The Yellow House: A novel about Vincent van Gogh
Author: Jeroen Blokhuis
Translator: Asja Novak
Date of publication: March 2
Publisher: Holland Park Press
The cliché is that first novels are always autobiographical. Dutch writer Jeroen Blokhuis instead hides behind the biographical in his verbal portrait of one of the greatest painters his nation has produced.
While it stops short, inevitably, of the inspired genius to create that drove Vincent van Gogh, it’s a clever tactic and Blockhuis controls his art, deftly translated by Asja Novak.
The novel’s focus is on van Gogh’s time in Arles when, dazzled by the colours of the French South, he painted his Sunflowers, shared a yellow house with fellow painter Gauguin, and cut off his own ear.
There’s also a subplot featuring a murder carried out by an Italian migrant worker, who like van Gogh is an unhappy outsider destined to face execution, albeit not by his own hand, and who, like van Gogh, frequents a twilight world of cafes and brothels.
So far, so good. The impossible challenge is to take us into the mind of a genius whose sanity was questionable via the use of the first person and to separate van Gogh the painter from Vincent the man.
For any lover of his work, the attempt is absorbing even if we suspect the only expression of his tortured personality van Gogh really wanted to leave the world was his painting.
In his time, the lonely outsider was under-appreciated and misunderstood.
Blokhuis and his readers have the moral satisfaction of knowing better than to dismiss a character who comes across as touchingly full of doubt and lacking in overbearing ego.
In this, he differs from the swaggering, popular and ultimately spiteful – to use the fictional van Gogh’s word – Gauguin, whose kindest words to his fellow painter are that his Sunflowers are “more real than sunflowers”.
The remark is at the start of their living together in the Yellow House before a deterioration that is rhythmically drawn, punctuated by Gauguin’s frequent response “you are right”. Possibly delivered straight, it is more likely a question of humouring a madman.
Van Gogh, meanwhile, is increasingly prone to storming out and finding himself wondering, mid-tantrum, what on earth to do next.
True to van Gogh’s life or not, Blokhuis’ insights take us sympathetically into the mindset of marginalised people whose days are characterised by such things as dirt, disease and dead dogs that shock most of us and throw into sharp relief the moments of peace, tenderness and poetry. The moon, for instance, is “so round and big, a gong which some day will be struck”.
Van Gogh’s gong-striking day is when he shoots himself after a spiral of confused memory and hallucination that reconnects his fate with Prado, the Italian murderer. Both are killers but in the case of van Gogh, the person he destroys is himself, lovingly recreated by Blokhuis.
Barbara Lewis © 2017.