Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bruegel in Words

As Above, So Below (2002), a novel by Rudy Rucker, gives us a lively if somewhat melodramatic fictional account of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The known details of Bruegel's life are few so Rucker layers his novel with fairly prosaic relationships, almost soap opera-esque, and colors the narrative with known historical detail of the Low Countries under the reign of Charles the V and Phillip the II of Spain. What the novel lacks in prose elegance and style it makes up for by conjuring the sights, sounds, smells, and day-to-day goings-on of life in places like Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen in the 1500s.

During Bruegel's short life (1525-1569) he no doubt witnessed the atrocities and persecutions perpetrated by the Spanish monarchy against the occupied peoples of the Low Countries. His Massacre of the Innocents, a Biblical theme, has been adapted to portray a village scene in his native country and depicts the depredations unleashed on the citizens by the soldiers and mercenaries of the Spanish Crown. Rucker includes various details and scenes that aptly illustrate life under occupation and weaves these into the imagined narrative of Bruegel's life.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1567

The novel begins with Bruegel as a young man traveling to Rome and encountering real mountains (the Alps) for the first time (a salient detail as Bruegel would become known as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time), and ends with his untimely death of an unspecified stomach condition in 1569. In between, Rucker uses Bruegel's masterpieces as jumping off points for creating the fictional details of his novel. It's a useful method and lends meaning, real or not, to the works themselves while allowing the author to sketch key periods of the artist's life.

For those interested in his research and process, Rucker has posted his notes on the writing of So Above, So Below.

Two other novels in which Bruegel plays a staring role are Bruegel, or A Workshop of Dreams by Claude-Henri Rocquet (1991), and Headlong (1999) by Michael Frayn, both worth reading.

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