John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1990.

 Holland House published John Harvey’s most recent novel, Pax, in 2019 (link to my post on it HERE: the artists Rubens and Van Dyck feature prominently, as well as a fictional modern British artist), and decided not much later to publish his backlist of fiction. He should be better known as a novelist, given the quality and range of his output.

There’s an artistic theme also in his excellent 2014 novel The Subject of a Portrait, which deals with the tangled real-life relationships between the Pre-Raphaelite artist Millais, his mentor the art critic John Ruskin, and Ruskin’s young wife Effie. My post on this, with two guest posts, one by the author and the other by the publisher, Michael Flay, are found HERE.

The publishers kindly sent me the three titles I hadn’t posted on previously. First up was his earliest novel, The Plate Shop (1979), set in an ailing English engineering factory. Coup d’Etat (1985) is set in Greece during the brutal military colonels’ junta. You see what I mean about the variety and range of his subject matter.

John Harvey is not a prolific novelist: five novels over a period of four decades. This was probably because of his other career as an eminent academic at Cambridge University, where he specialised in the relationship between visual arts and literature. This interest is reflected in his four non-fiction studies of colour, clothes and illustration (especially in Victorian literature).

Harvey Legend of Captain Space cover At the heart of The Legend of Captain Space is the portrayal of another troubled married couple. Nick is a handsome long-distance lorry driver who dreams of breaking into the world of motor racing. When his wife Sandy gives birth to a baby boy, Davey, she struggles to bond with him. His father nicknames him Captain Space when the boy is a toddler, and delights in being swung in the air.

This portrayal of the struggles of parenthood is the most interesting aspect of Captain Space. The doting maternal figure is a commonplace in the perception and representation of women in much literature and art; Harvey subverts that image wickedly as Sandy is driven literally to run away from her fractious baby at one point. She’s guiltily jealous of the easy familiarity Nick, a not very attentive father, superficially develops with his difficult son. Her child tends to frighten and appal Sandy.

The marriage not surprisingly hits the rocks. Sandy struggles to find a life for herself without the responsibility of being a mother, and begins to realise that she misses Davey after all. Nick meanwhile bounces slobbishly from casual sexual encounters to drunken pub brawls. Will he be able to fulfil his dream of becoming a racing driver, given his undisciplined nature? Will Sandy learn to love her son?

I have to be honest and admit I didn’t really care that much. I didn’t find these characters very appealing. I daresay that exposes me as a limited reader – but I felt the central characters were too caught up in their sordid, selfish obsessions for much empathy to develop for them.

It’s all handled with Harvey’s customary poise and narrative deftness, but I’m afraid this floundering couple failed to sustain my interest consistently.

But there are plenty of positives. Nick isn’t entirely without humane, softer feelings. When he gets a job on a farm, he’s given the job of driving a combine harvester. When he sees blood on the blades, he gets down to check he finds to his horror that he’s inadvertently ‘scythed a rabbit’. When he continues harvesting the crop,

[he] kept watch. When he saw a patch of brown, he stopped and climbed down. He could walk up close to the animal. It crouched flat, its sides quivered, its feet didn’t move. A shining eye watched him come.

‘There, mate, there. Easy as you go.’ He reached out and touched it, its hair was bristly. He stroked it, amazed.

‘It’s OK, captain.’

The style here is characteristic of the rest of the narrative: sparse, unadorned, yet highly evocative and visual (not surprising for an author so sensitive to the visual arts). This passage is typically painterly; it puts me in mind of Dürer’s famous print of a young hare – an impression I suspect John Harvey intended.

I hesitated before posting this, having responded with less enthusiasm than usual to this writer’s work. It doesn’t inhibit me from recommending you try any of his fiction or non-fiction. It’s all alive with humanity and finely observed insights, characters and relationships, the ways in which people portray those lives and connections – to themselves and to others (and sometimes in artistic representations). He’s one of the most gifted and rewarding modern English novelists. I just couldn’t always get on with poor little Davey, Captain Space, and his dysfunctional parents.

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat (Holland House Books, 2020; first published 1985)

 John Harvey is a renowned Cambridge academic who’s written some fascinating studies on the nature of and relationship between the visual and literary arts (see my list of links to his non-fiction works at the end of this post). He’s also a prize-winning novelist (my list of posts on his novels is also at the end of this post) – not to be confused with the author by the same name of the popular crime fiction series featuring Charlie Resnick.

J Harvey Coup d'Etat Coup d’Etat is set in Greece during the military dictatorship 1967-74 following the ‘Colonels’ coup’. This group of far-right, ultra-nationalist officers seized power and brutally suppressed all opposition, establishing what was euphemistically called a ‘national government’. To consolidate and enforce the junta’s stranglehold on the country the colonels transformed the judiciary into a corrupt system of kangaroo courts: those who dared to question their regime were summarily imprisoned, tortured, executed or exiled.

The central characters of this gripping, epic novel (it’s 600 pages long, but needs to be in order to depict the scale of events and their effects on the Greek people) enable the author to anatomise the functioning of this dictatorship. On the side of democracy is a brave, idealistic lawyer who tries initially to use his expertise to defend opponents of the junta, and then becomes another of its victims. He suffers terribly while in prison, and his wife undergoes her own ordeal trying to cajole the authorities into even revealing where they’ve imprisoned him, let alone to visit him.

Supporters of the regime are not shown simply as ogres and sadists, though many come close – not just the torturers in prison, but those who command them. More nuanced in this aspect of the narrative are those who strive to further their own political careers by sucking up to those higher up; like many in Nazi Germany, they were complicit with the regime while fully aware of its more brutal tendencies. Some are ideologues who have bought into the colonels’ aspirations to create a new Greek empire – with devious plans to reconquer Turkey by staging another coup in Cyprus, which could then be used as a springboard to invasion of their old enemy. Others are simply amoral in their ambition to use the corrupt system to enhance their status and gain more of the trappings of wealth and power they admire in their superiors.

An early reviewer described Coup d’Etat as Tolstoyan, and I don’t find this an exaggeration. Dr Harvey unflinchingly portrays the viciousness and monomania of the military regime, its ruthlessness in imposing its dictatorship in ways which have become horribly familiar over the last century, and which continue to fill news reports today about the war in Ukraine.

But he also shows enormous sympathy for and insight into the hearts and minds of his characters representing both sides in this terrible period of Greek history. Families caught up in the tumult of the times are shown as being often split in terms of their political allegiances and motivation – as all families are (I’m trying to avoid falling into the usual Tolstoy quotation).

Most impressive among the literary achievements of Coup d’Etat is the central trio of the loving couple of the lawyer Vangelis and his devoted wife Chryssa. Here again the author shows a capacity for showing human frailty and weakness even at times of enormous courage and resilience in their struggle against the cruel regime. The character of their English friend Michael, a journalist, enables John Harvey to provide a convincing outsider’s perspective on the turmoil and suffering caused in the lives of these ordinary, decent people by their military oppressors, but also to introduce a complicating, heartbreaking alternative love story into these already precariously situated lives.

In the foreword to this new edition of the novel, first published in 1985 and now reissued by Holland House as part of a full set of his novels (my thanks to the author and his publishers for providing copies of some of those I hadn’t yet read), Dr Harvey explains his own personal interest in telling this harrowing but uplifting story. In 1968 he married Julietta in her home city of Thessaloniki, and they witnessed many of the events depicted in the novel, and were told more about them by those who had been caught up in events during that dreadful time in the world’s oldest democracy.

This explains the gritty authenticity of the novel, but also the heartfelt, passionate engagement with it by the narrator, the sweep and tone of the narrative, and the richness of the characterisation.

My previous posts on John Harvey’s novels:

The Paint Shop (1979) HERE

The Subject of a Portrait (2014) HERE (three posts, including one by the author)

Pax (2019) HERE

Non-fiction/academic:

The Poetics of Sight (2015) HERE

Clothes (2008) HERE

Men in Black (1995); The Story of Black (2013) HERE

 

John Harvey, The Plate Shop

John Harvey, The Plate Shop. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1979.

John Harvey The Plate Shop cover Holland House is an independent London publisher founded in 2012. They recently released all five of John Harvey’s novels in a ‘revisited’ set. Here at the Days there are several posts about The Subject of a Portrait, his excellent 2014 novel about the tangled lives of Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais (links HERE). In one post I introduced him like this:

[JH]) is a distinguished academic: he’s University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture at Cambridge, and a Life Fellow at my old college, Emmanuel. This interest in the ways in which visual art and fiction intertwine is reflected in this novel, and in his two books on the socio-cultural and literary significance of the colour black.  Men In Black (1995) explores the meaning of clothing and colour, and in particular the way that Victorian men’s clothing went dark, reflecting the constraint and self-abnegation of that period. He explores how Dickens and Ruskin (subject of the novel under discussion here) assessed its ‘paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion’. The Story of Black (2013) develops this theme in broader symbolic terms, including aesthetically and sexually. (Links to these posts at the end.)

In 2019 wrote about Pax, his most recent novel, which also deals with the worlds of art and eros. It tells of the visit to London in 1629 of Rubens, and of another artist in 2003.

I was delighted to be sent by John and the publishers a set of the reissued novels that I haven’t yet read. The Plate Shop was his first novel, inspired by his experience as a student doing a vacation job. The ‘shop’ is part of a factory making heavy machinery. The novel deals with what the author calls in his introduction to this edition ‘the hard relationship between Money and Work in the world.’

This was a time of economic and technological change, and the plate shop is precariously placed. It represents outmoded methods, old technology, is a relic of the industrial revolution. New ways of manufacturing and marketing commodities and new foreign markets are taking over, and Britain’s traditional economic dominance in this world is precarious. Dinosaurs like this shop needed to modify (evolve?) or die. The catastrophic miners’ strike of 1984-85, just a few years after this novel is set, marked a low point in this corporate decline, and was the beginning of the end of Britain’s manufacturing and industrial status.

There’s a large cast of characters, brutalised and exploited by the work ethic of the time; their response is to behave tribally, to operate in packs. One of the most sympathetic is different, an outsider and foreigner, ‘not one of us’, a Czech plater who’s sacked in a case of racist bigotry only too casually apparent at that time. I recognise these characters and this setting from my own time as a student in the early seventies in a vacation job at a factory outside Bristol that made the British parts of the supersonic aircraft, Concorde. Like John, as an academic I was consigned to the technical drawing office – a smoke-filled den (chain-smokers, all of them) deep inside a huge hangar. Mine was a tedious clerical job: no heavy machines, drilling or plating for me.

Dominating the plate shop is the larger-than-life figure of Clyde, the bullish but fading shop foreman, who symbolises in human form the doomed nature of this field of manufacture. He used to rule the shop, using his mechanical genius to fix problems and impose his will on his awe-struck workforce. But just as the pictures got smaller, so the machines became more complex, and he’s struggling to maintain his dwindling authority. He’s out of key with his time – and so is his shop.

The hated Time Study men now threaten his role, with their stopwatches and timesheets that determine the schedule and control for each worker. Clyde becomes increasingly bemused and frightened as he sees himself becoming redundant, superfluous.

The gripping prose style is Dickensian, synaesthetic: all harsh, clanking, metallic sounds and vivid light and dark in many of the scenes set in and around the workshop (which is most of the novel). These descriptions remind me of Hard Times, which could be seen as a sort of precursor to The Plate Shop. Here’s an example from the very first page, showing the artist-author’s realisation of the concrete in a multi-sensory, poetic style:

From dazzling points in the walls, pencils of light came in. Colours came out in the machines, which stood clear in all their different shapes: an upshooting wiry machine was all run and whip and gleam of tough silver threads; a square red casing stood rigid at attention, severe, burning in upright fire. Beneath a soaring tree of girders sprawled a long low humped and curved machine – deep-green, enormous – like a dangerous armour-plated creature asleep. In the girders above, a fat amber cable curled among the leads like a snake asleep among vines.

See what I mean about the Dickensian tone? Those images, that hint of dark satanic mills.

The Plate Shop also reminded me of those gritty black-and-white films of the sixties and early seventies, often in heavy industry settings, like ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. These also portrayed that end-of-an-era period of decline and depression, the technological and social revolution that turned the smoky, complacent world of (soon to be) post-colonial Britain into a vacuous, superannuated nation of service industries, manufacturing all gone, and a deep sense of grievance, loss and entropy in its working population.

This novel is a brilliant, deeply felt elegy to that grimy, world of decaying heavy industry and capitalism.

It’s good to see that Holland House have included some of the original illustrations John Harvey produced for the first edition, but which had not previously been published. These reveal the author’s academic and aesthetic speciality: Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators (1970: his first non-fiction book).

My posts on John Harvey’s books about the colour black HERE; on Clothes HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

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