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An Interview with Brian Howell
A feature item by Elizabeth P. Glixman

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Brian Howell’s first novel "The Dance of Geometry" is based on the life of Dutch painter Vermeer. Howell skilfully depicts Vermeer’s life and growth as a painter as well as the art world of the times. He also tells a story of intrigue and mystery concerning a contemporary art forgery.

Throughout the novel we get glimpses into the power of art to create illusion and beauty. We see famous artists struggle with new inventions and ideas. Howell makes the characters real through his mesmerizing writing style. This novel is not only a must read for art lovers and the historically inclined, but for any reader who enjoys a fast paced story that takes them below the surface of appearances.

E.G. The topic of Vermeer seems to be one that would interest an art historian. How did your interest in Vermeer come about?

B.H. Probably mostly from being used to noticing those small modest Dutch genre pieces that almost every country mansion in England has an example of. There were a couple of things that led me specifically to Dutch interiors. One was a wonderful BBC film version of a short story by the nineteenth century Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu. That brought Dutch interiors to life for me, a kind of contradiction, in a way, to want to see them move, but I hankered for this element and to know the story behind so many of these scenes, which are so mysterious to us nowadays. Anyway, once you start wanting to know more about Dutch genre, you always come round to Vermeer, because he is by general agreement the past master of such scenes, and because he achieves what he does, especially certain visual tricks, very subtly. I came to him with great trepidation, because it’s actually very hard to get a handle on what he is doing. Your perception of certain scenes changes over time and you notice new details and structures constantly. I’m very attracted to many of his contemporaries too, like Fabritius, Terborch and Hoogstraten (who all feature in the novel) but until very recently the fact that so little was known about Vermeer’s life (and so little is still known about the man), he seemed open to a fairly free treatment. The other influence, which was very strong, and very specific, was an educational programme featuring Philip Steadman’s ideas about Vermeer and the rooms he painted (which he has now expanded into a wonderful, highly acclaimed book, Vermeer’s Camera). The programme concentrated on a reconstruction of the room that is painted in The Music Lesson (which I had seen in a rare exhibition before Buckingham Palace was opened to the public) and that reinforced by interest in this particular painting and in the idea of getting into the picture and moving around it. I am also a bit of a film buff and made a few very short films a long while back and I’ve always been interested in points of contact between filmmakers, photographers and Dutch genre painters.

E.G. Much of this story feels like it is told by the keen eye of a fine artist or photographer. What is your background?

B.H. Aside from the minimal dabbling with short films and scripts, I really cannot claim any great relevant preparedness for such a subject. I can’t draw or paint, but I’ve always been interested in art history and cinema. My actual background is very literary. My degree was in German Language and Literature. The artist and copyist Leo Stevenson helped me tremendously with technical details and we bounced some ideas off each other, too.

E.G. I was fascinated by your descriptions of Vermeer’s home. It is filled with visual mystery like a puzzle or labyrinth:

"As there were two fathers, there were two worlds, indoors and outdoors, and it often seemed that there was no connection between the two. The indoor world, which dominated, was defined by dark. Even inside was never completely inside, because line and form conspired to direct the eye into the deeper space. Doors led to doors, pictures to other pictures; mirrors, which resembled picture, threw the boy back from where he had come into another, framed world."

B.H. I wanted to intimate that his vision was specifically Dutch, as is the common motif of a doorkijkje, which I suppose translates as a view through open doors, and I was trying to get that bit of our (art-historical) perspective into his home life, to imply that he was aware of that particular illusionistic tradition, even if subconsciously, very early on in his life.

E.G. Where did the title "Dance of Geometry "come from? Can you remember the moment you thought yes, that is the right title?

B.H. That’s a very interesting one. I was very influenced by John Banville’s Kepler and Dr Copernicus and I think it’s in the latter that the hero has an epiphany of hearing the music of the spheres. Geometry was always going to be at the heart of Vermeer’s early years (for me, at least), and it’s a short step, poetically, to get to the ‘dance of geometry’. Actually, that was always the title of the first section (now ‘Johannes’) , and the title of the second section, The Shifting Surface of Desire, was going to be the overall title. I think my editor and publisher asked me about the awkwardness of that title, and it’s obvious that ‘the dance of geometry’ trips off the tongue much more smoothly.

E.G. When did the idea of entwining a modern story with Vermeer’s life appear in your mind? Do you recall any other novels that have used this device?

B.H. I’ve always been fascinated by the dramatic possibilities of stories about restoring, cleaning, faking and copying oil painting as well as the idea of the modern perspective, which is pretty old hat really. It’s done particularly brilliantly in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor The lead character in Nicolas Roeg’s thriller Don’t Look Now is a church or mural restorer of some kind (I’m not sure about the original Daphne du Maurier story) and I believe the heroine played by Genevieve Bujold in Brian De Palma’s Obsession (a loose copy itself of Hitchcock’s Vertigo) plays someone similar. Both films are about losing someone dear to the protagonist(s). I did read a really rare novel about the (in)famous Vermeer forger called The Vermeer Forgeries by Jan Baesjou that was fascinating if not brilliant. I started and am still reading (!) William Gaddis’s massive The Recognitions, which is the ultimate novel about forgery (if you understand what is going on, which I don’t, half the time). I’d also read about Nina Bawden’s Circles of Deceit (about a copyist and which I still want to read) and Julian Barnes’s Talking It Over (which features an art conservator) but I hadn’t actually read them. I’m sure there are plenty of others that maybe I can’t recall right now, and there have certainly been a few since I finished the book. I actually have a whole unpublished pyschological thriller about art forgery called Sight Unseen which could easily be the first part of a Dutch painters-and- optical illusion trilogy; I did more intertwining there, chapter by chapter, and originally I did not intend to have so much of the modern perspective in Dance, but I just felt that I needed that extra perspective and because it might have been too much to have everything historical. Also, from people’s reactions, I felt the material, especially the first section, was so dense you needed a breather; you feel a need to breach the bounds of the frame at certain stages.

E.G. Is historical fiction your genre?

B.H. Oddly, I wouldn’t say so, yet it seems to be a key element of the novels, if only by default. I’m not a fan of the genre per se, but it’s just that the subjects I’m attracted to these days, especially concerning artists, demand an immersion in history.

E.G. Tell us about your writing process in terms of research and time. Do you write daily?

B.H. It’s actually very haphazard and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I start off fairly organized, reading the books I need to, making notes, and connections. I usually have only a very general outline, so the notes often change that as I write. Unfortunately, I tend to write when I can or when I just feel like it, at least so far, or have moments of inspiration that have come out of sharing what I’ve done so far or a sudden piece of information I’ve found out. I started Dance in 1993 before I had done anywhere near enough research, but that was probably what got me onto the UEA Norwich Creative Writing course, where I received plenty of helpful reactions and had at least one big epiphany. But considering I moved twice and had all kinds of personal ups and downs from 1993 till 1997, it’s not all that surprising it took so long.

E.G. What were the circumstances that lead you to move to Japan? How long have you lived there?

B.H. It’s six years now. My answer to this is pretty mundane. I was teaching English in London from 1994 -1996 (I’d previously taught in Hungary and Prague from 1990-1994) to students from all over the world. I loved teaching European students but something about the Japanese students, their good behaviour and friendliness clicked in me at the same time as I was becoming attracted to various aspects of Japanese culture. I was already interested in Japanese literature and cinema. Also, central London around that time had a huge influx of Japanese students and Japanese restaurants, which had previously priced themselves out of the market. Somehow these restaurants brought their prices down and started to become very trendy; this and the fact that Japan is one of the few places in the world where you can earn a decent living from teaching English and have reasonable security.

E.G. How do you think living in Japan has influenced the writing of this novel, if it has?

B.H. It would be fairer to ask how much the Internet in Japan has influenced me. If anything, I was distracted by Japan to write my stories about Japan while I was still trying to finish Dance. The Internet made it possible for me to stay in contact and make easy contact with people to double-check my research on Vermeer, whereas only a few years before I would have been very cut off. Actually, I don’t think I did anything on the novel from 1996 for at least one, and maybe, two years, while I settled here.

E.G.Do you think living in Japan has made your writing unique in any way?

B.H. It’s certainly affected my approach to their specific culture, making me want to explore it, especially in my short stories. I don’t think that so far it’s had an effect on my style when I write about things other than Japan. If anything, I make a greater effort to stay in touch with my own language and do more things with it creatively than before. At the moment I am more than ever fascinated with English as it was written in the seventeenth century.

E.G. Are there other visual artists that interest you?

B.H. Apart from the other Dutch artists like De Hooch, Hoogstraten, Terborch, Van Eyck (of a much earlier period), Lucas Cranach, and other Flemish painters, the outstanding ones are Egon Schiele, Klimt, Balthus, A.C. Willinck , Paul Delvaux, and Giorgione.

E.G. Can we expect to see another Brian Howell novel out in the near future?

B.H. I certainly hope so, and I hope it will be Sight Unseen, followed by a prequel to Dance, which will feature some of the same people who appeared in Dance and even in Sight Unseen.

Copyright © Elizabeth P. Glixman 2003

Brian Howell’s novel, The Dance of Geometry is available to buy now.

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of An Interview with Brian Howell is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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