters of this time are well-known for both their fascination with optical devices and illusion. To complete the picture for me, many Dutch painters depicted secular subject matter, which (for someone who wasn’t brought up as a churchgoer), made the world they put on display all the more enticing, as I did not feel that I was missing out on too many allusions. In time, of course, one learns of the importance of proverbs and certain symbols, some of them quite recondite, which are only really understood by historians nowadays, and it certainly helps if you are from the Netherlands! However, they add to one’s enjoyment the more one takes the time to investigate them. To a friend’s question as to why a slipper in a Dutch painting cannot just be a slipper, my answer is that I think it can, but why deny oneself the frisson of other possible connotations?
My interest in literature has always come first (that is to say, the wish to write in a literary way) and I have always found it hard to find the right, satisfying content. This has usually been provided by the visual arts, in my case. These, in turn, tend to require that you look into the history: and that is where I have been ensnared, in a pleasurable way, for many years (probably too many, because for me going deep into historical research, and I mean the fetishistic, tactile process of research as much as what one learns, is on a par with losing oneself in, for example, an exemplary historical film, such Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, or Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot). And yet, as a novelist, you always fall between two stools. For examples of the kind of novels that for me meld superbly the belletristic with the historical, I would give Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’œvre au noir (The Abyss), Joanna Scott’s Arrogance (about Egon Schiele), and John Banville’s Kepler and Dr Copernicus, to name only a few. I am aware there are many others I could mention.
If I think of the subject of the novel that took me longest to write, Johannes or Jan Torrentius, whose career in some ways comes across as almost a mirror image of his more famous compatriot Jan Vermeer, since it was dogged so much by scandal, I was able to base my starting point with one painting and pivot in different directions by looking into the historical figures around him that I wanted to people the novel with. Firstly, more than any other figure, Constantijn Huygens, father of the famous scientist Christiaan; then the inventor Cornelis Drebbel; John Donne, who needs no introduction; Elizabeth of Bohemia; and finally Dudley Carleton, an intriguing diplomat who became Lord Dorchester and eventually Secretary of State in 1628. I saw these real historical figures—who are all easily deserving of a whole novel on their own and some of whom indeed have been the basis for other works of fiction—as existing in the orbit of a lesser-known, and, I feel, sadder, and probably unjustly maligned, figure, that of a painter who was at one stage praised by the same man, Huygens, who was in charge of choosing artworks for the Stadtholder Frederick Henry. What I do with these real characters is no doubt counter-historical, but based in reality, at least for the purposes of being a springboard to a story.
Where I perhaps depart from other historical writers is that I do not excel at one of those talents which is often deemed essential to good historical writing: evoking time and place through extremely accurate descriptions of clothes, food, and a whole gamut of historical detail. It does interest me intensely, but it is not my forte. I hope that I do just enough, and in some ways I let the reader’s mind fill in some of this from their passive knowledge of the kind of art that is well-known, for good or bad.
All of my novels about painters have revolved around a culture that I cannot be said to have experienced at first hand other than through a number of trips and stays in the Netherlands, and they all in one way or another feature optical devices, the use of some of which verges on the outlandish and many of which are based on actual devices that continue to fascinate us and our investment in which our current digitalised culture has only reinforced. One might say that Greek and Arabic culture, followed by the Italian Renaissance, all explored aspects of science and visual culture that were either forgotten or considered less important until the Flemish and the Dutch, for the most part, brought these to the front of their own artistic culture. It has often been said reductively that different European cultures have excelled in different areas more than in others, the British in theatre, the Germans in music, the French in literature, philosophy, and painting, the Italians in art and architecture, but if one were to do the same for the Netherlands one would surely have to say it is in art—especially in the depiction of the kind of realism that was ahead of its time. Yet that realism itself was revived exactly at a time when realism was increasingly being left to the new area of photography. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, the rekindled interest in Vermeer in the late nineteenth century by the Impressionists was a testament to the fact that he was a kind of impressionist in his application of paint and in the way he reconfigured different spaces to give the impression of actual places, which modern research has often revealed to be composites.
Returning to some touchstones for me, I would cite perhaps two conflicting works; one a work of non-fiction and one a television film. In the first case, Svetlana Alpers’ magnificent The Art of Describing delves into the world as perceived and painted by key artists and cultural figures and theorises that their main purpose was to describe the world around them rather than necessarily to narrate stories. Leslie Megahey’s 1979 television film Schalcken The Painter, an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story of the supernatural does everything that one could possibly want to do with a Dutch genre painting as a source for drama, in my opinion, by bringing it to life and weaving a wonderful story around it. Even Nabokov tried his hand at a similar story, it has to be said.
In addition to these fascinations, the actual true story of Jan Torrentius, as much as we are able to know it, provided me with an opportunity to look into Stuart life and write about other European cultures just as the Thirty Years’ War was kicking off. I found it both exhilarating and terrifying to attempt to bring back to life, albeit for very short periods, figures such as Charles I and John Donne, but it’s a journey I do not regret.
Brian Howell is an author and teacher living and working near Tokyo, Japan. He has published three novels and one short story collection (The Sound of White Ants) since 1990. He has also published over thirty short stories since 1990, in publications which include Critical Quarterly, Stand, and Best British Short Stories 2018 (edited by Nicholas Royle). His novels focus on Dutch seventeenth-century painters and optical devices, the counter-historical, and fantasy, and they form a loose trilogy. You can visit his publisher’s website, Zagava, for more information about his work. You can follow him on Twitter @brianhowell61