Pissing on the Ice

Last night I read an essay by Josef Scu, a young Romanian scholar, whose ongoing research on the aforementioned Ingemar Hölleston girlfriend’s-nicknames-taken-from-Dutch-painting-conundrum is, I am often being told, producing ‘radical results’. I don’t know about that, but I won’t deny that a few of his conclusions brush the sleeve of interestingness, occasionally pushing the claims of the otherwise honorable Professor Biffwright into the critical shade.

Scu’s most radical argument thus far is that the character we know as Mrs Winter Scene may be a reference to the cross-dressing musician Marco Overkamp.  No, no, say you: ‘why yes’ says Scu. In fact, Overkamp’s reported ‘closeness’ to Hölleston has been under dicussion for some time now. Of course, there are those (myself included) who find it hard to imagine that Ingemar, ferociously heterosexual in so many of his tastes, would ever have swayed in that particular direction. On the other hand, one must admit that Overkamp was no ordinary cross-dresser. He was, in the one words of one writer, ‘a better woman than most woman’. ‘What he lacked anatomically,’ it was said elsewhere, ‘he more than made up for in other ways’.

Fair enough. But why Mrs Winter Scene? There is a clear clue in the name: Overkamp is, of course, remarkably similar to Averkamp, the name of one of the most famous painters of winter scenes. Both men seem to have been aware of this, constantly alluding to it, without ever quite confirming the connection. Few letters between the two men exist – and Overkamp is mentioned by Hölleston only rarely – though Scu does well to prove that, when he is brought up, it is usually accompanied by a subtle reference to Avercamp or his paintings. In one passage, for instance, Hölleston writes that ‘Marco, that charlatan, has been spotted once more, pissing on the ice’ – surely an allusion to the almost obligatory urinating man we find in such paintings. In another he writes, ‘Marco will, I am sure, in the best English tradition, get on his skates and be there before me’ – once again linking Overkamp to the sort of seasonal activity with which Averkamp’s landscapes tend to be associated.

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Miss Interior

Cast the trout-tight net of your able minds back to last November, when I wrote the words: ‘it seems that the women in his life (of which there were many, all nicknamed after Dutch paintings) were keen either to stifle his parrot-murdering tendencies altogether – or at the very least prevent him from fashioning boxes out of their feathery corpses’

Intriguing words, no? No? Admittedly, I may have lingered unnecessarily on the matter of the parrot-boxes (more here, for those who missed that first time) whilst skipping with misguided glee over the most interesting matter of all. This, certainly, is the impression I have been given by half a dozen correspondents, all them salivating over the prospect of learning more about Ingemar Hölleston’s habit (for it is he) of giving his girlfriends nicknames based on, or entirely derived from paintings of the so-called Dutch Golden Age.

I’d love to be able to inform you that his approach was born out of some profound understanding of, well, anything – but it seems that the affectation may have been an absurd fancy from start to finish. The most recent study of the case (I refer, of course, to Arnold Biffwright’s 2007 article Into Miss Interior: Passion, Possession, Pure Nonsense and Ingemar Hölleston’s Naughty Little Address Book) does make some links between the names given and the women to whom they were given, but few of them are convincing, leaving the main strength of any research in this area to lie in our growing knowledge of Hölleston’s deep fascination with Dutch painting.

Here, in any case, is a small collection of these nicknames, prescribed to certain friends of his, some of which we know the real names of, some of which we don’t.

Miss Interior was, we are all agreed, the moniker thrown upon Amy Legrand, daughter of Phillipe Legrand, the monkey brain specialist. Mrs Night Watch, meanwhile, was almost certainly Countess Berlaud, the buxom Belgian beauty. But what of Miss Gallant Conversation, Mrs Winter Scene and The Dropsical Woman? What of Madam Self-Portrait with a Skull and Mrs Family Portrait in a Landscape?

Alas, we know not their true identities.

More on this later.

Cloud of Pomegranates

If my poor back permits me to do so, allow me to bend down and pick up on a point made in Sebastien Cheraz’s generally excellent review of Pathenikolides’ increasingly well-known novel The Twisted Olive Tree. He writes:

We are in Greece, late March, following the hushed conversation of a group of teenagers lying on a hill outside their village, overlooking an ancient, twisted olive tree. They are playing what is known to many of us as the ‘cloud game’. This antique pastime (thought by many to have been invented by Pythagoras’ uncle Praxinimbus) involves nothing more than an ability to detect clouds in the sky and, with a little imagination, to compare their shape to that of an additional object. Thus the immortal last words of the Danish poet and philosopher Ingemar Hölleston: ‘God above! A cloud in the shape of a pomegranate!’  – spoken before choking on his own vomit (revealing a conspicuous drawback to a game that involves lying flat on one’s back).

Laying aside the eternally controversial issue of Pythagoras’ uncle, let us settle instead on the subject of Ingemar Hölleston’s last words  – which appear here, it must be said, a little out of context.

First things first. Other than the fact that he spoke them in Danish, those were indeed Hölleston’s last words. His very last words, that is – not a sentence plucked from a range of those spoken around about the time when he made his final exit – nor a phrase invented posthumously by a team of last-word experts (such as those described by Koira Jupczek in the wonderful Death Charts). So, though I decline to name my sources, I would willingly stake my life (or, failing that, a really good wrist watch) on the authenticity of this legend.

A few pressing questions follow. What was Ingemar Hölleston doing staring at clouds in the first place? What caused him to vomit? And, most significantly: what would a cloud in the shape of a pomegranate actually look like?

It might help if I told you that Hölleston and pomegranates go back a long way. His notebooks are full of references to the fruit; almost as if he had a fixation with them. In fact, I take that back. There’s no ‘almost as if’ about it. He did have a fixation with them. Undeniably. Indeed, it was most likely due to the over-consumption of pomegranates that Hölleston was driven to spew himself all the way to the pearly gates. That he felt no remorse regarding this unhealthy obsession is, I think, confirmed by this final utterance of his – as is the possibility that his love of pomegranates had truly divine implications. Allow me to re-punctuate those closing words: ‘God above: a cloud in the shape of a pomegranate!’

Now it all becomes clear (or clearer, at any rate). Still, I haven’t explained what Hölleston was doing lying on his back staring at clouds in the first place. An army of sighs advances. Do I really need to do this? Goodness me: aren’t we all driven to do such things from time to time? Maybe so, though it will probably interest you to know that Hölleston was, by all accounts, a closet cloud-watcher. In fact, he relied on the sky (in its various shapes and forms) for the majority of his inspiration (and not, as is sometimes claimed, on strong black coffee). So there. ‘It’s written in the stars’ say some. Wrong. It’s inspired by them, perhaps, but it’s written in Ingemar Hölleston’s notebooks.

As for what a cloud in the shape of a pomegranate would look like, well, I leave that to your own over-ripe imaginations…

Holleston and Non-Novels (3)

The time has come to say a word about Ingemar Hölleston. Not about his parrot boxes – though it’s true, he did have some. Actually, I take that back. He designed them and killed parrots in order to make them, though evidence suggests that his hands were never responsible for the construction of a completed parrot box. It seems that the women in his life (of which there were many, all nicknamed after Dutch paintings) were keen either to stifle his parrot-murdering tendencies altogether – or at the very least prevent him from fashioning boxes out of their feathery corpses.

As I wrote, however, the main aim of today’s post is to not to linger on the subject of parrot boxes, but to push the critical trowel a little deeper into the Hölleston flower-bed: a very worthy task at any time, but especially relevant when set along recent investigations into the concept of the non-novel.  After all, Hölleston is for many people the archetypal non-novelist. Here is a writer who thrives in the shadowy corners; a shape-shifting spirit: a marvellous snowman, bound to melt under the burning sun of critical scrutiny.

Shouldn’t I, thus, hold off the hounds, call off the search and put down the gilded pen? Should I not let the non-novelist be, safe in his nowhere land of diaphanous forms, uncaged by careless catagories?

Perhaps I should. Before I do, yet, I will toss a handful of sand across the slate, or fling a block of damp wood into the quietly burning fire. I will, perchance, risk another paragraph or so.

Some will shiver, shake, and quite possibly quiver at the reverent attitude I hold towards Hölleston. Such has been the case from the very beginning. For some he was and is the Danish Da Vinci; for others no more than a moneyed crackpot. Even Hölleston himself wasn’t too sure. A self-confessed idler and layabout, he thought that he was both  ‘boring’ and yet ‘quite frankly the most interesting person I have ever come across’. ‘Layabout’ was probably about right, though one has to remember that he lay about in great style. As always, he brought to the task (or non-task, as the case may be) an original vision: a new angle, a fresh perspective, a distinct divination.

‘I never edit,’ he once wrote – and it’s not as if we needed to know. The thing about Holleston was that he wrote. That was all. He wrote things down. Where they were going he didn’t know. Some bits were long, other bits short. Some bits were accompanied by pictures, others by diagrams, others by nonsensical scrawls. Prose slipped into poetry mid-sentence, then back into prose. Stories began, then disappeared, then reappeared, then left again, never to return. In the midst of all this there were flashes of wisdom. Too many flashes, perhaps. One was – and is – often blinded by Hölleston. He points a searchlight at your soul. His words, at best, are what strobe lighting is to an epilectic. At his most medicore, he is but a candle in a cathedral, steadily melting our waxen hearts.

Hölleston was full of great ideas, though he was never afraid, nor ashamed, to keep them in embryo form. Some call this his weakness – I think it his strength. In working up ideas into novels, many writers lose what it was that got them going in the first place. The foundation stone is crushed by the great galumphing building constructed on top of it. Readers, those soft-hearted fools, will lose their way in the margins, falling for this or that character, all the while ignoring the essence of the thing: the spark that started the fire. Hölleston, however, never got round to creating a fire. He lit the match and blew it out, time after time.

How does one read him? I’ve never been sure. Bits of his work have been published, haphazardly, by various houses, though they remain far from readily available to the potential masses. The rest lingers, meanwhile, in Danish libraries: a page here, another page there. It seems that no one has ever had a hold on Hölleston. But that’s the beauty of the man. He ain’t the type to be tamed.

A Most Ingenious Parrot Box?

We all know that Hector Spinkel owned a parrot, but did he own a parrot box? More to the point, what is a parrot box? Not, I fancy, a box in which one keeps a parrot – no, that would be cruel – but a box which either houses objects related to a parrot (parrot-seed, talon-clippers, feather-combs, the pocket version of How to Make Your Parrot Speak and its sequel How to Shut Your Parrot Up Again) or which incorporates the image of a parrot into its design.

You may be interested to know that, as a child, I owned a box of the latter sort. It was bought for me by a friend of my father’s on a trip to an outsize aviary outside Hamburg. Little bigger than a large matchbox, it had on its lid an illustration of a greyish-green parrot, most likely the Senegal Parrot (as seen here). I kept in it four blue marbles, with which I never played.

Other, perhaps more famous, literary-minded personages are said to have owned, or been in some way connected with parrot boxes. It is claimed that Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, owned a parrot box that looked a little like this. Some say he housed a library in it – I am not altogether sure. Flann O’Brien, meanwhile, owned a much bigger parrot box, inside which he kept another parrot box, inside which he kept another parrot box, inside which he… (and so on). I am also informed that Ingemar Holleston owned a box in the shape of a parrot, which might have looked like this. Or then again, it might not have looked like that at all. So far as I know, none of these men actually owned a parrot.

Incidentally, whilst we’re flapping clumsily around the subject of Hector Spinkel, I wonder whether anyone knows when his long-awaited biopic is due to be released? The last I heard was that several Hollywood stars had declined the part of Spinkel – and that someone called Denzil Gust was involved, as either actor or director (I forget which).