Eustace

A strong debut with a compelling style somehow fails to nail the pacing.

Eustace
S.J. Harris
Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £14.99

Eight-year-old Eustace is a very sickly boy. Confined to bed through some unknown malady, he whiles his life away dreading the thin reedy soup (the only thing he can keep down); avoiding the affections of his innumerable aunts; and chatting to us, his imaginary strangers. He used to have imaginary friends, but then they were mean to him in the park, so he stopped speaking to them.

Were the struggle to just survive not such an occupation, the oddities of his life would give him much to tell us about. One day, Eustace's brother, Frank, joined the army to meet men — which, in 1936, is a relatively ballsy thing to do — causing his mother to go into a near-terminal decline. She gave the servants the day off, and went to bed, leaving no-one to bring him any food. Quenching his hunger with narcotic cough syrup is one way to deal with that problem, but perhaps not the smartest.

Then Eustace's uncle crawls out from under his bed, on the lam from the law. His secretary follows soon after. And then the booze and prostitutes arrive…

If it's not clear, Eustace is a strange book. The plot continues getting weirder from thereon in, and ends rather abruptly in a manner which is both the logical end-point and deeply fucked-up. A short epilogue in the form of a newspaper clipping provides the only real resolution any of the characters get, and emphasises how a book which begins as a potentially realistic story told through the heightened experience of a child goes well off in a different direction.

There is a clue from the start that odd things were going to happen though, and that's Steven Harris' artwork. One of the particular joys reading comics offers is the chance of synchronicity between artistic style and thematic elements, and Harris offers that in abundance. Rendered, as best I can tell, entirely in pencil and with copious amounts of white space marking Eustace's fitful drifts into and out of sleep, the most immediately noticeable aspect of Harris' style is his figure work.

Eustace looks thin, wan and sickly; his eyes are sunken deep into his head; his straw-like blond hair is combed-over in a way which suggests premature baldness. But the thing is, those are traits he shares with all Harris' figures. Even the big, boisterous Uncle Lucian, who crawls out from under Eustace's bed and turns his life upside down, has the same cutting cheekbones and thin lips.

While the similarity starts off as a distraction, it soon becomes clear that Harris' intentions are more subtle. The similarity between Eustace and "Oubliette", the first of many prostitutes who ends up in his room, becomes a minor plot point, while Frank and Eustace's mother's appearances aren't exactly supposed to make them look hale and hearty either.

Similarly, a minor confusion at the start concerning Eustace's asides to the reader is inverted quite wonderfully as it becomes clear that they are less aside than we think — and raise further questions about the poor boy's health.

But it does all come back to that odd narrative. Weirdness is good, but when it extends to the pacing, which it does here, it's less commendable. The whole structure of the book is someone with their foot on the accelerator of a clapped-out car pointed straight at a wall. It very slowly builds steam, eventually reaches a viable cruising speed, but then never quite slows down, and, eventually and suddenly, stops, causing pain for all concerned.

It's not the first time that's happened to Eustace, either. The story has its roots in a comic Harris did on the BBC's h2g2 website (a sort of proto-wikipedia based on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which ended up being more of a weirdly-laid-out forum where a lot of the first wave of Britain's online creatives congregated) which was itself suspended abruptly after six months. Harris' other cartoon series, Paper Cuts, lasted over two years, and he returned to the site to pencil a further three last spring.

In a way, then, the book has been a decade in the making. Given the level of craft evident from a nominally first-time graphic novelist, that's not something which will surprise you by the time you finish it. But the finish itself may be less to your taste.

Images: S.J. Harris/Jonathan Cape

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle