With or Without Angels
by Douglas Bruton
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Pub Date 16 Feb 2023 | Archive Date 16 Feb 2023
'The thought in my head does not yet have shape or form, only direction, one picture leading into another.'
An ageing artist, faced with his own mortality, embarks on one final artwork. As he battles to complete the project, working with an enigmatic young photographer, he finds his past and present blurring. Through the act of creation and the memories it excavates, the artist comes to a realisation about what matters most, and what he will leave behind when he is gone.
This hybrid and innovative short novel responds through fiction to 'The New World', the final artwork by the late artist Alan Smith – which is in turn a response to an eighteenth-century fresco, Giandomenico Tiepolo’ s 'Il Mondo Nuovo'. With sparkling, dreamlike prose, Bruton weaves a story around these artworks, arriving at both a profound exploration of the creative process and a timeless love story told in a new way.
'A work of spare and brittle loveliness. With or Without Angels is a deeply moving depiction of art and the people who make it, at once visceral and restrained. I admired it enormously.’ — Nell Stevens, author of Briefly, A Delicious Life
‘Experimental yet accessible, serious but playful, provocative but moving. Douglas Bruton is a writer of boundless invention’ — Stephen May, author of Sell Us The Rope
‘With lyrical and succinct prose, Douglas Bruton writes tenderly about the quest to capture memories and understand what makes a life. His writing really stays with me.’ — Julie Corbin, author of A Lie For A Lie
‘Douglas Bruton’s narrative once again immerses us in a life that shimmers through the delicate fabrics of art. The hero of the story is an artist who can no longer hold a brush. He uses a camera to take pictures that turn into collages. Each collage modifies hazy memories and takes us to a new colorful world full of mystery, longing, and invisible angels.’ — Julia Nemirovskaya, editor of Disbelief: 100 Anti-War Poems
Average rating from 8 members
I first came across the name of Douglas Bruton in connection with his short story titled “Thirteen Wedding Dresses”, featured in the Fiction Desk anthology And Nothing Remains. That wistful, lyrical piece had made a good impression on me but did not prepare me for the brilliance of last year’s Blue Postcards, a novella published by Fairlight Books as part of its “Fairlight Moderns” series. Weaving together three storylines, chief of which is a Sebaldian retelling of the life of artist Yves Kelin, Bruton skilfully managed to combine an experimental structure with heart-warming storytelling.
Bruton returns to Fairlight with an equally striking and interesting novella – With or Without Angels. There are parallels with Blue Postcards in the work’s artistic inspiration and its weaving of fact and fiction. The author describes the novella as a “response through fiction” to “The New World”, a set of photo collages by the late Scottish artist Alan Smith, which is itself a tribute to or meditation on “Il Mondo Nuovo”, a fresco by 18th century artist Giandomenico Tiepolo. In an afterword which doubles as an acknowledgments section, Bruton describes learning of this work after meeting Smith’s widow. Browsing the artist’s online pages, Bruton came across a video in which Smith described the genesis of The New World, a work he devised and created while seriously ill with cancer.
Tiepolo’s Il Mondo Nuovo is an enigmatic work, showing a diverse crowd with their backs to the viewer. Smith’s response is equally mysterious, the photo collages combining figures from Tiepolo’s original with contemprary images and elusive symbolism. Bruton’s novella incorporates each of the pictures in Smith’s series as a pictorial conclusion to each chapter, which reimagines Smith as an unnamed “old artist” who creates art with the help of young photographer Livvy, and the encouragement of his loving wife. The artist is aware that he is losing grip on his life and his cherished memories. The images which he conjures up with Livvy’s support are his way of surviving and possible injecting vitality into the images which have marked his life and which now seem to be slipping his grasp.
With or Without Angels is a lyrical ode to art, life and love. It is at once elegiac yet hopeful, understated yet poignant, experimental yet perfectly accessible. I am often wary of using hackneyed adjective “haunting”, but it seems perfectly fitting for this novella.
The blurb for With or Without Angels describes it as ‘a response through fiction’ to ‘The New World’ an artwork by the late artist Alan Smith, itself a response to the 18th century artist Giandomenico Tiepolo's 'Il Mondo Nuovo’. In his acknowledgements, Bruton explains that after meeting Smith’s widow and examining the work online, he felt impelled to write his own response. The result is a the most original piece of fiction I’ve read in quite some time.
In remission from cancer, an artist leaves the house each day, taking with him a camera. He takes a picture of them himself and his wife at the entrance to Tate Modern, a mirrored surface reflecting their images back at the camera. prompting him to create a response to the painting that has most influenced him through a series of photographs, digitally manipulated with the help of a young photographer. As he thinks about each image and how it will be achieved, he’s flooded with memories and reflections.
Bruton structures his novel around Smith’s eleven pictures, beginning with the artist and his wife, each one reproduced at the end of a brief chapter. Through the artist’s narrative, Bruton explores many themes while asking what will remain when he dies? Will it be the work or love? This is such an impressive piece of fiction: thoughtful, imaginative, erudite, and beautifully written. Bruton explains that it was Smith’s widow who encouraged him to look for a publisher and gives ‘special thanks to the late Alan Smith for this “collaboration”’. If I could give it six stars, I would.
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