With or Without Angels by Dennis Bruton: A beautiful and original response to art

Cover image for With or Without Angels by Douglas BrutonI was intrigued by the blurb for Douglas Bruton’s brief novella, With or Without Angels, which described the book as ‘a response through fiction’ to ‘The New World’ an artwork by the late artist Alan Smith, itself a response to the eighteenth-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 the most original piece of fiction I’ve read in quite some time.

The first afternoon the old artist spent at the Ca’ Rezzonico museum in Venice, he saw only one picture – Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Il Mondo Nuovo, ‘The New World’. He wanted to climb up into the picture, to be a part of the crowd.

In remission from lung cancer, an unnamed artist leaves the house each day, taking with him the camera his wife’s given him now that he can no longer hold a pen or a brush. He takes a picture of them both at the entrance to Tate Modern, a mirrored surface reflecting their images back at the camera. The painting that first fully absorbed him was Giandomenico Tiepolo’s ‘Il Mondo Nuovo’ hung in Venice’s Ca’ Rezzonico, a depiction of a crowd, backs turned to the viewer, with Tieoplo himself on its edge. He’s visited it many times since and contemplated it many more. He decides to create his own response to the fresco through a series of photographs, digitally manipulated by a young photographer to include figures from ‘Il Mondo Nuovo’, with the reflection of himself and his wife always present. As he thinks about each image and how it will be achieved, he’s flooded with memories and reflections. The penultimate picture will be a reversal of Tiepolo’s work with the crowd facing outwards.

He called out her name, his wife’s name, sent it into the waking half-darkness of the not-yet-bright morning – not really like a summons but something nearer prayer.

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. As the artist succumbs to illness again, his narration becomes increasingly unreliable but his memories of the work and his response to it remain strong, reflected in the many layers of the final image he and his assistant produce. 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. Despite its brevity, it was a challenge to choose from the many quotes I noted down. In his acknowledgements, 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”’. Smith’s work can be viewed here.

I’m adding this review to Kaggsy and Lizzy’s Read Indies page, an initiative runing throughout February which is responsible for my TBR list ballooning even more. Good job it’s a short month.

Fairlight Books: Oxford 9781914148361 112 pages Paperback (Read via NetGalley)

21 thoughts on “With or Without Angels by Dennis Bruton: A beautiful and original response to art”

  1. Gosh, this sounds fascinating – I may have to track it down. Interesting, I have another title from Bruton/Fairlight on my TBR for this month which I shall probably fail to get to – “Blue Postcards” – and that’s art based too!

  2. Very intriguing title, I think also possibly getting one to reflect on the many ways art can be created as well. I also found myself thinking of The Light That Failed by Kipling about an artist who makes a sort of masterpiece just as he is losing sight.

  3. Oh, this sounds marvellous. I’ve just spent five minutes viewing the Smith artwork and finding the characters from the Tiepolo.
    I couldn’t resist buying it, even though I had to get a Kindle edition.
    Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome, Lisa! I was so impressed by its originality and touched by the backstory. Much better to look at Smith’s work on the website when reading electronically, I found.

  4. Such an unusual premise and beautifully executed by the sound of things. Have you read Ali Smith’s ‘How to be both’? I couldn’t help but be reminded about it as I was reading your review.

  5. Douglas Bruton

    Susan, thank you for reading and rating my wee book so highly and then for posting up about it. So grateful you did this. x

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