I had never read (or heard of) Susan Fletcher, but the subject matter of this novel interested me – Vincent Van Gogh’s year in the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, where he admitted himself, and was a patient for a year, from May 1889- May 1890, painting some of his most loved, intense paintings during that time.
What made the book particularly intriguing to me was the fact that Van Gogh is not the central character. There have been novels and films about the painter, telling his story, but Fletcher has written from the perspective of an ‘ordinary person’ affected by art and the artist’s vision. The central character is Jeanne Trabuc, the warden’s wife at Saint-Paul. Jeanne is a woman in her 50’s, a quiet woman, a woman who has stifled, or had stifled, her blaze, and free-spiritedness. She is the mother of 3 grown-up, long left home, boys. She loves her repressed, correct, conventional husband, a decorated Major from when he was a young man, during the Crimean war, but the two have become externally estranged from each other, somehow trapped in mutual sorrow, and unable to emotionally connect and express their true feelings.
Can ancient stones be loved? But if love is a strong, settled fondness, a vine that takes hold and grows and wraps itself about you, as she’s imagined it to be – then perhaps her fondness of the swallows that nest in the crevices and of the goats dozing in the olives’ shade and of the Romans and their slaves and wives that Jeanne has pictured have all grown into love
Although both Charles Trabuc and Jeanne were real people – and Van Gogh painted them – as were other major players in this book, Peyron, Poulet and Salles, the first two hospital workers, the last a cleric, friendly to Van Gogh, Fletcher has imagined their lives, fleshed out an invention. This is not fictionalised biography, and she takes no outrageous liberties with the man who is the central focus for everyone in her book – Van Gogh. She has used his letters to his brother Theo, and, most particularly, used the paintings he created whilst at Saint-Remy, the gestations of which are stunningly, powerfully, dynamically rendered in this book. She focuses on Van Gogh, observed by Jeanne, in the act of painting, what he says about his art, and what Jeanne, seeing the painting happening either before her eyes or as finished works on the canvas, feels for the works.
A painted portrait is a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented
(from a letter written by Van Gogh to his sister Wilhelmina)
Now this is not a book which will satisfy if the reader is demanding huge action and operatic emotionalism. Rather, the central characters other than Van Gogh – the Trabacs, are pent inside themselves, quietly and rigidly suffering. Van Gogh, man and painter, is a catalyst of change, he and his paintings are cathartic, but it is in the interior landscape, not in huge dramatic events.
This is a stunning book, though it did take time for me to settle into the quietness of time, place and character – a sleepy, conservative small village community in Provence, at the tail end of the nineteenth century, gossipy, traditional, suspicious of those who are different.
Fletcher gives voice to small people, and shows their uniqueness, and how reined in, private natures may blaze with dreams, desires and subtle, refined sensibilities. Jeanne is a wonderful creation – and so is her husband, and they make an individual and connected transformation. Along the way, themes of love and loss – youth, age, death, the losing and finding of friendships is beautifully laid out, And the paintings, which rather underpin everything about this book are both illuminated, and illuminating the story.
The heart, she thinks, is the painter. Love, and moments like this, are the art. The Dutchman taught her that
I was offered this as a review copy by NetGalley and for sure am going to explore Fletcher’s earlier writing.
I sometimes feel very leery about writers who invent the lives of real people. And this is mainly when privacy seems to have been invaded, or detrimental untruths have happened. Now I have no idea whether Jeanne and Charles Trabuc were quite like Fletcher’s inventions or not, but I am fairly sure that if there are known descendants of the two, they would be more likely to be charmed by Fletcher’s tender, invented portrayal. It reads, indeed like “a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented