||The Dance of Geometry
by Jeff Bursey
Recently there have been several fictional works dealing with Dutch
painting-Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Susan Vreeland's
Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson-and
so it is legitimate to ask whether or not Brian Howell, in a novel
dealing with Vermeer, contributes something new. The title indicates
The Dance of Geometry regards the abstract problems of perspective
as more important than fleshing out the figure of Vermeer; this is
a novel about ideas, not about characters.
In this speculative work on what Vermeer may have thought about his
work, how his methods attracted attention-it is likely these aspects
David Hockney refers to in his blurb for the novel-and their immediate
impact on other artists of his time, Howell provides readers with
a sketch of the painter, an incomplete manual on forgery, and
describes a mystery surrounding Vermeer's paintings. The material
is presented through four lenses: a deliberately narrow depiction
of Vermeer as an apprentice; the journal of a Frenchman, Balthasar
de Monconys; the reminiscences of Maritje, who reflects on her
acquaintance with the painter from her position inside The Music
Lesson; and the narrative of an unnamed forger of that same painting.
Selected events in Vermeer's life, especially in the first and last
sections, are written in cautious prose. But there is an exception,
when as a young man he experiences an artistic moment: "Outside,
the clouds had aligned themselves to create a strange rhythm of
chevroned light leading to the church... Inside, narrow ferruginous
sheets of light were thrust into the aisle and intercepted the nave
in a storm of chrome violence belied by the surrounding quiet."
The word "chrome" appears anachronistic. There is also a
problem with the sentence that ends the same paragraph and the
sentence that begins the next:
"[Vermeer] recalled days of hard work with Bramer, when the
master had striven to drive home the rules of perspective.
It had been his first afternoon for such instruction."
It can't be both days and one day. Such errors pop up throughout
the novel-a bedroom is above, then below, the same studio-and
indicate a laxity in editing.
Monconys's journal is the most relaxed in voice, even as it describes
an invention ahead of its time and the intrigue surrounding it.
Viewed suspiciously by everyone, he cannot figure out what is
happening around him. The unnamed narrator hired to copy The Music
Lesson also presents his dilemma directly to an imagined audience,
but his fear about what may come after the execution of his task
does not engage the reader's emotions. Howell does successfully and
believably outline what a dedicated forger needs to think about
much better than Paul Watkins did in his novel The Forger. The most
interesting section is Maritje's elliptical account of her history
and the history of The Music Lesson. She shares something of the
fate of Aristotle in Joseph Heller's Picture This, where the
philosopher comes alive in Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the
Bust of Homer, but in that novel the situation is an overplayed
joke. Concision and a limited range of expression serve Maritje
well. Unfortunately, the four stories do not quite gel as a novel,
despite how entertaining or evocative some parts are.
The Dance of Geometry does not contain memorable passages, and the
style is functional, not elegant, lyrical or rhythmical. Howell's
emphasis on ideas may not create a large audience, but that's
unimportant. He writes what he wishes to write, for whatever readers
he chooses to please. It may be that with his next novel he will
be less tentative in his approach, for he surely has the intelligence
to progress as a writer.