Toby Ferris, his father recently dead and entering into fatherhood himself, sets out at the age of 42 to view all 42 of the surviving paintings of Pieter Breughel the Elder (save one). They become the matrix through which he explores matters of myth, meaning, and mortality.
With insight and art-historical nuance he delves into the world of village celebrations, hunters, harvesters, and drunkards pushed into pigsties that’s portrayed in the paintings, opening out from there to stories of his own travels from museum to museum across Europe, memories of his father, and philosophical meditations on life.
Toby Ferris is also the creator of the arcane and alluring website “Anatomy of Norbiton,” which a favorite author of mine, Robert Macfarlane, describes as “a dazzlingly strange thought-experiment in virtual topography, counterfactual space, town-planning and tapirs.” It would be easy to get lost in this genre-defying and labyrinthine literary creation without ever having a sense of what it’s about–or even quite what it is. Ferris brings something of this esoteric sensibility to Short Life in a Strange World, but in a more concrete and accessible way.
His writing is worth enjoying in its own right. Take these sentences on paragliders that are sucked into the upper atmosphere: “They would be tossed around in regions of lurid physics, as though buffeted in the red eye of Jupiter, would black out, and then, if they lived to tell of it, would be spat back frostbitten, wild-eyed, jabbering: ancient mariners of the upper airs.”
This is a book to be savored in bites, not consumed in a sitting. It is dense, allusive, and evocative. As a physical object it is a beautiful thing: heavy in the hand, cream-paged, rich with reproductions of Renaissance paintings. It’s a good book for a winter bed stand–maybe interleaved with lighter fare for leavening.