Brueghel is that mischievous photographer who mistimes the shot to catch you gawping drunkenly; an unscrupulous collector of wonky stares, pimples scratched, that peculiar twitch, those odd bulges – everyday absurdities we look in the mirror to forget.
He painted the totally ordinary and the fantastic in conjunction: piggy-backing, bare arses and haymaking; a man with waffles tied to his hat, a skeleton playing hurdy-gurdy. A flash-flood of. Miscellanies of grotesquery and grot. Seventeen in the bed and the little one laughed. The best bits of ‘Where’s Wally?‘ and a fleshy, rude wit to boot. Jamboree of the banal, the bawdy and the bestial.
But Brueghel wasn’t just a saucy Flemish cartoonist. He’d a beautiful sense of colour – late ochre and russet, the hushed blue of snow against bark – and crucially, despite their surreal incongruities, his works have a representativeness and a fidelity about them: they fit the sixteenth century perfectly. He painted common people in common professions without resorting to affectation or sentiment, and often his paintings were visual representations of common proverbs or adages, many now defunct. He combined panoramic scope with an exaggerated flatness to skew perspective in such a way that his best paintings suggest artlessness, immediacy and concealed metaphor at the same time.
After finishing Wolf Hall, finding myself hankering after more sixteenth century spilt into words, I was pleased to come across Q (in a dark corner of the market), a novel which follows the fortunes and misfortunes of an Anabaptist heretic through the upheaval in mainland Europe during the Reformation. Same period, similar themes – the Church, power, political intrigue – but these novels are two peas from very different pods.
Q was written by four Italian authors under the pseudonym ‘Luther Blissett’ – a notoriously inept British footballer who once played for Milan. Its protagonist too remains nameless throughout, though he takes on multiple aliases as he hunts for the mysterious Q, who is an undercover spy for the Inquisition.
The novel suffers from obvious flaws: it’s outrageously overblown and inconsistently paced. The two principle characters’ motivations are never convincingly explored or even fully explained. Stylistically, it jerks and flails a bit (though it is translated from the Italian):
What I have to do.
Screams in my ears already bursting with cannon fire, bodies crashing into me. My throat choked with bloody, sweaty dust, my coughs tearing me apart.”
No matter. Whereas Wolf Hall is meticulously directed, this is a brash, breathless maul of a plot, taking in multiple battles, massacres, mad prophets, instances of enforced polygamy, swindling, espionage, torture, and a singular German nobleman who calls his underlings ‘absolute dickheads’. It’s a Brueghel-esque mash.
Q is in fact resolutely and purposefully a ‘flat’ novel – one reviewer called it a species of ‘anti-novel‘ – and it is self-consciously playful, but it is not without ambition. It works in the same way as Brueghel’s paintings manage to frame the madness of the rabble: by compressing and caricaturing and foregrounding. Brueghel painted the crowd, a press of people; I think Q is an attempt to write a flood of events in a way that represents how things happen in a rush of odd collocations and coincidences, without resolving themselves beforehand. It’s compulsive and memorable, and whilst not entirely successful, a lot of fun.