21 thoughts on “The Voice of the Air – John Howard

  1. I reviewed the first work in 2013, as follows in its then context…


    The Fatal Vision – First half
    “There were times when he seemed to be walking along a canyon-like street, its smooth bare sides forming into the stark cubes and blocks of buildings and similar intersecting avenues.”
    Of novella length, this work takes place in the same Romanian genius tempus as ‘The Flowering Wound’, with the borderline machinations of geo-politics and high-level conspiracies and ratcheting human architecture, all as ignited by the start of Hitler’s war. This is skilfully carried by the naggingly 1940s fractured way (cf ‘The Heat of the Day’ by Elizabeth Bowen) within a bifurcated story surrounding the work and personal relationships of a Professor of Architecture. Bifurcated (or torn) by two audit trails of narration, with differing degrees of narrative reliability or collusion with the reader, one audit trail being about the professor from a seemingly independent stance, the other from a first person singular narration by one of the professor’s students who seems to be stalking him. This is further hologrammatised, as it were, by the professor’s own extrapolations of imaginary architecture. The prose style, for me, has many wonderfully adumbrated images caught up in this history-trawling net I have just tried to describe above, images that seem to convey more about history than history itself. Seems also, so far, to encapsulate Howard’s work, as if I have been striving for this point since reading ‘The Silver Voices’ a few years ago. Abstractions. Ragged frontiers. Flying from the ground. Spies seeking spies, seekers seeking seekers. The loss of something in one’s self. “There was something missing, as if sliced away, stolen by an invisible flensing hand.” Or a genre of literature based on a stylised Berlin Wall as an archetype that escaped Jung’s trawling-net of collective unconscious. “…the ground fell away sharply to where the wall had been pierced to make room for Queen Elizabeth Square.”

    The Fatal Vision – second half
    That fatal vision – partly the Fate of that ‘dreamy white city’ Howardian vision, partly a Fatality to the Vitals that history threatens any who travel back to live it for real, partly both those two meanings together – and “We debated and argued; dividing into rival factions that merged and split again”, as in all wars, not only in this one … and to be “on easy speaking terms with the future”, one needs to be on easy speaking terms with the past, too. The ultimate dichotomy of reactionary and revolutionary.
    I take some of this structure of fiction away with me from the novella, but also something perhaps more personal: The professor’s secret apartment struck me forcibly as my own fiction work whereto I escape much to the ignoring or bemusement of those around me in real life, but above all it is my own literary hologrammatisation via ‘gestalt real-time reviewing’ of which the Process is identical to its Noumenon where I feel myself living most of the time with, say, some of the stairways not leading to the correct corridors (as in the environs of the Professor’s ‘secret’ apartment), instead of where I actually live or where people think they see me living. But with the Professor he had someone within the actual world, someone sufficiently neutral, with a grievance as well as a fascination for the Professor, someone who saw him in his secret apartment, so it must have existed in the actual world, too. A tear or rip in the fabric of self, mended like a single shoe’s two leather flaps across the tongue – with laces.
    History has such secret apartments, too, that Howard has opened up for us. Time travel for real.
    You will perhaps find your own secret apartment or fatal vision within the apartments or ‘spatial dimensions’ of this great book, your secret apartment or fatal vision quite different from mine.
    “…like beautiful music playing too low to hear but which could be felt in the depths of the heart.”

  2. I reviewed the next work in 2015, as follows. (Please ignore the page numbers)



    Pages 7 – 18
    “Luca had quickly realised that his room must be one of the few places in the city from which it was not possible to see either of its two hills.”
    Ex Professor of Architecture, Dr Cristian Luca lives in John Howard’s Transylvanian ‘genius loci’ of Steaua de Munte, Luca’s life, professional and marital, having been down-altered by the end of the Second World War, as we are engagingly pulled into his life, his backhanders, his seeming satisfaction with a simple gardening business. Future the only certainty. Future like a wall through which he needs to turn lustrous in order to interpenetrate its molecules…?

    nullimmortalis April 1, 2015 at 8:20 pm Edit
    Pages 18 – 29
    “…an alternate present outcome.”
    This is a deceptively plain-spoken text, a complexly entranced and entrancing one, full of regret and hope, as the history of Romania, ‘blood and sighs’, is echoed by its collectable postage stamps and walls …. and Luca’s own personal history.
    Objects to carry other objects are objects themselves, as Luca meanders through his future while retrofixed by these objects into the past. The text is like a cloying dream radiating between atomicity and substance, radiating between the book’s covers themselves as lustrous walls (to prevent it slipping into ebook atomicity?)
    Steauacity and its walls turned into a museum of itself but outside itself. I haven’t even covered half the ground of these pages.

    nullimmortalis April 1, 2015 at 8:58 pm Edit

    nullimmortalis April 2, 2015 at 12:43 pm Edit
    Pages 29 – 35
    “…there always seemed to be an unspoken accord to ensure that what was required to remain within those panelled walls did in fact do so.”
    The rarefied nature of the plot and style together with the actual unwritten accord of this very book’s secret passages within its own stiffened and lustred walls makes the reader need (or at least it does me) to eke out and savour the act of physical page-lifting and page-turning as well as the richness of the text it contains, a text that will remain upon your cerebral palate, layer upon layer. Here Luca’s hopes are lifted then lowered by fears of conspiracy and of the changing history around him, changes that make the very walls change their names to suit acceptability, say, into Building X from Building Y. With ‘bulky balconies’ or ‘low balcony’, none seem yet high enough to see the whole map of this book. The view of people, too. And self. “…the confident strider was another man at another time – not him, there and then, not the reclusive gardener.” Black and white photographs turned into black and white text, this tracing of future onto past’s shape.

    nullimmortalis April 2, 2015 at 3:50 pm Edit
    Pages 36 – 42
    “He makes the sketch to reassure himself that he can still draw – that this skill hasn’t deserted him, even as he spends his days in another form of creation, that of drawing food from the soil.”
    An ex-architect’s sketch…and it seems appropriate that, at a point where the narration’s active story-telling takes over from its more Steaua-ically passive spirituality of concrete, Luca manages to stop vegetables and fruit accidentally rolling down a building’s stairs as a sort of romantic chat-up line in retrospect.

    nullimmortalis April 2, 2015 at 6:32 pm Edit
    Pages 42 – 52
    “Close up, the photograph dissolved into black and white smears, shapes expanding out of view and into minuscule points in endless shades of grey.”
    …likewise there is a tantalising sense that there are connections (some potentially stronger than others) between this book and the John Howard works I’ve previously read. Not that you need to have read them to appreciate this discrete work, a work of disguise against one’s own political or academic ‘celebrity’ and territorial or racial innuendo against the backdrop of the history that runs through the audit trail of Luca’s life like words through a stick of rock, although not exactly rock but the concrete and brick that make walls in architecture

    nullimmortalis April 3, 2015 at 9:18 am Edit
    Pages 52 – 63
    “Soil and stones and smashed bricks and lumps of concrete: they all flayed me.”
    I am beginning to believe that this is the author’s core masterpiece to date, but that is not to take anything away from the previous works. This seems to me to be a Large Hadron Collider of the soul as well as the soil. Of hill and embedded grave. Of the moving feast that is history, too. Of moving maps and soldiers of old or new frontiers as emerging states, some fighters in love with their perhaps suicidal cause, some in love with each other. Misguided, perhaps, and we fear they stand at the top of each set of wall-enclosed stairways that we are still ascending for good or ill.
    “…but ultimately we are all one with the earth,…” … Or actually inside it, at its core, like Jules Verne or Nemonymous Night? Cultivating one’s garden, like Voltaire?

    nullimmortalis April 3, 2015 at 11:32 am Edit
    Pages 63 – 78
    “Every room, every wall, must surely have absorbed the energy – all the different energies – that I and my wife and her family and our friends and acquaintances flung out at them during our discussions, arguments, debates, parties, encounters.”
    Incredibly premonitory, in hindsight, if I say so myself, that my comment above in earlier real-time reading of this book mentions a ‘moving feast’ of history. And in this section, with stars as illuminated Cern particles joined to windows, this moving feast surely comes home to roost – in the very building Luca once shared with his wife, it seems. This is an astonishing piece of writing that sheds walls as well as cakes on Romanian history, even including the Bela Lugosi aspect of this part of Romania! Classical music, too, desanctified by crass behaviour…literature’s ultimate ‘blow-out’ as well as photographic ‘blow-up’.

    nullimmortalis April 3, 2015 at 12:20 pm Edit
    Ro-mania, romanic, romantic…

    nullimmortalis April 3, 2015 at 1:31 pm Edit
    Pages 78 – end
    “…colliding with the upper balconies…”
    I don’t say this lightly, nor heavily, but this work is a genuine literary masterpiece as well as story-telling feat, and I can’t believe that only 85 people (and those to whom they lend or sell this book) will have the chance to read it. For me, “So much to examine, but never enough fully absorbed and understood, with significances noted and correlated and connections made.”
    It’s like history talking to history on the highest balcony and, the next moment, talking to each other like Higgs boson inside a biscuit tin! It depicts a Third Reich reconstruction into a solid unavoidable future of blank white buildings and minds then overridden by an open-ended airy lustre of spirituality or gardening. It is all the famous architects rolled into one … or none. It is the bust of a head, in both senses of bust. “…master of architectural space, and wielder of matter,…”

  3. Just realised that the new novella in this book – THE PROCESS OF FIRE – is a continuation of the previous two above, it being another work about Professor of Architecture, Dr Cristian Luca who lives in John Howard’s Transylvanian ‘genius loci’ of Steaua de Munte.
    Thus, I feel I need to re-read those two works before attempting to read the third one. A process that I shall probably enjoy anyway! May God give me the time. If not the fire.

  4. THE FATAL VISION – quotes from my reading it again…

    Page 9: “… Some of the walls were just about thin enough for that. He had even sometimes heard loud coughing and snatches of shouted conversation as other inhabitants whom he knew he could never encounter climbed their stairs as he climbed his.”

  5. Page 11: “Luca smiled back and fumbled with his briefcase to discourage any possible developments of their momentary contact.”
    Page 19: “…l knew something — one tiny fact, but a fact nevertheless — that Luca did not know I knew. And he couldn’t know that I knew it and he did not.”
    Page 29: “There was something missing, as if sliced away, stolen by an invisible flensing hand. It really was happening; and worse than that, he had not foreseen it.”
    Page 31: “—its buildings, traffic, and scurrying people, diminished, not only by physical height and distance, but by another kind of distance that can’t be so easily measured.”

  6. Page 39: “What have I done? How much can keep on being subtracted?”
    Page 41: “But where the stairs should have been, there was a blank wall.”
    Page 44: “, as he gazed out of the window, Luca regretted that he always had to try to ensure that no-one he knew would ever see the apartment block.”
    Page 47: “Luca always closed his eyes the moment before he expected contact; but there never was any contact;”
    Page 52: “He coughed and wandered out of the room again. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Another door closed and I heard more coughing.”
    Page 55: “Resting, Luca had the feeling that he now inhabited a model rather the completed structure.”
    Page 59: “Luca drew open the curtains and looked down into the paved street. There was hardly anyone about. Orange sunlight slanted low through gaps between the roofs…”
    Page 64: “Things are different now, and I have changed. That is the only thing you can be certain about.”

  7. A6C457E1-FC39-4413-A932-FD95AD00466C
    Does the air’s broken voice cough? Void or voice?
    Do postage stamps have minuscules within their perforated ‘walls’?

    THE LUSTRE OF TIME – quotes from my reading it again…

    Pages 65 – 90
    “Luca had other ways of maintaining contacts. It was equally likely that he could meet someone who would not have welcomed sight of him, and who might report him to the authorities.”
    “Luca lived in a minuscule room inserted high up under the steep Mansard roof…”
    “, gazing at the expressively sculpted head. Like him it was a survivor exiled from a world that had been swept away.”
    “He simply needed to carry on living, to accumulate precious lustrous time…”
    “How I often wish to dissolve into the walls! […] I won’t be able to escape that way. At least not permanently.”
    “, and need to feel that we have come from somewhere, have a place now, and will go on to somewhere else — hopefully better.”
    “The miniature landscapes and views on the stamps show something of how rich and flourishing it is: fields of ripe, waving wheat:”
    “But the void is eloquent, and whispers through its broken mouth of air—“
    “But will they realise, will anyone dare tell them, that ghosts need not only be the dead?”
    All gone — all past. Only the stones remain. Walls. How appropriate.”
    “The slivered glass pouts as I pass through it, expelled from the hidden brickwork behind the mirror and wallpaper and plaster like an orange pip…”
    “I yearn to retreat into the walls again, to follow the pipes and wires all the way back to my high room, and avoid the street.”

  8. Pages 90 – 114

    “…fires of the sun” foreshadowing the Process of Fire, perhaps

    “He slowly got to his feet, cradling the potatoes and oranges as if holding a delicate child.”
    “, as I withdraw back into the safety of brick and cement, the shelter behind the wallpaper and paint, I know that to start an affair with Adriana would be the greatest risk I could face.”
    “, a ban had been imposed, as surely as if the angel of old, brandishing a flaming sword and blocking the way back…”
    “Close up, the photograph dissolved into black and white smears, shapes expanding out of view and into minuscule points into endless shades of grey.”
    “Aeons passed and the galaxies dissolved; my pain receded as the walls yielded to me.”
    “Now I sometimes dread even walking round a corner, or starting to climb a set of stairs where it’s not possible to see who or what could be at the top.”
    “…The Sorrows of Werther, Death in Venice,”
    “I can be alone with all the others and wait out the darkness beneath the ground until all earth comes to melt and dissolve in the fires of the sun.”

  9. Pages 114 – 140

    “A group of children is gathered around the base of statue, as still and as seemingly silent as the statue itself.”
    “Then he had ransacked her small villa and driven away with her entire stock of tinned and bottled food.”
    “The pull of my former house distorts my way through the soil and stone underlying the city.”
    “A man coughed. He reached for his glass and forced another mouthful of wine between his lips, but he coughed again, spewing wine and soggy lumps of cake…”
    “I spit brick dust out of my mouth and pick slivers and splinters of wood from between my teeth. Advancing, I ease cubes of stone, warmed by the sun, out of my spine…”
    “Thoughts of light and shadow, their angled interplay with bounded volume and open air tantalised me: and I had rarely, if ever, felt more of a prisoner that I did then.”
    “I, too, gave lustre to empty space itself.”

    It seems appropriate that I have just read today here O. Henry’s story ‘The Country of Elusion’ where Freedom is portrayed as having “a tyrant’s clutch”. And, separately, since reviewing “The Lustre of Time” five years ago (as shown by my earlier real-time review, quoted in full further above on this page) I happened in 2017 to re-read here ‘The Unconsoled’ by Kazuo Ishiguro and it was then that I realised how it is worthy of being deemed my favourite ever novel. And ‘The Unconsoled’ is now in broad mutual-synergy at least (see the cake scene among many other scenes) with this ‘new’ Howard patchwork novel that I am currently re-reading and, soon, about to read, for the first time, its final third….


    Pages 141 – 154

    “Each time he climbed the stairs to his room could be the last. But he would never be a prisoner in it.”

    The once Professor called Cristian Luca in our literarily if not literally simmered Steaua with this book’s durable word-seasoning, living in its only room where neither of the Muntes can be seen. We’re reminded of the historical backstory and the political convulsions of the past, and the student Petruscu (this book’s erstwhile sporadic narrator?) and we hear new or repeated talk of the Petruscu family and its Museum in Steaua. This Petruscu now penetrating the incognito of oldster Luca and Luca’s pottering around various garden plots… (“the storeroom where he kept his tools, caches of tinned and bottled food…”) And the mutual synergy planned by Petruscu for himself and Luca, not only to open the skies of glowing white architecture and “concrete spaces”…. but also our own incarcerations today….?

    “And still he asked the question: Could there ever be a safe place?”

  11. Pages 154 – 164

    Luca imagines inhabitants returning within his bounded walls from the spaces of open air. While he himself still walks those open spaces. I am reminded that I was hung up on balconies (see my Last Balcony) when I first encountered the Howardesque now being relived here for the first time, as it were. I, too, as with Luca, regret the routines of my life now being disrupted. Hence the conscientious persevering with my gestalt real-time reviewing, come what may! Thoughts becoming my Le Corbusier of texts? Requisitioning text under my literary planning rules and opening new windows to impossible views, hidden yet in plain sight, “connections and routes” revealed. “Luca” could be made to rhyme with “lustre”, beyond lucre, as I watch his (and now, my) brainstorming effect being factored into a new collaboration or mutual synergy…

  12. 164 – 178

    “The stairs no longer shift and creak: Luca had them taken apart and reassembled as part of his renovations of the house.”

    Just as Luca does today, creating two separate such palimpsests of his life. When he merged with a buildIng bodily as a child, in company with his father (described ultra-tactile-mentally here as he scried a faultily hung chandelier, just as the main character in the Ishiguro’s Unconsoled espied things from various niches, high ceiling trapdoors and apertures in various buildings) and he hears his father……”The old man leans forward. He coughs. ‘You did it all, Cristian,’ he says. ‘I just let you make your own decisions.’” — And the second palimpsest with his wife Alice in the past and the sudden reappearance of the bronze head we met in the previous Lustre of Time section….all factored into our understanding.

    “Both men cough.”

  13. 123F972B-B9D1-4FB2-B493-11A433CE5C6A
    A still from the last episode of AGE OF THE IMAGE (BBC4) that I happened to watch last night …. resonating today somehow with what I thought about in respect of the inexplicable tilting crane in the following pages:

    PAGES 178 – 198

    “So far, Luca has only travelled when he has actually reached his room, while he is within it. […]
    As a soldier he helped with destruction so as to plan new constructions—“

    As Howard has constructed his Steaua from the allotments, now of flowers rather than storable vegetables, in fact a genius loci for this book, that he architecturises from words! Yes, just as Howard has done that, each reader re-architecturises Steaua for him- or herself, as I have done through gestalt real-time reviewing, grappling inner story upon outer story, or storey upon storey, and we can appreciate the irony or Luca’s mixed feelings of the internecine political shenanigans (cf Unconsoled) of turning its labyrinthine Castle Hill area into a heliport, worthy of Metropolis or as this book itself says (as I feel today about Covid) …”like something from a science fiction magazine.” Or HS2? The need for strong foundations making it all impossible – based on Luca’s surreptitious fact-flensing beyond fake news…?

    “Agony was brief as he ascended. Earth spat him out into a void:”

  14. Pages 198 – 223

    “…he had been nowhere except inwards, through the corridors and courtyards of his memories. What sort of travel was that? Or… If anything was possible, perhaps he had truly travelled and seen again.”

    As it says here, you are either born an architect or not, and I would say the same about a writer — and indeed about a READER; the best way to travel is to be perhaps on the tour bus of someone else’s creative writerly mind – as I have just travelled with some enormous satisfaction. But hopefully I have also helped that creative writerly mind by a reader-writer synergy, answering such questions as “Where is the scent of cement, the taste of metal, the minuscule spears of wood entering and penetrating him?” Here we visit the Poliakoff-like Hotel Paris and thereafter taking us back with the ‘I’-ness of Petruscu, to that invisible room at the top of the tower, but not invisible at all, as we are made to reach it, too, and ‘manipulate its space’. DFC4C0F7-8277-4813-9E62-44C6F28B4A8B Yet, which of us is the doppelgänger? A darkness to bite into as well as a Void/cOvid-stored vegetable or this novel’s or three novellas’ bronze head of Petar now weaponised. Beside us, as a coda, I simply place my old book cover image of another historical Peter as Shemiakin’s small bronze head, one with bewildering outsize body otherwise, and featuring me standing beside it with an empty or blank head. Finally, if I have presumptuously requisitioned this book for a new scheme of airy architecture beyond even fiction, then please forgive me. But I say that is what such books are for, and only the greatest can give its reader such potential gifts of imaginative autonomy.


  15. Pingback: The Air’s Infecting Voice or Void | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS: Wood, Metal, Stone

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