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Nellie Hermann, The Season of Migration – TLS

12/02/2015

It is the Spring of 1880 and a man walks through the countryside of southern Belgium, making his way to the French border. Shabbily dressed, with a knapsack on his back, he tramps long hours, stopping only to sleep at night among the haystacks, or sometimes, when his eye is caught by a light in the trees, to take out pencil and paper from his bag so that he might catch its impression. The drawings and a bundle of unsent letters to his brother are his only possessions, and as the rain falls he worries even these might wash away. When he calls at a bar for a cup of coffee, the owners are so concerned by the sight of his swollen feet they give him clean socks and patch his boots with cardboard. He repays them with the only thing he has to offer, one of his sketches; but being a keen student of art (in another life, he worked as a dealer in The Hague and London), he is ashamed of the rough marks he makes on paper.

As he walks on, an accusation keeps ringing in his ear: is he a changed man, as his brother suggested at their last meeting? The letters he carries, like the drawings, are attempts to overcome his eccentric appearance and show “all that is in my head, all that I have seen”. They contain descriptions of life in a small mining village in Borinage, where in the last nine months he has gone from evangelical missionary to unemployed idler, living in an abandoned hut. For his bourgeois family this decline into poverty and obscurity is a source of alarm, signaling their son’s failure to find a path in life, but for him, it represents something truer and more sacred than all the sermons he once preached: a communion with fellow humans condemned to live beneath “thick, dark coal smoke that covered the light of the sky”. From boyhood he has felt the need to draw. Now among people whose hardship is unwitnessed, suffering unknown, his evangelism finds new expression: he is compelled to portray what he sees in their sooty faces, their bent backs, and their miserable dwellings, so that the world might know it, too.

Vincent Van Gogh, Coalmine in The Borinage, 1879

Vincent Van Gogh, Coalmine in The Borinage, 1879

The Season of Migration, Nellie Hermann’s novel about a pivotal moment in Vincent Van Gogh’s life, takes advantage of a gap in his correspondence to imagine what happened in Borinage, suggesting how his struggle there might have led to his decision to become an artist. She alternates chapters written in the third person describing the long walk to see his brother in Paris, with ones made up of letters spanning his time among the miners, which also reflect on the many failures of his earlier life. This double approach is like a narrative safe bet, yielding the authority of the omniscient narrator and the authenticity of the first person (it is only through an Author’s Note at the end of the book that we learn Van Gogh’s “I” is invented). The story is written in a straight-forward, realist manner, as if innocent of the rest of Van Gogh’s life. Hermann borrows a lot from his letters, going so far as to begin and end her book with versions of the letters he wrote before and after his period of silence. She is also indebted to many biographies and earlier fictional accounts: Irving Stone’s 1934 novel, Lust for Life is cited among the sources. But unlike much recent historical fiction, there are no nods to the reader about the fictitiousness of such an enterprise, and no acknowledgement of her pastiche. Rather, with a good deal of skillful technique, she sustains the illusion of being sunk in a life.

With Van Gogh for one’s subject the temptation of directness, of appearing to cut through the myth-making to help the reader experience him anew, must be particularly powerful. Yet despite Hermann’s wish to present him vividly alive and in formation as an artist, without the undertow of fate, there are elements in the story that hint at later paintings (those boots, for example). For the main, however, the valuable contribution made by The Season of Migration is to reimagine Van Gogh not as an isolated genius but as a social and historical man, horrified by the poverty of the Borinage miners and his impotency in the face of the death, maiming and disease the mine inflicts upon them. Inspired by his reading of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ (1418-27), he gives away his belongings and ventures into a solidarity of suffering. But during meetings at night, sketching a young women miner who has never been out of the village, he understands that what she wants from him is worldliness not asceticism. She craves his talk of foreign cities, of books and paintings, most of all she wants him to give her portraits of the many different people he has met.

Vincent Van Gogh, Miners in the Snow, 1882

Vincent Van Gogh, Miners in the Snow, 1882

So while Van Gogh is represented here as the man of legend – religious, visionary, tormented – these characteristics are rooted in his experience, and it is primarily as a witness that he emerges from these pages, an artist forged in rage at what is done to people and the callous unknowing of those who refuse to see: “How do you represent horror?…In the aftermath of the mine explosion I saw a man’s face drip off him, his skin a kind of liquid that pulled from his eye, which stared up at me, unblinking and dead, like the eye of a fish. Have you ever seen anything like that Theo?…Has mother or father or Anna or Lies? Do you think the men of the evangelism committee have seen such things? God sees such things, Theo, God sets them in motion and then lets them live, those moments, those images – they live on the inside of those who see them. What have you seen? What lives in you?”

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Walking to Paris’ on 28.1.2015.

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