In Other Words

The Sea­son of Migration by Nel­lie Her­mann and In the Un­likely Event by Judy Blume

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Priyanka Ku­mar

It is a rid­dle to re­con­struct the artis­tic growth of a painter who was dis­cov­er­ing him­self 135 years ago. The rid­dle be­comes more com­plex when the artist in ques­tion, who died in penury, now breaks art auc­tion records and whose name recog­ni­tion is uni­ver­sal. Luck­ily, Vin­cent van Gogh left us with hefty clues to his in­te­rior life, and Nel­lie Her­mann takes full ad­van­tage of th­ese in her novel, The Sea­son

of Migration. Dur­ing their adult years, Vin­cent and his younger brother, Theo, had an al­most con­tin­u­ous cor­re­spon­dence, ex­cept for a 10-month gap. Her­mann fills in this break with fic­tional let­ters from Vin­cent to Theo set mostly in the min­ing vil­lage of Bori­nage, Bel­gium, where the artist lived be­tween 1879 and 1880. The first and last let­ters in this novel are close ap­prox­i­ma­tions of what Vin­cent, then in his mid-twen­ties, ac­tu­ally wrote to Theo, and the lat­ter mis­sive has star­tlingly ma­ture in­sights.

The novel as a col­lec­tion of let­ters can quickly be­come a te­dious thing. Her­mann avoids this fate by in­ter­spers­ing the let­ters with a third-per­son nar­ra­tive of Vin­cent’s ex­pe­ri­ences in Bori­nage and flash­backs to his child­hood. Vin­cent goes to Bori­nage on a tem­po­rary as­sign­ment as a lay preacher, and, al­most in­stantly, he feels gen­uine sym­pa­thy for its min­ers. We get an un­com­fort­ably close view of the min­ers’ poverty, their brushes with dan­ger in the hellish mine, and how they have no hope of ad­vanc­ing in their lives. Still, there is some­thing sa­cred about work and the min­ers know that — in more ways than one, this dis­cov­ery will be­come Vin­cent’s sal­va­tion.

Vin­cent twice leaves the home he’s lodg­ing in — the warm, sweet-smelling house of the baker De­nis and his wife — for a filthy miner’s hut whose drafty walls he plugs with sacking. His moral an­guish is pal­pa­ble. If a miner’s hut is good enough for a miner, why can’t it do for him? Child­like in his sen­si­tiv­ity, and with an earnest de­sire to do the right thing, he be­friends the min­ers and their chil­dren. But the cler­gy­men who have the power to make his po­si­tion per­ma­nent can­not be counted on to re­ward his “sav­age” ways, and just as Vin­cent was ear­lier made to leave his po­si­tion in an art gallery (where Theo now works), he will find him­self in flight from the world again and again.

With Bori­nage in the present, the van Gogh fam­ily dy­namic forms the back­drop of the novel. Theo is the good son and Vin­cent is the loafer. Ex­cept that Vin­cent has his rea­sons, which his fam­ily can’t seem to ap­pre­ci­ate. In the last let­ter in this novel, Vin­cent gives as ar­tic­u­late a rea­son­ing as any I’ve read for why idling is a nec­es­sary phase for an artist. “There’s the one who’s an idler through lazi­ness and weak­ness of char­ac­ter, through the base­ness of his na­ture; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one. Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly de­spite him­self, who is gnawed in­wardly by a great de­sire for ac­tion, who does noth­ing be­cause he finds it im­pos­si­ble to do any­thing since he’s im­pris­oned in some­thing, so to speak, be­cause he doesn’t have what he would need to be pro­duc­tive, be­cause the in­evitabil­ity of cir­cum­stances is re­duc­ing him to this point.”

Later in the novel, Vin­cent keeps a ca­nary in his miner’s hut, but the bird doesn’t speak be­cause it’s molt­ing. The same could be said for Vin­cent. His ac­tions are in­de­ci­pher­able be­cause he is un­der­go­ing a trans­for­ma­tion: he en­tered Bori­nage a preacher, and he will leave it a bud­ding painter. We may feel frus­trated as Vin­cent grows al­most self­de­struc­tive, but we also re­al­ize that his sen­si­tiv­ity is so in­tense, he can­not help but to act on it. He writes to Theo: “I am a man of pas­sions, ca­pa­ble of and li­able to do rather fool­ish things for which I some­times feel rather sorry. I do of­ten find my­self speak­ing or act­ing some­what too quickly when it would be bet­ter to wait more pa­tiently. Now that be­ing so, what’s to be done, must one con­sider one­self a danger­ous man, in­ca­pable of any­thing at all? I don’t think so.”

There are phases when Vin­cent sketches al­most con­stantly. None of the sketches please him. On a long walk to Paris to see Theo, he uses the sketches as barter for rough food and lodg­ing. When he goes to visit the Rev. Pi­eter­szen, who is sym­pa­thetic to him, Vin­cent con­fesses he has no train­ing in drawing. But the rev­erend, whose own paint­ings are tech­ni­cally “ex­pert,” ad­mires how Vin­cent has cap­tured some­thing in his por­trait of a young miner, An­ge­line, that the rev­erend hasn’t been able to ap­proach in his oth­er­wise per­fect por­trait of his wife — in the rev­erend’s paint­ing, her ex­pres­sion is blank.

In the clas­sic 1939 novel How Green Was My Val­ley, Richard Llewellyn gives us a lyri­cal and bru­tal por­trait of min­ing life: the work is un­doubt­edly danger­ous, but the home life has charm and even a sense of ro­man­ti­cism. The de­pic­tion of min­ing life in

The Sea­son of Migration dwells on the poverty and hope­less­ness, and that is fit­ting, as the min­ers are not only trapped un­der­ground when they work, but they are also trapped in their cir­cum­stances. They work for a face­less com­pany that puts prof­its first and safety sec­ond. In a mov­ing pas­sage, An­ge­line asks Vin­cent to de­scribe other places he’s been to, so she can know that places ex­ist be­yond the hovel she’s trapped in.

That Her­mann’s prose here is pain­terly is al­most in­evitable. What’s note­wor­thy is that she suc­cess­fully uses this prose to bring us closer to Vin­cent’s in­ner life. On his three-day walk from Bori­nage to Paris, Vin­cent ap­pears tram­p­like, of­ten depend­ing on the kind­ness of strangers, but the reader senses that he car­ries within him trea­sures that will one day un­fold for all the world to see.

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