BOOK REVIEW / The high points of a low culture: 'Still Life with a Bridle' - Zbigniew Herbert, trs John and Bogdana Carpenter: Cape, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AT A TIME when most writers from Eastern Europe have been releasing work unpublished under the old regime, or writing furiously about the new order, here is Zbigniew Herbert, Poland's senior resident poet, leaving country and verse behind and travelling to the delta-land, the flat, orderly, 'civilised steppe', of the Netherlands, to meditate on 17th-century Dutch painting. The result, a mix of My Favourite Old Masters and some high old stories about madmen and explorers, will meet the approval of anyone who has groaned over learned guidebooks and cultural histories.

There is no need for illustrations, certainly: 'Against deep browns the screen of a bed with a baldachin and a curtain falling perpendicularly like a backdrop with a matte red shade. The same colour, only gradually more intensive and saturated with light, is repeated in the coverlet on the table and upholstery of the chair . . .' Time and again, as - here - in the case of Gerard Ter Borch's Fatherly Admonition, the diligent eye seeks to 'exist in the same frame, against an eternal landscape' of everyday life.

Using a precise, pictorial language, Herbert revels in (to quote the title of one of these essays) the 'non-heroic subject'. He celebrates not just a style indifferent to martial scenes and grand poses, but the artisan calling which placed Rembrandt or Van Goyen in the same league as innkeepers or bakers whose bills could be settled with a canvas. He dislikes the elevation of art to a cultural event as much as he deplores the academic criticism he toys with and debunks.

None the less, Herbert has his sources, and has quarried long and deep, scouring monographs, courtly memoirs and bits of old paper. The Great Tulip Crash of 1637; a little- known letter from Vermeer to Antonio van Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope; the Arctic winter of Captain Van Heemskerck, during which his gallant crew survived in a replica Frisian house improvised from driftwood: true or false? If Herbert plays it both ways, covering invention with the patina of historiography, it is because his truths lie elsewhere. 'Tulipomania', during which, we are assured, single bulbs were exchanged for whole estates, leads to an examination of the commodity value of beauty; Vermeer's letter is an invective against science in the name of the 'archaic procedure' of painting the familiar; the sailors' hut is an allegory of 'home - that monument to fidelity'.

'What exists beyond measure, in over-measure will meet a bad end.' This motto, depicted in the painting of Torrentius which gives this book its title, fits writer and subject alike. Herbert is fascinated by Torrentius, because he is almost invisible (Still Life with a Bridle is his only surviving work), but also because he is 'a provocatively colourful bird amid birds of a uniform colour', whose excesses demonstrated the exact measure of Dutch liberalism. But above all, Herbert reaches towards the Torrentius of that one still life, returning to the solidities of the canvas, only to be visited by further considerations. In life and art alike, the final purpose, and strong recommendation, of this book is 'not to solve enigmas, but be aware of them'.