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