John Harvey, Pax: painting monarchs into peace

John Harvey, Pax. Holland House Books, England. 2019. 354 pp.

In his last novel, Subject of a Portrait (2014: my post on it is HERE; Mike Flay’s guest post HERE; Harvey’s own guest post HERE; see below for links to related posts), about the love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin, his young wife Effie, and her lover Millais, John Harvey’s interest in artists’ love lives and the paintings arising from them, was manifest. In his new novel, Pax, he takes ekphrasis to a new level of complexity and subtlety.

Harvey Pax hb cover

Front cover of the novel, showing a detail from Rubens’ painting ‘Pax’

Against the backdrop of conflict in the West around 2003, an artist and art teacher, Stephen Bloodsmith (an aptly sanguinary name for an artificer), is creating a suite of etchings portraying the visit to London in 1629 of the renowned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Each scene in this artistic sequence is vividly realised through the narrative evocation of the modern artist’s reimagining of Rubens’ story as a means of creating his own artwork. It sounds over-elaborate, but it works. Bloodsmith’s personal life, manifested symbolically in his artwork, is increasingly informed by Rubens’.

Rubens’ English visit was ostensibly to broaden his market at the court of Charles I, but he had secretly been commissioned by the Spanish court to attempt to broker a peace between these two warring nations. It was the time of the slaughter and misery of the Thirty Years War (1618-48); this is the subject of one of Bloodsmith’s prints. Bloodsmith explains to his dealer the parallels between the horrors of the two historical periods, graphically represented in his print:

…people fight wars for various reasons, but what’s common to wars is that they hurt and damage each other much more than victory in war requires…I wanted it a bit like old engravings, but also a bit like black-and-white news-photos. So it touches modern atrocities.

Pax is therefore, at one level, a gripping wartime/espionage thriller: Rubens is spied on by shadowy, threatening figures, agents for the various factions in the European wars, from the sinister machinations of carmine-robed Cardinal Richelieu for the French, to the black-clad Puritan zealots plotting shortly before the English Civil War – the outcome of which of course was regicide (Charles’s beheading scene is evoked in this novel with chilling force). As always, Harvey has a perceptive eye for colour and clothes.

Secrecy, betrayal, and hypocrisy are also central themes at the level of personal and domestic, intimate emotional life – especially seen in the many adulterous affairs and the mysteries, doubts, evasions and lacerating suspicions arising from them, mirroring the broader, political-historical themes. These are narrated largely through various forms of ekphrasis: a visual representation is interpreted and reimagined in words.

 What’s so interesting and original about Harvey’s inventive use of this literary device is that his 21C protagonist and the narrator don’t just interpret and expatiate upon the significance of artworks created by others: Bloodsmith relives in his imagination and hence in his art (based on his reading of texts about Rubens, filtered through his aesthetic sensibility) the scenes he imagines:

“I’ve soaked myself in the history so much, I feel I’ve got a theatre in my head. It plays the scenes, then I pick the shot.”

The photographic/artistic image is pertinent: he creates his prints or paintings, in acts of imaginative synergy, inspired by his historical detective work and artist’s response to Rubens’ own work. Bloodsmith’s artworks drive the narrative, a ‘story in pictures’, and their recreation in Harvey’s engaging language is a key feature in the novel’s success.

The opening scene at Thameside sets the tone: it ‘recalls an event’ that ‘plays in [Bloodsmith’s] head’ – the meeting at the riverside of Rubens, an English diplomat and the brilliant but eccentric Dutch inventor-engineer, Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633), who was demonstrating one of his more bizarre and prophetic creations: a wooden submarine, a ‘descending engine’ as he calls it . He optimistically predicts this will be a military device that, used in combination with his version of a limpet mine, will render war obsolete – the dubious argument of the nuclear deterrent.

Later we glimpse another area of his expertise: glass grinding, enabling him to produce telescopes and microscopes. This is surely not an accidental aside; these are means for seeing more clearly what might otherwise be veiled, unclear: visual clarity and significance is crucial in Pax.

The ‘veiled disclosure’ that Bloodsmith recreates and interprets in this first print sets the tone for all those that follow, from Rubens at the Madrid ‘court macabre’ of King Philip, where he was given his secret, perilous ambassadorial mission, to his stay in the London house of a fellow artist, Gerbier, and his various encounters with the wily King Charles. One of the main pleasures for the reader of this intriguing novel is the ways that Harvey intertwines these visual (re)interpretations with his own verbally dextrous narrative in words; as Drebbel cynically says to Rubens, exasperated at the deviousness of court politics, in what could serve as Pax’s motif:

Nation cheats nation as men cheat women, women men.

There are multiple, intertwining ekphrastic and historical narrative threads in this intricately structured novel.

Isabella Brant by Van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641), Isabella Brant, 1621, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Open access

There’s the painting of Rubens’ late wife, Isabella Brant, by the man who’d worked as an assistant in his Antwerp studio, Anthony Van Dyck – a portrait gifted to his mentor by the younger artist on his departure for Italy in 1621. It’s usually seen as a token of the mutual esteem of the two men; Rubens begins to read a more insidious message in its iconography. Was his former protégé secretly signalling the illicit sexual relationship he was engaging in with his master’s wife? That suspicion explains Rubens’ outburst as early as p. 6, in that Thameside scene: ‘”Damn Van Dyck! God rot his bones!”’ Harvey/Bloodsmith speculates that Rubens was instrumental in dispatching Van Dyck to Italy to remove him from his household and attempt to end the adulterous affair.

The central painting in the novel, as depicted on the front cover, is Rubens’ ‘Peace and War’, or ‘Minerva protects Pax from Mars’. The evolving symbolism and dynamics of this painting’s creation are carefully delineated in the novel, not as a dry academic exercise, but arising from Rubens’ experiences on his London visit, especially his relationships and various love intrigues, and the unfolding of his clandestine peace mission. It’s his artist’s attempt to ‘paint these monarchs [Charles and Philip] into Peace’ – just as Bloodsmith tries to create his keynote Peace painting for exhibition in Brussels; the print sequence is a ‘pendant’ or ‘portal’ to that projected work, he hopes.

In addition to the global themes noted above – war, treachery, deception and so on – the personal equivalent is multiplied and duplicated several times over: Bloodsmith’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair is replicated in his own affair with his model, Mae, who’d featured in an earlier suite of his prints: ‘the Fire Girl’. This parallels on several levels Rubens’ racking fears about Isabella and Van Dyck, while he too is hypocritically contemplating an affair with his London host Gerbier’s pretty wife, visiting brothels, and falling passionately for an ‘Indian Maid’ at court, a ‘native to a tribe of the Americas’.

These parallels in multiple adultery across the two time periods become perhaps a little too prominent and schematic; for example, like Rubens’ ‘Indian’ beauty, Mae has dark skin, and is married.

Rubens, The Four Continents

The Four Continents by Rubens; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Munich. Public Domain

Another important Rubens painting is deployed to illuminate such parallels: ‘The Four Continents [or Rivers]’ (c. 1610), depicting the four major rivers and known continents of the world personified. It was inspired by the temporary peace (Rubens is consistent in his peace-making, if not his love life) between the Dutch Republic and Spain. A detail appears on the novel’s back cover: the black woman (Mae’s precedent?) symbolising Africa or the Nile gazes pensively (or is she timorous? amused? It’s enigmatic, defying definitive interpretation) out of the picture at us, the arm of her burly white male companion possessively round her waist. Read into that what you will, Bloodsmith…

Harvey Pax back cover

Back cover detail from The Four Continents

Harvey’s sensually pungent, multiple-strand narrative shows how Bloodsmith’s imaginative immersion in the historical Caroline London transforms his 21C lived experience; the characters and events of Rubens’ world merge into, penetrate and inhabit his own, so that he sees and feels their presences as vividly as ‘real life’, and the boundaries between the two worlds dissolve: the various characters take flight together in his mind’s eye. His final print symbolically integrates the multiple elements of this lived and imagined experience, making it new, culminating in ‘The Impossible Feast’ – a vision of ‘lust and war’ transformed into peace. Imagine.

This isn’t all just an extended exercise in modish postmodernism or magical realism: it dramatizes Bloodsmith’s intuition – that his story and Rubens’ ‘would converge’, in a process parallel with the struggle to reconcile ‘contradictions’ in his emotional life and his marriage – the desire for loyalty in his wife, while being incapable of such loyalty himself. Hence his conclusion near the end:

Maybe Rubens knew this, that you can love different people who are the opposite of each other…

This convenient resolution seems to me one of the least convincing aspects of this otherwise intriguing novel: Bloodsmith is let off his hypocritical hook just a little too generously for my liking.

If I’d had more time, I’d have made this post shorter…

Some links to my posts on John Harvey’s non-fiction works:

The Poetics of Sight

Clothes

 Works on the colour black discussed HERE

ARC courtesy of the publisher