Photos by Claus Laufenberg.
One of the most vertiginous and extraordinary film panels of the historical past is undoubtedly Andrei Rublev (1966), by Andrei Tarkovsky. Rublev was a Russian icon painter in the fifteenth century, an enigmatic and mysterious figure, whose artistic production was almost entirely lost (less than twenty works attributed to him), in an ebullient and ferocious historical background. Tarkovsky's film embraces this effervescence and ferocity, and instead of focusing the narrative on an artist whose biography seems almost unknown, opts for the composition of genetic historical panels, culminating in a beautiful, poetic and touching narrative of the building of a bell for a church. More than the (if imaginary) biography of a genius, Andrei Rublev is a deep reflection on Art, History, Barbarism and the Creative Will, essential to the human being.
It is curious and even appalling how, after finishing reading Brian Howell's astounding novel, The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius, it was precisely from Tarkovsky's film that my wandering mind remembered. No other historical novels appeared, but the images of the Russian painter, lost in an apocalyptic landscape came out of a nightmare, a historical one. For Howell's masterpiece – probably one of the best novels of the early twenty-first century – is also centered on a painter, Jan Torrentius, a man of succinct, mysterious biography and minimal surviving production – practically reduced to a single absolutely spectacular painting. And if the multiple layers present in the intricate statements that make up the plot suggest multiple and rich interpretive paths, I especially hold Howell's affectionate homage to the human dream of cinema and photography, this ancient desire to freeze time in an instant of eternity.
The edition of the book, by Zagava, is simply spectacular and deserves, in the future, essays and articles about its paths between a first abridged publication and the current, complete version.
Below, the video and written interview of Brian Howell regarding his fascinating and baroque narrative about painting, heresy, secret societies, images, intrincated artistic visions, dreams and the fortuitous nature of truth.
1) Your novel was first published in 2014 under the title The Stream and the Torrent, as a novel of reasonable but apparently conventional extension, with its division into three chapters (the title of the second, "Ex Anglia reversus", incidentally , Is great). But the final version of the novel is much more intricate: there are six (or three) books and the chapters division has multiple presentations and introductory essays that clearly define some narrative options, as well as a chapters division as statements. How was the development of your book: did it come in a more or less definite format or did you develop the ideas of it conformed more and more complex? How was the development of your book: did it come in a more or less definitive format, or did you develop his ideas over a period of time, to its final form?
The basic shape of the novel was always set as consisting of five or six sections, with the last sixth section an option. Originally, each statement, solicited by Huygens as a kind of collective portrait of Torrentius, was preceded by a prologue, but as I got more and more views on the novel as a whole, these prologues became subsumed into the sections proper. The content of the prologues was basically still there. These prologues for the statements have to be distinguished from the Prefaces by Christiaan and Constantijn Huygens, which were there from the beginning, and the epilogue by Christiaan. The extra prologues just made it too busy and confusing.
The above has to be separated to a certain from the way the book first appeared with Les editions de l’oubli/Zagava in 2014 under the title of The Stream and The Torrent: The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius and the Followers of the Rosy Cross: Vol. 1 had discussed with Dan Ghetu of Ex Occidente various permutations of the segments (statements) simply because he could not publish any one book over 50,000 words, as I understood it. So I made a decision to put the final segment by Torrentius at the beginning of Vol.1 along with what had always till then been the first two segments by Huygens and Drebbel. The problem was that these appeared without the prefaces by the father and son to give them any context. I think the reader is forced to read them as three floating, vaguely connected novellas about this character called Torrentius. It will not be until the complete The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius appears with the Table of Contents (available for people who already have Vol.1, too) that readers of Vol.1 will have any idea of the originally intended order (Huygens, Drebbel, Carleton, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Donne, and Torrentius)! Before this decision was made I think we came close to what was a good compromise in so far as Ex Occidente might have published four slim volumes (Vol.1: Huygens and Drebbel; Vol. 2: Carleton: Vol.3 Elizabeth and Donne; Vol.4: Torrentius. Combining Vol. 3 and 4. might have also been mooted). That would have kept the order but at the time I think I wasn’t sure how long the Torrentius segment was going to be and in the end it turned out to be very short. Either way, that idea would have represented the novel in the right order, as now the The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius does, finally. The latter is one of a number of permutations and ideas so I can’t say that any were set in stone before it came out in the Vol.1 incarnation.
That said, the various permutation did not make a great difference to the fact that it was always one novel. The only variable in my mind was the idea that the Huygens section might be too slow so I always had the idea to put Torrentius’s segment at the front in the back of my mind, but in retrospect this was a bad idea and the idea of putting it in Vol.1 was basically my idea, and I regret that move. Luckily, Zagava have given me the chance to redress that mistake.
2) Still in the statements: it is a peculiar and intelligent strategy of fragmentation of the perspectives surrounding the mysteries involving the enigmatic Jan Torrentius. There is even something about it that reminds me, for example, of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (as well as the two Ryonosuke Akutagawa short stories that were adapted by the Japanese director in his film). Would the foundation of this conception be more cinematographic or literary? How was the construction of this fragmented universe in varied perspectives?
I was familiar with the film version of Rashomon but what was in my mind from the very beginning was Citizen Kane, but only in the most basic way, i.e. a portrait of a mysterious personality made up from different dramaticised accounts. I haven’t seen Citizen Kane for 20-30 years so I can’t say how similar or different it actually is in structure to The Curious Case. But certainly some narrative strands overlap, probably in the way they do in Rashomon.
To me, the content of the story has always had a connection with cinema, but the execution is literary, if that makes sense. The whole idea of a prototype of photography, and therefore in an implied way, cinema, comes from the subject of how Torrentius is involved in a form of early photography. But when it comes to all of the historical characters who either knew him in reality or who I made know him fictionally, a great amount is based on their original writings, whether letters or poetry or any other kind of literary output. One big inspiration was always the letters of John Evelyn as a sort of ground layer for the style of the time, even though each historical character had their own linguistic style – and Evelyn comes a bit later in the century. I don’t know if what I have done with them is a pastiche or an imitation but it could never be a totally consistent pastiche because a really skilful pastiche or rendition of Donne’s writing would be (almost) unreadable to the modern reader. To that extent, I used some of his actual poetry and some verbatim excerpts from his sermon! If I was going for any effect, it was for the Jocobean/Carolian language of the time, which I love, but it sounds awkward to modern ears (if done perfectly!). There is also the fact that not all of the characters are writing in their original language.
3) The approximation between written and cinematographic narrative is far from being something innovative, but the fact is that the basis of this approach happens, in general, in view of a literary reproduction of the cinematographic montage. In Serge Eisenstein's Immoral Memories, for example, this type of experience is clearly manifested: Eisenstein's observations are driven from one topic to another, in a structural scheme that resembles the film (and poetic) structure based on parataxis, on the non-sequential logic, a kind of form usual in the film. But your The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius follows a much more visual principle – the illusion of the images is reflected in the fluidity of identity and the adventures of the characters. In constructing your narrative, have you taken into account this eventual opposition between montage / image, in the case of the cinematographic effects on the narrative? Or in evoking a kind of ancestral cinematographic technology, did the modus operandi of the moving-image perception of the Renaissance and the Baroque had some directly influence in your creation?
I would say that the way I am trying to deal with this subject is more organic. I am attempting to take the various anecdotes about how people of the time – especially Constantijn Huygens and Drebbel – who experienced the camera obscura and were in a position to write about it reacted, and embellish that with imagination and fantasy. In some cases reports go as far back as Leonardo with respect to the camera obcura and as far as forward as Kepler and others. This is mixed in with the idea of the occult, magick, alchemy, and thaumaturgy, magic lanterns, and modern cinema. I was probably much more influenced by the work of Frances A. Yates’ speculative ideas about Elizabeth of Bohemia in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment than any other work.
There is an example of a kind of cinema or live show seen by an audience in a dark room using a camera obscura or something similar, which I adapted in the dénouement to one of the sections. I think it’s based on fact but I have to go back and check but I think it’s feasible. There are too many to mention here but one type of pre-cinema, even though it’s anachronistic in the context of the 17th is the tableau vivant, as exemplified by a scene in the film Last Year in Marienbad. It is also a kind of contradiction here in the sense that the tableau vivant is a motionless recreation of a scene, say, from a recognisable painting which is ‘performed’ by living people in statuesque poses. And then it is filmed! But something of the atmosphere surrounding it sums up something of what I am trying to do in an earlier era. What is missing, of course, is the ability at that time to fix the image and certainly to reproduce motion chemically. So I used a kind of mixture of sleight-of-hand showmanship and possible scientific invention.
4) The novel approaches obliquely two parallel conceptual axes: the mechanisms that gave rise to cinema and photography (that is, means that surpass the pictorial representation as it was recognized and accepted in the time of Jan Torrentius); the secret societies and political conspiracies that shaped Europe since the sixteenth century. Considering that such a brilliant rapprochement of these two axis was deliberate, what would be its basis for such a development? Since the novel preserves the mystery of both strands, where would be the point of historical convergence?
I would have to refer again to The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. I am going to claim that the idea of joining the speculations about Torrentius’s use of the camera obscura, including some of the wilder claims about how he used it (which to me implied he was used a proto-photographic device), to the idea that he was a Rosicrucian (still unproven) is mine, BUT Yates implies very heavily that there was a hidden movement to bring Elizabeth of Bohemia and her husband Frederick V of the Palatine to a position that would challenge that of the Holy Roman Empire and even a so-called ‘Reformation of the Whole Wide World’. Now, whether that revolution would have been all Protestant, I don’t know, but, combined with the tenets of the Rosicruicans, I think it is implied or I would at least have liked to imagine it as a pan-religious organisation embracing all religions of the time. Of course, we are in the realms of fantasy here, but Yates was a serious scholar, so, when you think of some of the unlikely organisations and philosophies that have come to transform history in the 20th century alone, it’s not totally unimaginable. We have to remember that this was a time when many secret societies of a utopian bent existed. They were Christian and peace-loving, as far as I can tell.
5) Your novel, in its dense and intricate structure, has an undeniable appeal not only visual – what would be natural because of the focus of the narrative – but even cinematographic, as already addressed in other questions above. And this appeal comes in both sensory and narrative terms: all the colorful paneling of European cities and courts of the time, the disputes of artists, the desperate search for aesthetic-technological innovations – these visual glimpses sharpen the reader's imagination. In that sense, would there be de facto plans for some sort of audiovisual adaptation? Or, would your novel have been thought for the audiovisual medium at some point in its development?
Maybe strangely, I have not written this with a film or any kind of audiovisual adaptation in mind. I think it would be a hard task but definitely possible and ripe ground for an adaptation. I think any adaptor would have to decide for themselves where they stand with the character of Torrentius, whether they see him as a charlatan, a misunderstood libertine, a serious artist, or even a heretic. I think it’s fairly ambiguous in the book but possible to come out on one particular side. Once that is done, any director could have a great time with bringing to life the audio devices and magick that is on show in the boo, not least because the exact nature of the machines or projections are pretty ambiguous. I can’t imagine adapting it myself but I can’t help thinking of films like Nolan’s The Prestige or Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract.
The audio version of the interview follows below.
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