Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ho Ho Ho


Creating Van Gogh will take a mini-vacation this week as I head out of town for a Christmas related trip. (No, not on skis.) After we ring in the New Year, if not sooner, you'll see original posts again as I gear up for a new kind of semester: one in which I am no longer on sabbatical. I'm sure the reality of a full-time teaching and advising load will impact my posts, but let's try not to think about that at the moment. For now, I want to send out a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and/or Happy Kwanzaa to all of you who have kept up with, or merely checked into, the blog this semester. It's been a fun adjunct activity to working on my novel--a way to blow off steam, chew over some questions, and pass along anecdotes that come to mind as I write. I hope it's been entertaining; informative may be more than we can reasonably hope for. I'm not sure what new issues, information, ideas, or recollections will strike me next semester. I guess that will depend on the development and fate of the book, won't it? Well, whatever happens, you'll be the first to know. Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Steal this one


With Christmas almost upon us, you probably aren't in need of, or in the mood for, more gift giving suggestions of the literary kind. Just in case, however, let me recommend a newish (2008) book by first time novelist Hannah Tinti. Her novel is called The Good Thief, and it's another in a line of historical novels I've been chewing on as I carry out my sabbatical semester. You may have heard of Tinti's book already since it appeared to near universal acclaim last year. You may also be familiar with her through her roles as founder and co-editor of the important journal One Story. In either case, all I can tell you is to buy, beg, borrow, or steal her novel. It's a rollicking good, rags to riches, tale with--as many commentators have already pointed out--echoes of Dickens classics such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. The characters are all individually articulated, with supremely distinctive qualities, both personal and physical. (Watch out for a giant, a dwarf, a mannish deaf woman, orphaned twins, and a slippery con man, to name only a few of the author's memorable inventions.) Even better, each of the characters--from major to minor--has a compelling story of his or her own. In fact, I would say that it is hard to distinguish between major and minor characters in this book because they are all so well drawn and so necessary to the plot. That alone should tell you it's a successful novel.

The Good Thief is set in nineteenth century America, and credibly recreates the time period. There's nothing that stands out as anachronistic or ill-fitting, but on the other hand neither is the novel obsessively filled with facts and descriptions out of the 1800s. Throughout, it's the story and the rascal characters that push this book along. It's pure, literary entertainment.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Success for my 2nd novel


I'm taking time with this post to let everyone know about a new publication of mine, for which I am particularly proud. The novel I completed before I started my Van Gogh book is titled Burnt Norway and an excerpt from the book has just been published in the online version of the esteemed Exquisite Corpse journal. To check out the excerpt click here. (FYI, there is also a newly revived, and editorially separate, print version of EC. That's called The Exquisite Corpse Annual.)

Unfortunately, the online Corpse does not publish author bios, so I didn't get a chance to explain to readers that the excerpt comes from a novel of the same name that is available for purchase through Lulu.com. But now you know! If you read the excerpt and like it, click here to find out more about the book. Burnt Norway was quite a different writing project from my current Van Gogh novel-in-progress (i.e., metafictional and comic rather than historical and serious). But I am just as proud of it, and I'm thrilled that the Exquisite Corpse liked what it saw in the excerpt.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Wonder of French game shows


Over here I don't watch them much anymore, but during my stay last May in Arles I found myself gravitating to French game shows. It was something to do during my lunch and dinner breaks from writing. Not only were they fun but they proved an easy way to keep up on my French and gain a little "cultural insight" into contemporary France. My favorite show was a French version of Family Feud (Une famille en or)--I am being completely serious here--which featured a host way cooler than Richard Dawson and also some notable twists. For instance, instead of one member of the pair being led off stage during the big money round (if you've ever seen F.F. you probably remember this), that person would be kept on stage but given dark glasses and headphones through which loud dance music was piped. Then, while their partner answered questions, the person was required to dance for the camera. As you can imagine, some of these people were just not funky enough to carry it off. (But that was kind of the point.) A surprising number carried it off perfectly well. My favorite question asked on the show was "What is the most annoying thing about Celine Deon?" A few of the survey responses, i.e. the ones I can remember: her nose, her family, her accent (something about being from Quebec, I guess), and her voice.

While French Family Feud was a lunchtime routine, I often scheduled my dinners around French Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (Qui Veut Gagner des Millions?) Mainly because I was able to follow it better than anything else that was on. The format was more or less identical to the American version. I have to say, however, that I'd always feel a lot better about our oft maligned system of education when I watched the French version. Maybe it had something to do with the segment of the French population that aspires to appear on game shows, but so many times the contestants seemed to miss atrociously easy questions. And when the contestant had to "phone a friend," the friend--supposedly selected for his or her knowledge--proved useless about 90% of the time. This amazed me more than anything. Who were these "friends"? (Before I get too haughty maybe I should remember my own experience decades ago of appearing on a quiz show for high school students in Washington, DC and realize that you can never underestimate the power of brain freeze in front of a rolling camera.) Btw, in case you're wondering: No, my French isn't that great. But with the questions being posted on screen--reading a foreign language is so much easier than listening to it--and with a French-English dictionary beside me, I usually caught the gist of what was going on.

Another game show I looked at from time to time was not an American import but a homegrown product. The name of it, I hate to say, escapes me. But I remember its raucous studio audience and how they frequently broke out into dancing. The host, a very lively, Hollywoodish guy, despite some weird birth or burn mark on the side of his nose, liked to run into the crowd and engage in ad hoc, tongue-in-cheek interviewing. The format for the questions varied from round to round but in the middle of the show, the competition paused to allow for what, in a loose translation (I couldn't find the actual word in my dictionary), was a "naughty" question. Loud red hearts would flare on the screen and the audience would "woo woo" while the contestant let himself or herself be interrogated about some apparently personal matter. All in good fun, of course. It was about this time, however, I would ask myself why in the world I was still watching. I'd click off the tube and head up the stairs to my bedroom to work.

I felt rather embarrassed to admit this game show "habit" in my daily emails home; at least until, while on a train to Marseilles, I read an article in The Times of London in which the writer, an Englishwoman who teaches French, recommended game shows as an especially useful way to learn the language. Because one hears and sees the words simultaneously. She herself once appeared on a French game show and won big. I clucked to myself, enjoying this eminent justification. "So," I said, "I guess I need to do more Family Feud when I get back to Arles."

Monday, December 14, 2009

My French retreat, Part Two


I thought I should write today about how I organized my hours during my writing retreat in Arles. It was the first time in years, maybe decades, when I had complete control over my schedule from sunup to sundown, and that, I must admit, felt like a real gift. I think my natural waking time is somewhere around six a.m. This sounds early for most people, I realize, but when I'm engaged in the busyness of a semester's teaching/parenting/etc. I find I have to set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. in order to actully get writing done. (No, I am neither kidding nor exaggerating.) In Arles, I found myself waking on my own between 5:30 and 6:00 inside of pleasantly cool mornings. I'm a newspaper addict--a habit I am both proud of and regret--but in France I found myself pleasantly exiled from the morning paper. Instead of a newspaper with my morning pot of coffee I read real books (I brought a stack of English language novels with me), priming both my body and mind for the work ahead. Every once in a while, I'd finish up a journal entry from the night before. I suppose I ate something, but it was usually light. The coffee was the main thing. I'd then work for 2-3 hours, kind of a moderate, getting-into-the-swing-of-it-session. After, mid-morning at this point, I would slip into running clothes and take my ritual exercise. There's nothing like running to clear your head, and to get to know a place better. This was certainly as true in Arles as anywhere.

I'd lunch on good bread (often I go down to the bakery as soon as I returned from the run) and cheese and Perrier and apples while I indulged my ancient fondness for game shows, French style. (I'll have to cover that in another post.) After lunch I carried out a long afternoon writing session, usually about four hours, occasionally longer. As you can imagine, by the time I finished this session my mind was more or less shot. So that meant it was a perfect time to go to the grocery store or take a swim--once the weather starting warming a bit--or just fix an early dinner. If I had reason to go into Arles for something, I would let myself wander, enjoying the slowed down feel of the place on a weekday early evening, when typically the tourists were gone and it was only locals around: lounging on benches at the public park, wandering through some half-hearted window shopping, skateboarding at the Place de la Republique, a big central square outside the Cathedral de Saint Trophime. One day I saw a bicycle race start from the square. There was as excited and energized a feel to the place as at the start of any marathon race in the U.S.

As I mentioned in my last post, I took some day trips for Van Gogh research during my retreat, two or three a week. On those days, I would make sure to carry out my full morning writing session and do my run. The trips were usually to sites no more than an hour away and I always could be back by mid-afternoon. On returning, I'd fixed myself another pot of coffee and screw my butt to my writing chair for a couple hours, just to make sure I didn't waste any working time. I knew darn well the clock was ticking, always ticking, on my retreat, and I was determined to get my money's worth.

With dinner--the house came with a very serviceable kitchen--I'd allow myself a couple beers or glasses of wine. I am not ashamed to say I took advantage of the great prices on French wine at the Geant store, where I bought almost everything I ate or drank during my stay. I think anyone who has really worked all day at a writers retreat, or at any mental work, can appreciate the special bliss of a couple well-earned drinks with dinner. I'm not and never have been a smoker but I'd guess that only the "first cigarette in the morning" bliss that smokers recall can rival beer after hard mental work as a pure soul and body pleasure. After dinner, I'd sometimes write in my journal. Or I'd read. Or I'd email my wife with the day's news. (Sometimes, she'd just be getting up while I was heading to bed.) I usually skimmed through French tv, a never ending fascination, mainly to see which American shows they liked enough to show (with dubbed French, of course) and to try to figure why those shows. I probably conked out around 10:30.

It was a serviceable and successful schedule and I kept to it, more or less, seven days a week. (All right, so maybe I lounged a bit more on Sundays.) I don't know if it sounds to you like I made it too easy or too hard on myself, whether I allowed myself enough opportunity to simply see Provence, but I'd say that I pushed myself exactly as hard as I should have--and, besides, I got to see Provence every single morning of my stay when I went out for my run. When my family arrived at the end of the month, I put down writing work and enjoyed the place as thoroughly and normally as any visitor does. At the point I was ready, I was so ready, to see them again; and because I'd worked so hard I didn't feel the least guilt in soaking up the south of France for another fortnight. We did a lot of great things as a family, but looking back the really glorious and unique time was those three, nose-to-the-grindstone weeks.

(Above: My writing desk in Arles. In order to give my knees room, and not kill my back from leaning over, I had to prop up the thing on old books I borrowed from the homeowner's shelves. I hope I didn't ruin them. I took this picture shortly before I pulled away the books and "broke down" the desk in anticipation of my family's arrival. I spent as much time at that desk as anywhere in the house. I was feeling nostalgic by the time I started setting it in order.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My French retreat, Part One


Lots of writers take retreats, stays of weeks or even months at various artists colonies around the country, usually--especially for writer/teachers--during the summer. The higher profile retreat locations are very competitive; many offer scholarships or at least partial financial assistance. For better or worse, I've always kept an arm's length away from the world of writers retreats, preferring to simply work at home during summer breaks, saving myself the expense and trouble of the travel, and enabling me to take care of / stay connected with my two sons while my wife carries out her summer duties as director of the Great Bear Writing Project. I kinda sorta understood the idea and the utility of the artist colony but was not exactly driven to participate in one. That all changed last summer.

Before last summer, I'd twice visited the south of France to conduct research for my Van Gogh novel, trips of a week or two that left me wishing I could stay longer. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to come here for a month or two and just work on my novel? About a year ago, it occurred to me that there was nothing really keeping me from doing just that. The spring semester at UCA, where I teach, ends in early May, and my sons are in school until late May / early June. Why not spend a May in the south of France, writing about Van Gogh? Well, why not? My wife graciously agreed to the plan. (It didn't hurt that we decided she would bring the boys over at the end of the month, so everyone got to enjoy Provence.) And so that was that. I already knew of a place where I could stay (see my earlier post about Mas Ballot), and I had reason to expect I could get research funds from the university to cover the costs of my travel and stay, albeit not the family's.

Well, it wasn't as smooth as all that. There certainly were bumps in the planning road. (One big bump: No funds of any kind proved to be forthcoming.) But the long and short of it was that last May I ended up spending a few days in Paris and then almost three weeks in Arles--by myself, slaving away on the novel. I have to say, I never enjoyed slavery so much. Before I went, friends warned me of the dangers of trying to get write in a beautiful location. "It always sounds like a good idea," they would say, chuckling. "But then . . ." No, I said, if I'm spending this much money to just be there, I'm going to get serious work done.

And I'm proud to say I stuck to my word. Sure, I took plenty of day trips--or rather half-day trips--to different locations around "Roman France": Saint-Rémy, Fontvielle, Tarascon, Salon, Montpellier, the ruins at Glanum, the Abbaye de Montmajour. (Driving roads that look like the one pictured above.) I took ready advantage of the two bakeries and the spectacular rustic scenery within easy walking or driving distance of my house. Afternoons I took swims in the pool. Mornings I jogged the country roads. I watched my fair share of French tv and probably spent more time than I should have discovering what could be had at the local grocery store. But I think I got more writing work done during those three weeks in Arles than during any three week period in my life. Before I went, I told everyone (I guess to sound more practical) that I was doing another research trip for the novel, but really what I was up to was a self-financed writer's retreat to the south of France. My advice to anyone considering a similar idea? Get on the next plane!

(Next post: What exactly I did there.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

gassy issues


Count this post as another exploration into the sticky practicalities of past times. What did people do, how did they live? No, I'm not writing about the "gassy issues" you think I am. What I'm refering to is gas lighting; more specifically, the time and place of gas lighting versus oil lighting. I admit with a little chagrin that the old style oil lamps--with their shades and chimneys, their oil fonts and wick raising knobs (see picture on right)--so familiar to viewers of movies or tv shows set in the nineteenth century, dominated my imagination while I composed this novel. Or at least dominated it whenever I had to account for artificial lighting in a room. Probably because I've been too busy pondering so many other issues of versimilitude, it has only been late in the novel writing process that I've stepped back and questioned some of my oil lamp assumptions. I've known for a long time that before he moved into the Yellow House Van Gogh had it outfitted for gas. But this didn't sink in, didn't quite matter to me one way or the other, until this semester when, in editing my chapters very hard, I realized I may have gotten a few matters of historical fact wrong. For example, if gas lighting was available in Arles in 1888, would it not have been available--even standard--in Paris years earlier? It turns out that the answer is yes. The city of Paris began using gas lights (like the ones in London pictured above) on its streets in the 1850s. Okay, I ask, those are the streets. What about apartment buildings? Were they lit by gas or oil? By the mid-to-late 1880s, gas had almost certainly become the standard, eliminating the need for those messy wicks and oil fonts from homes and offices. Also, therefore, from my novel.

But wait! That's Paris. What about Antwerp? What about The Hague? Better yet, what about Nuenen? What about the whole province of Brabant, especially during Van Gogh's childhood? Indeed, it's not so simple a matter as tossing all the oil lamps, so to speak, out the window. It's very unlikely that gas lighting was employed in Brabant at all, or only much later than in Paris. And definitely not during Van Gogh's childhood. So my explorations, and my revisions, go on. I still don't have the defnitive answers for all my gas vs. oil questions, one of several minor, practical aspects of the novel that I'm trying to nail down as my book goes forward. Or perhaps I should say seemingly minor. Because any change in an interior or exterior landscape can't help but affect the writer's visualization of a scene and thus what happens in it between characters. And that's no minor detail at all.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Conquering time


Last weekend, for the sixth time in seven years, I ran the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. The day was cold, but the race went well--for me and thousands of other crazy people who pay money to put their bodies through 26.2 miles. (An even larger number put themselves through 13.1 miles.) Out there on the road for 4+ hours, you have a lot of time to think, and you try not to think too much about how sore you're getting, although it's hard to think about much else once you get to mile 20. (Well, that and "Where is the next #%*!&* mile marker? Shouldn't it be here by now?") Another thing you try not to think about is how much longer you'll be out on the road. For this is the strange, or maybe not so strange, thing about running long distances: If, in the middle of the race, after already running way farther than most sane people ever will, you allow yourself to think "My God, I'm going to be out here for 2 1/2 more hours," you'll lose heart. You might even stop. So you simply can't put it that way. It's probably not wise either to say "Well, 15 more miles to go." The best thing to do is say "Okay, that's mile marker 11. 12 in a little bit." Or: "That's mile marker 22. 23 in a little bit." You get the idea. By not letting yourself confront exactly how much more is ahead of you, you don't stop--and you eventually get there. This is true about my training runs as well. I never ever like to tell myself that I'm heading out into the darkness of a November Saturday morning to run for 4 straight hours. It's a lot more comfortable to think that I'm going to run 20 miles. Or, even better, that I'm just going for a training run.

But here's the thing. It's not just trickery. By not thinking about it, by living inside it, you keep time at bay. You melt it. You bend it. Dare I say, you defeat it. By the time you finish the marathon, it never really does feel like you've been on the road for 4 and a half hours. Yes, the race started at 8:00 and it might be 12:30 at the finish, but it simply hasn't felt that long. Because you've been so busy inside your mind, tending to the business of holding soreness and all those bad thoughts away, substituting any and all thoughts of another kind. Yet there you are at 12:30 with a shiny medal newly hung around your neck and grinning with relief. (See me above.)

And--I'm sure you've seen this coming--how true this is about working on a novel as well. Heather Sellers, a writer and writer-about-writing whom I admire, recalls in her book Chapter After Chapter hearing from so many people who feel like they have to get their books done now. Because time is running out. Because life is running out. Because they have to finish so they can get it to an agent. Or to a publisher. Or to a competition. Or because they are just sick of working on it. But, Sellers suggests, the problem is that many of these people are finishing before they're finished. They are like marathoners who quit at mile 20 because they can't face another hour on the road. Instead of speeding up, Sellers advises, slow down. Be patient. Take all the time you need to get it right. Because you have all the time in the world.

Sellers' advice is so comforting because it's so true. When I started my Van Gogh project I did not anticipate that it would take me 4+ years to complete, although I didn't anticipate a short cruise either. I knew what kind of time and effort novels demand. Mostly, I didn't think about time at all. That was my way of dealing with it. I stayed focused on the work at hand, which on any given day might mean reading more about Paul Gauguin or getting that crucial childhood scene down in my notebook or typing a handwritten draft of a scene into a Word file, or--as now--nailing down some last necessary and crucial revisions. I kept my head down and my shoulder to the wheel; one day I looked up to realize 4 years had gone by. But they really didn't feel that long. Those years feel like mere weeks in retrospect. I know I'm not unique in this regard. This is just the working novelist's experience of time. And, best of all, at the end you've got a finished book to show for it, which is an even greater satisfaction than a big fat marathon medal.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cooking in Paris for Stein


A few times in this blog I've recommended various books of historical fiction, ones I've read during this sabbatical semester or earlier: The True History of the Kelly Gang, Ahab's Wife, Mariette in Ecstasy. (And don't miss an even better historical novel by Ron Hansen, one of the best novels I've ever read in any genre--his Hitler's Niece.) I recently finished a book quite different from any of those and perhaps from any I've read before: The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. Truong's first novel, it is a dreamy, fluid, at times almost formless construction that delves into the mind and the past of a Vietnamese man who worked for several years as the personal chef to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I must admit that it took some time delving into the novel before it completely held me, but Truong's eloquence is irresistable and her pictures of pre-war Paris and of pre-communist Vietnam are intriguing, concrete, believable, and engaging. (Keep an eye out for the appearance of someone who almost certainly is a young Ho Chi Minh.) What you shouldn't anticipate on approaching the book is that it will act as some kind of tell all about Stein and Toklas. Indeed, I venture to guess that more pages in the book are devoted to the protagonist's life before he meets Stein and Toklas than after he does. There's a coolness and even an unexpected lack of curiosity in how he describes the two women; and yet at the same time he seems to know or have intuited some rather intimate details about how they regard and have regarded each other. But, ah hah, this brings me to my last point--the stroke of genius that underlies the book and finally makes sense of nearly every one of Truong's moves. We realize, late in the narrative, that what we are reading was not, in the fictional world of the novel, composed by the chef himself but--similar to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas--written by Stein from the perspective of her Vietnamese employee. She apparently has, from a distant remove, regarded him as quite the curiosity over the years, enough to compose a book with him as the narrator. The title of Stein's manuscript? Why, of course: The Book of Salt. This explains so much about the book that I cannot even begin to tell in this brief post. It also means that the Book of Salt is not merely a good read, but will make for a great second and third and fourth read as you uncover more and more gems served up (if you'll excuse the pun) with brilliant and subtle acumen by this very talented writer.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Turning houses (and hotels) around


Several years ago, I wrote a short story in which a wife follows her husband to the site of what she thinks will be an adulterous liaison. At the last moment the wife changes her mind and decides not to confront her husband. She turns around, leaves the hotel parking lot, and heads back the other way toward home. For convenience more than anything else I set the story in a part of southern Maryland that I knew fairly well. In fact, the hotel where I decided the liaison would take place actually exists on Maryland Highway 301, near LaPlata. However, the scene as I imagined it only worked logistically if the hotel stood on the right side of the highway as one drove south, as the wife character did. For the sake of my story, the wife had to take a right hand turn into the hotel from 301, but go back in the opposite direction--northward--when heading home. Problem: the hotel in question doesn't sit on the right side of Highway 301 as you head south. It sits on the left side. In fact, there is no hotel on right side of that stretch of highway. So, I asked myself, what should I do? I actually did worry about this, especially if some squirrelly grandma southern Maryland reader got his or her paws on my story, but finally I decided that verisimilitude was a lot less important to the story than that my scene be allowed to play out as I imagined it. So what did I do? Simple: I moved the hotel to the other side of the highway. Problem solved! Whether or not this would satisfy the famously scrupulous fact checkers at The Atlantic I have no idea, but since the story did not appear in The Atlantic but a different literary journal, who cares.

I ran into a similar situation last May when I took a third visit to the "Pont Van Gogh" outside Arles. (See previous posts.) Staring again at the house sitting just behind the little drawbridge --a drawbridge identical to the one portrayed in Van Gogh's The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing and other paintings--I realized for the first time that I was looking at the back of the house. Wait a minute?! (Checking the above picture, it's probably perfectly apparent to you that what you are looking at the back of a house. What I can say? I can be awfully slow at times.) There are two small canals in the area and they run parallel to each other. The drawbridge in question spans one, the front of the house in question faces the other. This would not be a problem except that in my novel Van Gogh walks out from Arles to the drawbridge and while enjoying the view of the homey little edifice, he spots the bridgemaster coming out of his house via the front door. This, as it turned out, would be physically impossible as Van Gogh would not even be able to see the man's front door. So, again, I had to ask myself: What do I do? I could have the man come out the back, but this seemed unlikely and would also be increasingly awkward, as the scene also features the bridgemaster's wife and one of his daughters coming out of, and going into, the house. Also, since on my third visit to Pont Van Gogh I finally circumnavigated the house and rendered some very particular drawings of its front, I decided that the front of the house was a piece of scenery I really wanted in my novel. So in the end I had three choices: 1) Ditch the scene; 2) move the drawbridge to the other canal; or 3) turn the house around, so its front faced the bridge. Of these three options, #3 seemed the least drastic, the easiest, and the one that best allowed my scene to do the work it needed to do. In fiction writing classes we talk about staying true to what the story needs rather than what a reader or the author wants, we talk about a hierarchy that puts the story at top, the reader second, and the author last. Sometimes "giving the story what it needs" can be as broad as completely changing the plot, adding a character or characters, or moving the action to a whole other part of the world. On the other hand, sometimes it simply means turning a house around. I'm not sure if such a move would be sanctioned by the Guardians of Purity in creative nonfiction writing, but to me a little move like this is exactly what the freedom--and the responsibility--of fiction writing means. Giving your story what it needs. And it's also why I declare, and will keeping declaring until I am out of breath, that my Van Gogh book is a novel not a biography. That single word designates something crucial, not just about what happens inside the book but about my entire method of composition.

That said, it's certainly true that we writers of historical fiction research our subjects thoroughly in order to render accurate pictures of past peoples, costumes, and geographies. Other posts on this blog have detailed just such efforts. And later ones likely will too. So when, in the making of historical fiction, is it okay to depart knowingly from strict factuality? How much leeway do we give ourselves, and why? Anyone care to comment? Advise?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Langlois bridge?--Part Two


In my last post, I described the somewhat off-the-beaten-path Van Gogh site of the Langlois Bridge, or "Pont Van Gogh" as it is actually designated on maps (because the real Langlois bridge was removed several decades ago). Besides the bridge itself, what I was most intrigued by when I went there was the tall, dying, long unoccupied house that sits very close to the bridge. (That's it in the photo.) Even on my first visit to Pont Van Gogh I think I took more pictures of this house than the bridge itself. And on my most recent visit last May, I left the bridge behind and walked through waist high weeds to circumnavigate the house. I would have taken more and closer pictures of it except that the battery in my camera died. So I brought out my sketchpad and starting drawing it from several different angles. Having to do so was a real blessing, because it forced me to look a lot more closely at the house than if I were merely snapping a photo.

I cannot swear to the age of the house, but I have to assume it was once occupied by whomever was responsible for operating the bridge. In fact, in Van Gogh's painting of the real Langlois Bridge, a similar structure does sit off to the right. When I decided for the sake of my novel to accept a tour guide's story that the Langlois Bridge was really called the "L'anglais" Bridge in Van Gogh's time, because an Englishman was the bridgemaster, this old house became more important. It would be the home of this unknown and unnamed Englishman, who I decided would feature prominently in my Arles scenes. After all, Van Gogh depicted the bridge in several paintings and must have walked to it from his hotel room in Arles repeatedly. Plenty of occasions for interaction. In my novel, his friendship with this English bridgemaster has essentially stood in for the friendship that in real life he seemed to have enjoyed with his postman Roulin. That is, a good-natured, easy going, rather masculine give and take, which allowed him, as I imagine it, to escape for a few moments or hours the severity of his commitment to painting. Roulin's physical appearance, as depicted by Van Gogh in a well known portrait, actually influenced my mental image of the English bridgemaster, whom I've named Portis. They aren't identical by any means, but elements of Roulin's appearance--his heft, his beard, his hail-fellow-well-met redness--coordinate pretty well with an Englishman occupying an easy job who enjoys his pint (or more) every day.

But it's a fair question to ask: "Why do this?" All I can give as an answer is to say that I never asked myself the question; instead, I asked "Why not?" I liked the idea of semi-slothful expatriate Englishman in my novel, one who lives in a crumbling old house with his lovely provencal wife and two children. And just as in real life Van Gogh eventually painted Roulin (see photo) and his wife, in my novel Vincent--at Portis's suggestion--paints Portis's daughters. On of these daughters, who I've named Elise, is in my telling the model for Van Gogh's famous "Mousmé" sketch and painting. (I posted about that some weeks back.) Later, Van Gogh's fallout with Gauguin is catalyzed by tensions and jealousies involving Elyse and the entire Portis family. In real life, the failure of the experiment of the Yellow House was rooted in differences between Van Gogh and Gauguin over matters of art, taste, and technique. Fundamental aspects of any friendship--like respect--were in question. It wasn't simply a matter of one man getting angry over unwashed dishes. This is all true of my novel as well. But it's a rare interpersonal combustion that has only one cause, and deciding to bring the Portis family into the mix has made, I hope, for a more drastic, believable, and intriguing blowup between the two proud men.

Next time: Even more about the Pont Van Gogh! Who knew there was this much to say?