Tuesday 25 October 2022

Brian Howell, "The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories"

Brian Howell, photograph by Mark Alberding

Brian Howell lives and teaches in Japan. He has been publishing stories since 1990. His first collection, The Sound of White Ants, was published in the UK by Elastic Press in 2004. His novel based on the life of Jan Vermeer, The Dance of Geometry, was published in March 2002 by The Toby Press. His second novel, The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius, about the notoriously libertine Dutch painter, was published in 2017 by Zagava. His third novel, Sight Unseen, which follows the intersections of a group of characters who are under the spell of a mysterious Dutch seventeenth-century genre painting, was published in 2019 by Zagava. He likes film, cycling, Japan, the Low Countries and listening to podcasts. 


About The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories, by Brian Howell 

My stories in this collection have been written over a number of years, a little under half in this particular collection being quite recent and previously unpublished. The title story, like many of those included, owes a debt to happenstance in that I have been living in Japan for over twenty-five years and rather than heavily research the country and its history as a whole I prefer to let my eye fall on whatever stands out at a given time. In the case of kuras (a kura is a distinctive type of Japanese storehouse which you can find all over Japan. It reminds me of European architecture and probably invokes an aspect of nostalgia for me), I only became aware of them as distinct Japanese buildings in the last few years, partly from my cycling rides in the country. However, I soon realised that they are all around and pretty much taken for granted by the general populace. I saw in this recent mania of mine a possible starting point for a characters’ obsession that gets out of hand and ends up filling a lack that he isn’t aware of and symbolises his loss of control of his life and leads to a horrible conclusion. 

The idea for "The Night of São João" was simply a gift that started with a stray comment by a stranger when I was in Porto, Portugal. The fact that I experienced the festival at first hand at all was serendipitous, because I was only able to take part in it because it coincided with a conference I was attending, and even then, when it came to the actual celebrated night of the festival, I was indifferent to the idea until I was cajoled along by two friends and colleagues. I then had an experience that reminded me of a time when I regularly went to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square when I was a teenager. The Portuguese version of this in the form of this particular summer festival was a total contrast in many respects, except in so far as I found myself in an extremely uncomfortable situation at a much older age in a crowd, from which I barely extricated myself, in a place I didn’t know. Yet the idea of making contact with strangers in a way that wasn’t usually the case for me as a teenager in London or would be for an older man and a younger woman as it unfolds in the Portuguese setting in this story represents for me a sort of correlation.

In the case of one of my earlier stories, "Meeting Julie Christie," that story actually came out of a series of coincidences involving the famous actress that ended up continuing even after I had finished the story and checked with her for permission. Although I was trying to break into film reviewing at the time and was able to interview a number of my idols, the one time I saw Christie and the other times which counted as near-misses had a certain magical, frustrating quality about them which I wove into some of my more personal experiences from the same period. 

"The Mannikin" (extracted below) grew very much out of my long-term interest in Dutch C17th-century painters when I was conducting some research into the painter Gerard Terborch, a contemporary of Johannes Vermeer, with whom the older artist shares many characteristics and who has a cameo in my novel about Vermeer, The Dance of Geometry. In this case, an actual letter by Gerard Terborch’s father was the inspiration for a fictional version of this letter. The theme of dolls or mannikins is one that I have always been attracted to, as is the idea of the presence of the many C17th-century Dutch genre painters who made their way to England at that time. This is also something that I touched on in my novel about the (to some at the time) infamous Jan Torrentius, The Curious Case of Jan Torrentius.

Many of my other stories in this collection either reflect some running themes from the place I grew up in, such as south London, or my trips or stays abroad. Sometimes I like specifically not to mention a time or place, as in "The Folding Man," even though it may be based in a specific experience or culture.

In other cases, as in my story about a man’s infatuation with a dental hygienist, the idea developed from the, to me, incredibly thorough regimen that my own dental treatment in Tokyo imposed unexpectedly on me, even though I had nothing that ostensibly wrong with my teeth and had already been visiting a previous dentist regularly. Nevertheless, I had never before experienced quite that form of attention and care that I was offered by this particular surgery. Whilst never being uncomfortable with it, I wondered how a character might take the idea of this attention too far, become dependent on it, and imagine a world around it, both as regards the technical side of dentistry and the more personal one of the relationship between a patient and a dental worker, whom he soon conflates with that of a sex worker, whom he starts to frequent around the same time. Needless to say, all the extreme events around this character’s story are all freely imagined.

You can read more about The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read an excerpt from one of the stories.  

From The Man Who Loved Kuras and Other Stories

The Mannikin

It was dark very soon, and the smells from the street dissuaded me once more of my idea to go out even for a brief stroll. I found also the shouts from the street and what I believed to be coarse words very unedifying. Therefore, I set to experimenting with the mannikin, to moving its limbs in all manner of ways that would conform to different postures. I generally thought that it was convenient to not have to worry about the kind of things that one would ask of a real person, to move an arm or even a leg in such a way that one could not conceive of doing with a live model. Yet, sometimes, having moved her to a chair now, I might put a limb in such a way as she sat there that I might hear a sound which seemed not exactly human but also not truly inanimate, a sound as of air being pressed or released. This would be mixed in with the sound of the rubbing of polished wood moving in a socket of some kind. I had not investigated the inner workings of this doll yet, and in truth I preferred to leave some mystery. And I certainly did not want to take apart this … device. I believe I was only interrupted the once, by the maid bringing me a very large glass of ale; when she saw me kneeling at the doll, she quickly withdrew, giggling.

I confess it was not wisest to investigate the creature in the dimming light and with candles, so I fell asleep till the next morning. 

Yet when I awoke it was not to see the doll in the chair as I had left her, but to see her on my bed next to me, her skirt uncouthly lifted, face down. I could not recall how she had come to be in this position and quickly I lifted her up by the waist and carried her to the chair, where her head sank down as if in a sulk, reminding me of the first day when I had placed her on the floor. I examined the skirt particularly closely, worried it may have been damaged, but I was relieved to find nothing amiss. 

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