Thursday, September 24, 2015

Vincent Van Gogh's Starless Nights: Nellie Hermann's The Season of Migration

I have been endlessly fascinated by Vincent Van Gogh, but I find that the more I learn, the more I need to search. When I was in high school, Don McLean's "Vincent" moved up the radio charts. In fact, the song was used at the high school graduation in 1973. Whenever I visit art museums, I am drawn to his paintings, particularly the two Starry Nights--the most famous one in New York and the darker one at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
I am challenged when I try to accept that the man who created such beauty lived such a life of despair. Even Woody Allen used Van Gogh's life as fodder for his dark humor in his classic piece, "If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists," from his collection Without Feathers.

Nellie Hermann's novel The Season of Migration sheds light on a part of Van Gogh's life with which I was unfamiliar--his attempt to serve as a minister like his father. The story alternates between the account of Vincent's long arduous walk to see his brother Theo in Paris and his letters he wrote to Theo but never mailed while living and working in the mining town where he had been sent to preach.

The story is dark, giving a glimpse into what might have haunted this man many thought mad. (He did cut off his own ear, after all)Despite the gloomy existence in the Belgian coal mining town, Hermann executes some beautiful, almost poet passages of description, particularly when Vincent decides he must go down into the darkest depths of the mine where the members of his congregation and community work. Through Vincent's written account of the experience to Theo, Hermann places the reader in the claustrophobic passages in the mine, so hot that some of the miners work naked.

Hermann's Van Gogh still struggles to develop his artistic skills, driven as he is to draw. The author also nudges readers to want to explore the actual letters Van Gogh wrote his brother and the eventual inspiration that left the world with paintings that display his mark of tortured genius.

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