19 thoughts on “Sight Unseen – Brian Howell


    Chapter One: Distance Point

    “…he tested how long he could walk along the pavement with his eyes closed without bumping into something.”

    The Howell stylish prose, as ever, here reveals a film projector named Wheeler whose provoking, sometime often solipsistic, thoughts about such an activity tantalisingly and obliquely reminds me of the process of gestalt real-time-time reviewing… then the transposition of the woman in the Dutch painting shown by an advert, on a London Underground train, for the eponymous exhibition of paintings by the artist named Van Breukelen (Breukelen, I have discovered for myself is also a town in the province of Utrecht after which Brooklyn was named) – a transposition to an attractive woman that Wheeler follows-barely-short-of-stalking. This accidentally being the woman from the painting now effectively twice flanked by two men, one as old as me, I guess. Well, of course, I am already captivated. Please journey with me , however slowly, into the still unknown territory of this novel, but beware of spoilers, however much I might try to suppress them.

  2. Chapter Two: Surface Sheen

    “It was as if the painters of that era had discovered the techniques of film-making before the actual discovery of celluloid.”

    A fascinating tour (of a man called Tom) of the Gallery where the discovered Van Broekelen (VB) painting called ‘The Proposal’ is held. He intends to copy it it onto new canvas as a commission. Also regarding the development of painting vis à vis camera obscura etc., I note that the Wim Wenders film was in back and white (black and white films in the Seventies being a topic in the film’s plot itself), except the beginning of that film was tinted yellow….

    “The artist would either trace over the image in the dark in black and white, and paint over it later in the light, or paint straight onto the the projected image itself.”

  3. Chapter Three: Through A Glass Darkly

    Back in time for the great fire of London, but now in a different country where VB (Hendrick) meets himself and another painter vis à vis their connections with Rembrandt, here dealing with trompe-l’œils, boxes of tricks, deceptive perspectives, vanishing points, distorting mediums, glass, mirrors, lenses, globes, etc., as part of their means to get art closer to nature, with roemer and regret…and Holbein skulls?
    All artists start with vanishing points, I guess, with white and blank canvases, then patiently or impulsively building upon those vanishing points with new ones. Writers do this, too, by mixing truth with fantasy, when faced with whiteness or blankness or sight unseen, as does my chance concurrent rapprochement with a novel called Patience here.

  4. Chapter Four: Field of Vision

    “I’m interested in films, fiction, and, more recently, Dutch painting.”

    Projected back by text to the projectionist, Wheeler, as we get to know him better, whereby, here, synchronicities seem to wheel or spool past him, as he utters the above chat up line to the woman called Anne in the gallery showing the HVB painting, this painting’s intrinsic set-piece of figures seeming to match at least the on-the-surface set-piece of the to-be-mentioned-below video (seems in my prior hindsight to have been in black and white?). Synchronicities or mere coincidences, too, as he earlier visits an old pal to share a porn video (does the word ‘video’ or VHS further nail the time zone?), a hardcore video that sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth and in the text… meanwhile, Anne searching for a fallen contact lens on the gallery floor as a study in prior perspectives of a yet-to-be-painted painting? Sight unseen.

  5. Chapter Five: Whispering Gallery
    Chapter Six: The Hidden

    “Did warders ever look at the pictures they guarded so zealously? Maybe they would be happier if the public came one day just to view the warders.”

    Those warders, too, in Litt’s Patience or King’s Institute, running alongside? Meanwhile, here in the Howell of various perspectives and vanishing points (like incipient blindness that everyone born is born with?) I continue my theme and variations on the wonderful books I happen to choose, as if by magic, to read, as if I have already seen the yet unseen but predictive angles and interstitiality and changes of direction and melting identities — like Howell’s people on the Ikarus bus. These two chapters, one about a man called László in Budapest, inheriting the study of film making and its lighting; he sees Van Broekelen’s painting. And the other, Tom, now in Amsterdam, commissioned to make a faithful copy of that painting, steeped in the lighting of that Dutch city of angles, meeting those who are also steeped in a past painting’s history spreading its tentacular dimensions and craquelure into this book. A painting, while it still exists at all, is never a past one, though, I guess. Just re-seasoned, as a “steady flow of memories” pushing against the paintbrush.

  6. Chapter Seven: Dark Room
    Chapter Eight: Persistence of Vision

    From a “triangle of possibilities” in HVB’s era, establishing more detailed personal circumstances of the painting’s tableau of three people, and the need for more than just one angle of viewing the woman’s face and the curls of her hair to Wheeler’s patchwork quilt of sexual engagement with Anne in the empty tableau of his lodgings, his flatmates absent, embryo body curled up to embryo body like the painting’s curls or ‘coiled springs’? And his dream’s “immense sky” in HVB’s earlier concept of picture frames “like the sky, with no definition to its end.”
    It is as if we are as omniscient – from every hidden corner – as the author … perhaps more so, as the book has had time to settle or even morph autonomously since it was written… each new reader gradually bringing a perspective of potential gestalt that otherwise has not been present until now. Or until tomorrow. Till we all finish reading it, ‘triangulating its coordinates’: an expression I have evidentially used over the years in my book reviews.

  7. Chapter Nine: Sound Track
    Chapter Ten: Vanishing Lake

    “It was as if what he saw of the outside world was a film running with the wrong soundtrack.”

    Two words or one word, the track is like this book; I feel I am part of its vanishing-lake pigment, a restorer or reviewer wanting to leave their own mark on the novel-as-painting, factored into by my renewed interest in the cinema films listed in these latest pages and my own concept of Cone Zero when involved with the late-labelling and parthenogenesis of Nemonymous in the Noughties. The paintings and characters adumbrated here, but which is reflected in which, who in whom? Paintings within paintings, and characters trying simultaneously to reinforce and airbrush their own mirrored and unmirrored backstories with people or forebears in them.

    “She looked into the interstices of red veins stretched out across his eyeballs like rivers on a globe.”

  8. Chapter Eleven: Unpainted Pictures
    Chapter Twelve: Mutual Ground

    “…trying to judge the establishment’s pedigree from its exterior.”

    … but as with anything ‘sight unseen’, there is nothing, other than its artwork and design, describing this book’s contents as plot, neither on its covers nor in visually peripheral text, and one must trustingly submit oneself to all manner of angles and connections, some forbidden, some deliciously tempting, some shockingly transgressive, an inferred/ implied, and sometimes explicit, origami of fulfilled and unfulfilled orgasms of organs where one’s own sensibilities may be slashed or spurted upon as against an ‘original painting’ (cf the post-HVB Courbet painting ‘Origin of the World’??), a painting as gestalt of various triangulated time-coordinates or reflections of history and its characters that one is building in one’s mind. The focusing of a cinemascope film in the 1980s upon a projector is a provocative summation of some of what I mean…

  9. Chapter Thirteen: Original Features

    “He was painting fat over lean, a slow drying process, which ensured against deterioration and craquelure.”

    I genuinely had not seen the title of this chapter when I wrote my review of the previous one. This is now a fascinating glimpse at the literary theory of the Intentional Fallacy (that I first studied in the 1960s) now applying to the art of painting and the ability (deliberate or inadvertent) of a restorer or copier to change a painting, and the painter him- or herself changing it with paintings within paintings or reflections of paintings, all factored into by the ricochet of other deliberate or inadvertent elements, here the text’s own word-strokes, such as anonymity and its state of ‘being’ or ‘remaining’, and all one’s friendships or romances over the years constituted by separate parts leading to the gestalt of person-subject of those friendships or romances, and a fascination in “the total devotion to genre”, and the distinguishing between “real accretions of dirt, and imitated layers of dark”, and “the search for some narrative that doesn’t exist.” Ironically, with the last in that list, mea culpa. In which case, perhaps I should read the rest of this truly remarkable book in silence? Judge for yourself whether I do. Sight unseen.

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