Review published on April 7, 2017.
Between August 1888 and December 1889, the painter Vincent van Gogh lived and worked in Arles in the south of France. He was escaping from the sombre Netherlands of his youth and seeking light, sun and inspiration.
Based in the Yellow House in Place Lamartine in Arles, van Gogh worked furiously, dreaming of setting up an artistic community with his friend and fellow painter Gauguin. Some of van Gogh’s best known works were completed at this time: ‘Wheatfields with Crows’, ‘Olive Trees’, ‘Starlit Sky over the Rhone’ and, of course, the sunflower paintings.
This slim novel is translated from the Dutch and is a fictionalised account of this period in van Gogh’s life. The reader is plunged straight into the depths of van Gogh’s troubled mind, seeing life through his eyes: his obsessive work tempo, painting all day in the hot sun, his yearning for friends, his dreams of an artists’ colony.
Thoughts and images swim half formed on the page making this at times a difficult read but also a convincing portrayal of van Gogh’s mental state. We witness how van Gogh developed his new style of forceful brushstrokes and vivid colours, his arguments with Gauguin, his visits to prostitutes and the way he antagonised the local people who understood neither the man or his works.
It seems Van Gogh had always found it hard to get close to people and to understand ordinary life. ‘Always from a distance …. you only got involved if there was really no other way’ he remembers his mother saying. The narrative paints a painful picture of how van Gogh’s sudden rages and fits of despair alienated and frightened people, culminating in the well-known incident when, after a violent argument with Gauguin, van Gogh sliced off part of his ear and delivered it to a local prostitute named Rachel. Eventually he voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital where he was allowed to continue painting. The novel ends when van Gogh, having returned to Arles, suffered further hallucinations and was taken back to the asylum. His suicide is only a year away.
The Yellow House is a bold piece of experimental writing, challenging but rewarding. For readers like me who love van Gogh’s work, it provides a fascinating insight into what it might have been like to be the artist: confused, hopeful, yearning, impulsive, lonely and self-destructive. It is also intriguing to see the inspiration for some of van Gogh’s most iconic paintings and it is definitely helpful to keep looking at his work as you read.
It is a sad, thought-provoking novel. Book groups might have a good discussion about both the unusual prose style and van Gogh’s work.
Gwenda Major 4/4
The Yellow House: A novel about Vincent van Gogh by Jeroen Blokhuis
Holland Park Press 9781907320569 pbk Mar 2017