A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Having been obsessed with Vincent van Gogh since my early teens, I’ve read most of the books about him over the years. So I was pleased to see this new one.
Older books, such as the overwrought Lust for Life, portrayed Vincent as a wild, out of control bohemian, consuming paint and absinthe in equal measures. They played up the strangeness of him; the conflicts with Gaugin, the candles on his hat, the ear cutting. And of course, the endless speculation on just what caused him to behave that way.
More recent books have tried to even this out, mainly by relying on the voluminous letters he wrote, instead of focusing on the more dramatic aspects of his life. Leaving van Gogh does quite good job in presenting both the artist and the man.
It begins 15 years after Vincent’s death, then flashes back to the last few months of Vincent’s life in Auvers-sur-Oise when he was under the care of Dr. Gachet, a doctor who also had an office in Paris as well as his family home in Auvers. Vincent comes to the small village after being in the asylum at St. Remy, which followed the ear incident. He is trying to regain his strength and stability and a renewed zest for painting. The widowed Gachet welcomes Vincent into his home, often for Sunday dinners with his daughter, Marguerite, a young woman and his teenaged son, Paul.
Told in the voice of Dr. Gachet, who specializes in maladies of the mind, we get a clear picture how mental illness was viewed in those Victorian times, while seeing how little could be done. The main treatments were dunking in cold water and straight jackets for the violent episodes. Strangely enough, epilepsy was also considered a mental illness at the time and treated the same.
The author posits a different angle on Vincent’s suicide in 1890, one that is completely believable and all the more poignant, considering the circumstances. With the narrator being Dr. Gachet, we also find out more of what eventually happened with Vincent’s artwork, sister-in -law Joanna and beloved brother, Theo. That added a welcome, extra layer to the end of the book.
I learned a lot from this novel, which was surprising after all I’ve read about the artist. He was more multi-dimensional than in most portrayals and more ever the hypothosis of his illness and suicide was believable and gave me much food for thought. Even the cover, with the reproduction of one of Vincent’s paintings and the title in the style he signed his name was a nice touch. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in art history, biography or Vincent van Gogh himself. It does far more justice to him than those previous soap operas in disguise.
Spiegel & Grau 2011 268 pp. ISBN 978-1-4000-6879-1