LEAVING VAN GOGH by Carol Wallace

Book Quote:

“We buried Vincent on July 30. His paintings hanging on the walls of Ravoux’s café transformed the room. To stand in its center surrounded by such visions was almost blinding. You could tell by the reactions of the handful of men who came for the funeral. […] Some wept, but often they smiled through their tears, for there was joy on the walls. It is easy to forget, especially for those of us who witnessed his last days, that Vincent found delight in what he saw around him, and he brought it to his paintings.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (APR 19, 2011)

Vincent Van Gogh had lived only seventy days in the small community of Auvers-sur-Oise, Northwest of Paris, since arriving in early May. He had been released from an asylum in the South of France and come North to be nearer his brother Theo, who supported him financially. In an astonishing feat of creativity, he dashed off luminous canvases at the rate of one or more per day, until his darkness returned and he went out into a field and shot himself. Carol Wallace’s novel is an account of those seventy days, as told by the person who was the reason for Vincent’s choice of Auvers: Dr. Paul Gachet. The somewhat older doctor, who had trained at the famous asylum of the Salpêtrière in Paris, was an enlightened specialist in mental disorders. More than that, he was an amateur painter himself, a collector, and a friend to many of the Impressionists; Cézanne had stayed in his house and painted it; Camille Pissarro was a neighbor. Surely nobody could better look after the brilliant but troubled Van Gogh?

From my former career as an art historian, I knew Vincent’s letters, and looked up his description of Gachet: “I have seen Dr. Gachet, who gives me the impression of being quite eccentric, though his medical experience must maintain his equilibrium while he struggles with the nervous troubles that he clearly suffers from as badly as I do.” This seemed an intriguing premise for a novel — not so much the blind leading the blind, as Vincent wrote in another letter, but the dazzled helping the dazzled. Might Carol Wallace not do something for painting akin to what Adam Foulds does for poetry in THE QUICKENING MAZE, about the mad poet John Clare and his eccentric guardian? My hopes were raised by an early flashback where Gachet attempts to draw female patients at the Salpêtrière, and feels his clumsy attempts taking him deeper into their madness, but Wallace does not really go this route. She is looking for someone to observe Van Gogh, rather than reflect the brilliant splinters of his mind. So she keeps Gachet as the doctor throughout, sympathetic but always objective. She gives him a slightly stuffy late Victorian voice, as he records a smoothly detailed account of those last days. Her Gachet is perceptive and appreciative, but too much of the middle of the book proceeds as a series of anecdotes about how each of the major pictures came to be painted. Despite the accuracy of the verbal descriptions, you need to Google the actual pictures to bring them fully to life: the portrait of Gachet himself, his daughter Marguerite at the piano, the writhing lines of the Church at Auvers, and that terrible final landscape of the bleak wheatfield with its black crows.

Gachet’s prose cannot hope to match Vincent’s wild poetry, or probe the mystery of madness striking sparks from the flint of genius. Yet there is one passage which comes close, later in the book, when Gachet comes across the artist in a field, a blank canvas on his easel, a charged palette at his side, but totally unable to lift a brush. It is worth quoting at length:

“I wished that Vincent could paint, of course. I wished for more glorious canvases of the world I knew, pictures that helped me understand it and that altered the way I saw everything around me. I wished Vincent would paint the wheat fields under the snow — imagine how lovely they would be! The golden stubble and low gray sky and the patches of snow that, in Vincent’s eyes, would not be white at all but something else, lavender perhaps, or pink.

I could wish that of the artist. But it was also my friend who sat before me, the very image of desolation. If he had painted a self-portrait at that moment, it would have been so full of agony that you could do no more than glance at it. To look longer would have been harrowing. My mind was boiling. I felt as if the very earth were heaving.”

This moment approaches a climax for both of them. For Wallace’s portrayal of the doctor as a man of understated competence will pay an emotional dividend of its own, as he comes to realize that he is not competent at all. For all his experience and savoir-faire, this Gachet is a man tormented by his own helplessness. Lacking modern drugs, he is unable to help many of his patients at the Salpêtrière, and his empathy only intensifies his impotence. He cannot help Vincent, despite his friendship and admiration. He cannot help Theo Van Gogh, who he realizes is dying of syphilis. He could not even help his own wife Blanche, whose agonizing struggles with consumption make a particularly heartrending flashback. But there is one thing that he CAN do, and with the licence of fictional imagination, Carol Wallace finally allows him that option

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 13 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (April 19, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds


April 19, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, France

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