In September 1879, the lively, lifelong correspondence between Vincent Van Gogh and his younger brother Theo was interrupted for a spell of 10 months after the siblings argued over Vincent’s lack of direction and his inability to hold down a job. During that silence, 26-year-old Vincent worked as a lay preacher in the Belgian mining region known as the Borinage, a blackened, blasted landscape where life was rough and cheap. His time there tested the limits of the young man’s compassion and faith. It also turned him into an artist.
Nellie Hermann’s novel, her second, plunges into that tantalizing hiatus, narrating Vincent’s months in the Borinage through an imagined, one-sided correspondence with Theo that chronicles the brutal lives of the miners. The letters are interspersed with the story of Vincent’s long walk to Paris after he’s been fired, in an effort to finally deliver the letters to Theo and force a reckoning. In those sections, we see Vincent from the outside: a ragged, half-starved young man whose grip on the sane, sunlit world has been shaken, perhaps forever, by the mine that rears up from the earth “like some magnificent mythical metal minotaur,”
Edited excerpts from Van Gogh’s actual letters to his successful art-dealer brother bookend Hermann’s novel. Both the real and the imagined versions veer between grandiosity and self-loathing, as Vincent appeals to Theo for sympathy. Watching the miners, he is filled with empathy, sadness and wonder.
“They could see in the dark, as I could not,” he tells his brother in one fictional letter. “Theo, do you suppose that eyes that live in the dark can see souls, or the shape of souls?”
The hellish mining world — where small children go underground to work and horses are bred to live their lives in the dark — so shocks Vincent that he rejects a comfortable lodging in favor of a shack, where he nearly starves. The impossibility of changing that world drives Vincent to try to draw it, in sketches that show the first sparks of his distinctive energy.
The narrative, which at times strains amid Hermann’s tightly controlled language, is at its best in its quietest moments, when Vincent’s memories contrast with those of his obedient brother.
As children, the siblings even had different feet: “Theo’s smaller and more dainty, Vincent’s like ugly flesh-colored frogs.”
The enduring mystery of Van Gogh’s life will always be how this ugly, passionate, self-deprecating, self-absorbed man turned his particular vision into something that transformed how we all see the world. By imagining her way into the world as Vincent sees it, Hermann is able to send a shaft of light into that darkness.
Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By Nellie Hermann
Farrar Straus Giroux. 244 pp. $26