The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius – Brian Howell

My previous reviews of ZAGAVA publications HERE and of Brian Howell HERE

When I review this ‘fiction’, my thoughts will appear in the comments stream below… (My reviewing queue of purchased publications is growing longer and I don’t expect to catch up until late October).

34 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius – Brian Howell

  1. For those readers reading the new stylish six volume set, with their covers a gradual growdown of greys, I show below my original review in 2014 of the first three volumes that were originally published alone as one luxurious greeny-blue volume. As you will see, I said here that all my gestalt real-time reviews are based on my first reading of a work. So, I will not be re-reading the first three volumes. However, meanwhile, the guile and double-take of these book versions are admirably fitting to their subject, judging by what I said below three years ago about this first edition:-



    The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius and the Followers of the Rosy Cross
    By Brian Howell

    Photo by Zagava

    Photo by Zagava

    Vandike and I

    “…no more than you can remove a layer of paint from the one above without destroying the whole.”

    Although this is not my normal practice in fiction reviews but — based on my past experience in reading this author’s exquisitely crafted novel about Vermeer, The Dance of Geometry — I suggest you google ‘Jan Torrentius’ just to get a flavour for optimum returns. Not too much googling, though, but just the bare minimum to centre your callow self in the era and ethos.
    These first passages in the book do not disappoint the hopes of any reader of that earlier novel, the prose style imaging and characterisation being as if from a camera obscura created by the inner dome of a vast cathedral but with finely meticulous results and any eroticism being sufficient to make you blush with embarrassment or blood pressure.


    I am truly astonished by this text so far, the holding fast of its passing images, Jan’s first person backstory, the conspiracies, the collusive couple with whom Jan constructs both finely vesselised art as well as sweatily entrancing the female half, the alchemy of painting, the cruel appropriation of animal eyes, devices such as camera obscura and torture instruments, the name-dropping of historical figures, your trying to hold fast to all these images real and fictional and magickal through the Howelling eye. All my real-time reviews are based on my first reading of any book. My stream of consciousness has already turned to torrent. This book is something special. I will read it, indeed relish reading it, real-time reviewing it at first vesselised sight, as you will, callow though you be, even if you mete out the days to try slow its torrent, or will it let you? Think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?


    Ex Anglia reversus

    “…a newly formed gap between two teeth and which could, equally, like that gap, be a source of pleasure or frustration.”

    I am now seriously trapped by this book, but I still intend to try stem its torrent. Now, we have the engaging penned view of Jan Torrentius by a historical third party, and the language and hints continue to accrete as to his nature, as a salon painting competition impends (still to be resolved), a competition or artistic duel stemming from a most intriguing demonstration of a street view by camera obscura, all imbued with a sense of magick, tricksy silences, comings and goings, amid a tangible 17th century historical ambiance plus a real poem by one of my favourite poets, Donne. And wordplays upon stream and torrent, brook and flood.


    “…and I felt myself very much in the presence of History.”

    …or History embracing me, with all its truth and reality as well its reflected contrivance via eyes that are not mine, primary sources notwithstanding.
    This book is astonishing, really, in its ability to divert linear truth by curtains over doorways (cf my view of ‘Tristram Shandy’) as well as by mirrors or camera obscura, with digressions that, we are told, are destined to return to the stream’s source however much they torrent off course. And the painting competition plot machinations do in fact move on and act as a structure upon which a vision of historical time and metaphysical conceit are magically poured or meticulously brushstroked or wildly daubed. A great fiction book is a sort of diversionary instrument – forming digressions from the otherwise inevitable audit-trail of your life – a device to distil truth from paradox upon each and every occasion in your life you happen to read such a book. This book promises to be an optimum version of such a cunning contraption, I feel.


    “But each has achieved this without seeing his rival’s work.”

    I was not disappointed by the outcome of this section of the book, tantalisingly in spite or because of reaching a sort of vanishing-point, after considerations of still-life palimpsests, a skull and other objects, ‘imaginary triangle’, having bearing upon my gestalt real-time reviewing techniques since 2008 including my theories on reader triangulation, plus my considerations of literary plagiarism and, above all, my own past view of Holbein’s painted skull called ‘The Preterite and the Preinternet’
    So, yes, I am not only ‘not disappointed’ by the painting competition’s outcome, but also decidedly inspired by its uniqueness and by its on-going mechanics of characterisation as part of a modernistic ‘happening’ filtered through 17th century sensibilities. A filter working both ways between now (a ‘now’ with this book first published in 2014 by luxurious sleight of hand) and then (a ‘then’ whereby, say, Donne still lives and writes poems even while I write this).


    Cornelis Drubelsius Alcmariensis

    “Let me explain. He was there the day I showed my ‘perpetuum mobile’,…”

    Which made me think, in tune with the comma as device in “Mobile, Phone”, that the alchemy of painting in this book could travel by sound as well as by light? Meanwhile, on a saner note, this is the start of the third and final section of this book, a new narrative angle coordinating truth in this fiction from a new point on the globe of 17th century civilisation, forming the aforementioned ‘triangulation’. Yet, I believe this book is Volume One of triangulating Torrentius and who knows yet what might be further triangulated of him within whatever hologram of sight and sound the yet unpublished next volume may already hold? A stream and torrent, as in all riparian matters, are surely sound as well as sight, but each does not exist as the same structure of object to see or hear from one moment to another. Text, when mimed or mouthed upon reading it, is surrogate sound, I suggest.
    This book is full of contraptions, contrivances, devices, and you need to hold fast to yourself as reader to avoid becoming their puppet or doll. For example, I had to shake off the sound of the bubbling devices of experiment in the Alec Guinness film about a Man in a White Suit when now learning of the properties of colours and how Torrentius operates them.
    “…I began to wonder where the reality of the objects we were viewing gave way to their images and, indeed, where the images took over from the objects.”


    “But I had not anticipated those unnerving sounds, then the sudden quiet, and the feeling of pressure on our ears.”

    This book remains more sight than sound, but one cannot discount the Royal conspiracy that involves, I infer, codes relating to the Rosy Cross via Music, the sounds in the ears when in an underwater rabbit-eye vesselised craft using the riparian Thames as stream or torrent under the narrative bridge …. and (Toyn)bees as music. A book of place as well as time, with London, Prague, Amsterdam forming well-historicised genii loci… a legerdemain ‘mobile quality’ with exquisitely crisp but tessellated prose, and a political historomancy of a plot in which Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell might once have been implicated as I earlier predicted – and a device for the hatching of eggs without hens, a book within a book as a hen and egg conundrum, with a promised creation of a double yolk that is probably even more legerdemain de L’OUBLI than this one! A Book of Tricksy Philosophical Aesthetics. A prestidigitator’s booth or cabinet to enter, but beware, by just opening its door you will never know if you’ve entered it, but if you have entered it, you will never know whether you have left it.

    • Above I have typed the order of what I idiosyncratically call Volumes, but this is not the order of Parts of the gestalt work itself. Eventually, please see the end of this review below when I will re-review Part Six (Vandike and I) to complete my dreamcatching. My predestined hawling.

  2. 396C248D-CE85-4176-A2F9-AA215DB395D7

    Part Three: A Small Picture of Torentius Hand

    Pages 5 – 11

    SPOILER: You may do well to revisit (Wikipedia for Jan Torrentius)

    Not that is essential or even advisable. And I regretted not to approach this book as a tabula rasa. But why the missing r in this part’s subtitle, missing on spine, cover and title page?
    We follow, via a written statement of a hard done-by participant (once a suspect in the gunpowder plot), the (King Charles) surrounding circumstances in the resurrection of Jan from prison, Jan’s shackled mien seen there, comparison with Rubens and the Jan painting that one can see on that Wikipedia. Gorgeous description of that still life with shadows and brinkish effects and the fact Jan was a poorer painter at human figures. But how can we judge? Where are these paintings? This book will give you these images in the mind’s eye, I am confident. If only by osmosis?

    “one could not resist the sensation that the glass would fall at any moment.”

  3. Pages 11 – 19

    “I feared that too much pressure in my foot might bring about the return of that old devil, the gout.”

    Alternative facts or too many truths to cope with, as gout-fearing Lord Dorchester, on behalf of King Charles, continues to tell us of his first impressions of Jan in prison. Jan says he likes pulling people’s legs, then is delivered a chicken leg to eat while the statement talks of seeing something wrong with one of Jan’s own legs. Heresies and sects, Christian religion seems to me to be on the brink of Devilry anyway. I am beginning to like both these characters as filtered by the words of one of them.

  4. Pages 19 – 31

    “I could not understand the wenching variety of man.”

    From Correspondence with the King etc, and Dorchester’s account of conversations, we gradually build a scenario here, fraught with innuendo about Jan, including reference to Rubens and Descartes, and other proclivities. And the art business at that time. Mention of Rembrandt seems germane, too. I leave the text on a cliffhanger as the paintings are about to be viewed before bed.

    “I sensed a beauty to the encounter, but equally a sadness and danger.”

  5. 46C71A8B-3203-45C3-B6DE-5F33EB2A09DAPages 31 – 38

    “Wat but-en maat be-staat, int on-maats qaat ver-gaat.”

    I thought maat or ma’at was a part of some mystical religion of holism or gestalt, similar to my own. And Maastricht the beginning of the curse of Braaxit? I follow Dorchester as he looks at these still-lives for real and then sees them again but differently as part of his dozing dreams. 7878186A-5B80-461B-9755-AC8F0F216AD2There is more going on here than meets the eye. A mystical politics of our history in Europe that was once evoked for me by the tenantless church interiors by Pieter Saenredam I once saw in Haarlem, and the organ music I heard in St Bava church. Complexity created by static simplicity and shadows and reflections. And rituals of fiction like those of Damian Murphy.

  6. Pages 38 – 41

    “(I do not give credence to the stories of sounds coming from the paint being of magical origin)”

    Constanter’s letter Feb 1629 to Mr Carleton (aka Lord Dorchester).

    We receive dark hints about Jan, via various sources, such as this letter. Implicating ‘cheating’ with a camera obscura to create the painting in question (the painting viewable on that Wikipedia to which I linked earlier) rather than by occult means, or perhaps by both these means, and yet others?
    But I have equal suspicions about the author and publisher(s) as this work’s creative gestalt, a teasing gestalt of disorderly or occult conundrum and literary legerdemain. The curiouser and curiouser case of Jan T, I originally thought. But perhaps it is the curiousest of curiousest! (By the way, ‘constanter’ – if not ‘curiouser’ – was first referenced by an 1879 Latin Dictionary with which Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short were heavily involved.)

    “That said, I do not believe I will see the like again in my life of such re-presenting…”

  7. Pages 42 – 55

    “, besides which it was unusual for me not to be accompanied by someone on my travels.”

    But now there IS a companion, the constanter curiouser recipient of this narrative letter, and thus by dint of this book’s literary alchemy upon this letter, the companion becomes the reader: myself … from Carleton to Lewis…
    Carleton’s told journey is unforgettable, I suggest, with dove and raven, and then a strange house, and what painterly and contrastive visions inside! Alchemy, or as is hinted by the text itself, is it ‘blasphemy’ instead? All from his pursuit of more works by Jan on behalf of King Charles and seeking those who collect them. A collector now whose portrait has ostensibly been perpetrated by Hals, a painter whom I also saw in Haarlem, when I was there a few years ago. I sense this book has since been pursuing me! And, in view of this own book’s shenanigans, this short passage about the “curious house” takes on new meaning: “, and I was curious to know the dimensions of the building, how the back part of it continued into the main part in which we sat.”

  8. Pages 55 – 67

    “We offer no reward and no threat, simply enlightenment, of a kind. It is our hope that there will be a revelation that will change all things.”

    The comma after ‘enlightenment’ seems significant. No plot spoilers from me, but it’s more a plot as in Gunpowder Plot as in any story plot that I try to protect from you. My visit to the Curious House of Massa, meanwhile, takes on its own chiaroscuro miracles of vision, but which are dreams, which real? You will not credit some of what I have just been through, including my now doubtful possession of the Jan painting that I showed on my Facebook yesterday for all my friends under Jan’s real name. The book volumes and their numbering are complicit, too, I guess. Anyone have the six volume boxed set, instead of my purity of first editions? Has any of the text been changed between the various versions? The end the beginning, the beginning the end? Every comma needs to be accounted for. And are we all, by sublimation, being invited into some Torrentius movement to obviate the effects of our world condition today?

  9. Part Four: The Vowell that makes so sweet a Consonant

    Pages 5 & 6

    “…a diary of sorts, a little rearranged in time and with the lightest hindsight added,”

    “, but in which could be found knitted a pattern which would not be visible when seen close to,”

    “, just as a landscape is only truly revealed from a high vantage.”

    The start of this ‘diary’ by Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, seems to indicate the importance of gestalt real-time reviewing with regard to this, Howell’s continuing scatterology of Torrentius.
    But I keep my powder dry.

  10. Pages 6 – 18

    “, but surely this could not have been coincidence?”

    Elizabeth, in her statement or diary letter to Constanter, implicates all of us who are reading this, implicated in Donne and other verse, streams and torrents, becoming incognito in the Netherlands, Haarlem, Amsterdam, and a masque or role play in a dubious tavern (despite her royal marriage), and dubious characters, including a sudden revelation of identity and non-coincidence, but I will not spoil it further…

    There will now be an expected week and a half’s soft brexit, not a hard border, that is, a break in this review while I and my companion travel on supposed holiday to I tell you not where….

  11. Pages 18 – 27

    Like Elizabeth and her companion, I feel as if I have just witnessed a dream of mixed strangeness and familiarity in the last few pages. Yet riffling back, it is still all there, including what seemed like a giant beetle in slow progress up a wall. Whether this is the author’s dream or her dream or something induced by the other characters’ machinations of masque or some Rosicrucian spell, I am unsure.

  12. Pages 27 – 48

    “As I was beginning to learn, it seemed a condition of any meeting with Torrentius that one met him in a memorable place and in an equally memorable fashion.”

    …as we all do, when meeting Torrentius in this increasingly momentous set of books. Still with Elizabeth’s account of the ifs and buts of history around her, deploying her connections with our own Gunpowder Plot and the consorting with machinations of who would be the Holy Roman Emperor, and the merging of all religions as one, and here further Muses, mazes, masques (mosques?), mandrake-like shapes (cf Donne), perspective-boxes and other contraptive miracles featuring a castle within a castle, perceived horrors within such contraptions of a special reality.

  13. Pages 48 – 70

    “Donne’s sermon was like no other’s, both in choice of word and import. To say that it started out as a brook and ended as a torrent gives no impression of its power.”

    It is easy to forget Donne’s sermons for his poems. I have studied them both. And now this exquisite ‘diary’ of Elizabeth gives equally exquisite, exstatic prominence to the sermon he gives in her presence, the apotheosis of ‘now’, the words of which satisfyingly seem to describe, for me, the nature of my own dreamcatching/hawling gestalt of real-time reviews, many reviews over some years now (such as this one) and their philosophy (a philosophy specially created for eventually hawling this very Howell work as culmination?), plus the gestalt of garden, here, her own garden, seen through her new eyes and thus ours, too, and much else concerned with ‘salvation’ and the thrust of this visionary rite of passage that any reader of this book and thus of her diary will experience, a balm for my own old age as I approach death. Exalted exultation. Geometrical patternings. Any political machinations. Notwithstanding.

    “and could see the gardens at any time I wished as a whole from on high,”

  14. Rave on down through the Holy Rosey Cross […]
    Rave on John Donne, rave on thy Holy fool
    – Van Morrison

    Part Five: All States and All Princes

    Pages 5 – 11

    “Yet I know not truly if I am leading or concluding the story of this man.”

    He can say that again.
    Donne’s own 1630 statement addressed (like a poem, sermon, or diary?) to this book’s curiouser and curiouser Constanter seems to start here, with its own perspective-box of the meetings of Elizabeth, Torrentius et al in the aforementioned gestalt of garden. I am absolutely entrammelled. No way out for me from masque, muse or maze. Or hidden Donne poem that I did not know existed? Even a book review has its mazes or muses, sometimes inimical ones?

  15. Page 11 – 32

    Some tantalising experiences that Donne allows Constanter to share, and us to share, too, by dint of his diary’s publication here via the Howell hawling of it, as Jan and others take Donne’s own dint through dents of both worry and inspiration, with some magical connections with our own times as well as to 17th century history. Creating a new religious force for whatever they deem is good. A channelling of a ritual-literary Damian Murphy approach to revelation and spiritual development, or the Brian Howell source of such phenomena being channelled by Murphy? Neither having read the work of the other? Torrent to torrent without knowing the source at all?

    “‘You need not worry. I know it is not witchcraft,’ I stated confidently.
    ‘By a picture? No, it certainly is not,’ Torrentius rejoined. I was startled by this exchange, which I am sure you, Constanter, will understand. But they made no further mention of this.”

    “Do I only now make this connection,…?”

    Blindfold, Ceremony, et al.

    But is this book its own deflection from the real Torrentius role? A multiple bluff? As were also Donne’s sermons?

    Christian Rosencreutz … THE CHYMICAL WEDDING

    “, that we believe in the Second Coming, yet by good ways, ways that will unite all Europe. It is also true that the way to this union or understanding is not straight,…”

    “This was a beautiful torture:”

    And a geometry in his mind of a naked woman’s triangle….?

    • Pages 33 – 39

      Residual meetings before Lucy conveys to Donne and thus to Constanter and thus to us of what happened in Greenwich later, to which these events were rehearsal. This whole scenario reminds me of a blend of a Restoration Comedy. Or Mozartian opera with masks and overhearings and duplicity. AND with an insidious sort of Kubrickian EYES WIDE SHUT.

  16. Pages 40 – 80


    I could only read these pages in one sitting, a relentless attrition of not watching the performance for real but having the performance itemised vision by vision, tableau by tableau, that becomes somehow, mysteriously, even more real! And Lucy’s account of this performance to Donne to Constanter to us is like reader and writer becoming one, characters and actors and audience becoming one, including the King, as part and parcel of our hero’s rite of passage in this performance, with floating castles and all manner of preparation rituals earlier in this book, arcanely hatching eggs and Cupids, and much more, and you will not credit how utterly relentless and attritional this account by Lucy is, to such an extent that I could not conceive of anyone wanting to sit down and actually write something so utterly, torrentingly relentless and attritional, and then I could not conceive of any publisher reading it and then wanting to actually publish it! I can thus only conceive that its absorption into the reader’s mindsump is more a Ceremony than an enjoyment of reading. Something occult and strange and important, a streaming of a hidden effulgence, an apotheosis of some unknown John Cowper Powys novel, mixed with a mosh pit of Arthurianism disguised as Rosicrucianism, layered upon our own perceived real Christian and Royal history and Brexit future, as ignited by 17th century Dutch painting through constructively restrained but felt concupiscence and with an overriding Anglo-Japanese filter of a painter called Jan Torrentius who really existed and who seems to have been demonstrably involved in such shenanigans conveyed by this book’s own strange publication shenanigans. (I spent a good part of last week on my break away in a place called Hartington, and Lucy’s name is Harington.)

  17. “Once these and other layers of half-truths had combined, they could not be detached the one from the other without destroying the whole, no more than you can remove a layer of paint from the one above without destroying the whole.”

    Two wholes, one gestalt, the muscle memory of creating paintings that somehow already exist.
    I have now exceptionally re-read the first edition of ‘Vandike and I’, as the purported sixth part of this series of six books, three of which are first editions themselves. Parts six, one and two I own, you see, as the original single book. The sixth part is indeed a ‘dying fall’ coda to a symphony of camera obscura and other geometries of sex and religious conspiracy, including a painting (below) that blew me away when I first saw it, and here is told Jan’s adoption – beyond his imprisonment and Rosicrucian past – by our royalty in Britain to compete with Van Dyck as court painter. A rabbit’s dying Howell no doubt ringing out alongside his manipulation of important women’s clitorides as part of this purpose. You are never too old to have an endless ‘dying fall’ of obliquity for the rest of time. I suspect this work in now its seeming semi-final sememes will live or die with Torrentius. He is still with us. I sensed him enter my brain at times during my reading. Or perhaps I entered his. Hawling up and down death’s human faces or once tortured animals. “Jan, please, call me Jan,”

    “As soon as I saw a rope go up and come down the other side, I guessed what was going to happen.”



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