Saturday, January 30, 2010

Song and dance men


Late in Michael Chabon's essay collection Manhood for Amateurs--I referenced the book in a previous post--he recalls a terrible trip he took in 2005 to Little Rock. In the middle of the trip he went online and started reading his wife's blog, only to find her writing exhaustively about her condition--bipolar II--and explaining that 25% of people diagnosed with bipolar II eventually kill themselves. Imagine, if you will, being a couple thousand miles away from home, feeling lonely enough anyway, and then discovering--through her blog no less--that your wife is calmly discussing suicide. Naturally, Chabon was shocked and immediately called her. He managed to reach her and their subsequent conversation reassured him, but not entirely. As it turned out, things were even worse than he feared. He found out when he got home that only through the intervention of a friend, who had also read the blog, was she kept from swallowing a whole bottle of pills.

This story is interesting enough as he tells it, but it's especially interesting to me because I had a kind of ringside seat on the whole episode. Well, maybe not ringside. I guess you could say I was in the auditorium. Sitting in the back row. You see, the reason Chabon was in Little Rock was to carry out a two-day residency at my university, the University of Central Arkansas. (We're just down the road a bit, in Conway.) Looking back, knowing what I now do, what astounds me is this: The man was able to go through with it at all. He put up with the banal, meet and greet, smiling busyness of a reception in his honor hosted by the Dean of the College of Fine Arts; he chatted politely with all comers as protocol required; he agreed to be photographed half a dozen times with people whose names he could not possibly have remembered or cared about; he spoke warmly and asked questions: about our school and our state. Later the same night, before a literally overflowing crowd, he gave an animated reading of an essay he'd written: the story behind his composition of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh twenty years earlier. He stayed long afterwards to answer questions and sign books. Then the next day he came to campus again to meet with a small group of our Writing Department students, answering even more questions and rendering advice, without attitude, without impatience. I drove him from Little Rock to Conway on both days. I do recall some cell phone calls to his wife: touching base with her, asking how she was, reminding her where he was, explaining where we were going. He seemed concerned but not at his wit's end. And when the calls were done we talked about books, kids, churches, universities, reading fees, the novel he was writing, other trips he would be making. Before the small group meeting with our students began he did seem tense and a little ragged. Just tired of meeting so many people all at once, I thought. He was happy at my suggestion that we grab a cup of coffee instead of loitering in the classroom, waiting for the students to stream in. But this was nothing really. Really, I had no idea what was happening. None.

I can only remember the whole incident now with awe and respect. Thing is, Chabon went through with it. He was here to do a job for us, and he did it. Very well, in fact. He not only read his essay, he performed it. He proclaimed it. And if you don't know the difference between an impassioned proclamation and an everyday recitation you haven't been to many literary readings (which are dominated by the latter). Chabon kept his focus, kept his cool, kept up his energy when he had to. He earned his money. He was amazing, actually. The whole episode makes me recall the line Bob Dylan gave out at a press conference in the hurly burly of the mid-60s: "I think of myself as a song and dance man." At the time, the line was greeted with derisive chuckles, as just another example of contrarian Dylan sticking his finger in the eye of anyone who tried to impose on him and his music fixed expectations, especially committed folkies who practically rioted at the thought of him playing that "fake" electric music. Well, of course, that was all part of it too. But I think fundamentally Dylan was serious. He did--and does--see himself as a song and dance man. Or, stated differently, as a performer, as someone who takes seriously the job of bringing a song alive as best he can for the audience in front of him. Whether or not the song says something trivial or profound isn't even the issue. What "it means" doesn't matter. The issue is that song as a performance and doing your damnedest to pull the performance off. That is a seriously difficult challenge to rise to, time after time, year after year, decade after decade. It's difficult, and it's a calling.

Now I'm no Michael Chabon--that goes without saying--and I'm certainly not Bob Dylan, but as a teacher and a writer I think I can appreciate the determination and the expertise of the song and dance man. Or of anyone who has to Put On a Show. I have to Put On a Show whenever I read one of my stories at a festival or a writing conference. I have to Put On a Show whenever the student newspaper needs to interview me about the latest visiting writer or happening on campus. I Put On a Show everyday for my classes, four each semester. No matter what fatigue, disappointments, distractions, nuisances, or crises are bothering you at that moment--no matter how much you'd rather be anywhere than in front of a group of students--you have to do it and do it well. That means blocking out Everything Else and being fully present, fully energized, for your audience. You can always rest later. You can go home later. You get to be quiet later. Later, you can lick your wounds and return to being the wholly ordinary person you really are. For now, because you're a song and dance man, you tie up your shoes, you tune your instrument, you face your audience--and you deliver.

Thanks, Michael.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Our best novelist


Over Christmas, my wife gave me Richard Russo's latest, That Old Cape Magic, along with several other titles. I'm always grateful for any gift, but I must admit that I asked myself "When am I going to have time to read all these?" Turns out I'm almost through the stack now--with Russo's book being the very first one I opened. I can never regret an opportunity to read more of Richard Russo. That Old Cape Magic is as engaging, honestly felt, and soundly crafted a book as Russo's ever written. Thinking about it afterwards, and specifically those qualities, made me come to a couple of convincing realizations: 1) The man never--I mean never--writes a bad book. He's the most consistent craftsman of fiction that I know of. 2) He's a master of plotting, endlessly resourceful at putting his characters in high water and then making matters even worse for them, even as his novels also demonstrate a fierce emotional depth and intellectual honesty. 3) His prose is note perfect, so clean as to be unnoticeable and yet at the same time sparkling, vigorous. By no means he is a maximalist like Rick Moody or Michael Chabon, but neither does he go to the far opposite end of the pole either. There's not a dull sentence in his work; and neither is there a tortured one. Every sentence does the work, and only the work, that it's supposed to.

When I finished Cape Magic I found myself brimming, aglow from the book and with less than fully articulated versions of the above thoughts. And then the truth of it hit me. He's the best novelist in America. I'm never not satisfied, never not completely engaged, never not enthralled, by the worlds of his books. I always put down a Richard Russo novel feeling not only nourished but educated, not only moved but entertained--way down in the center of my bones. I come out of his books feeling a tiny bit wiser. Not just about his characters but everybody. I simply can't think of a better, more consistently rewarding living novelist. At least in this country. Russo, of course, is hardly an unknown quantity. His name is widely familiar, his fans legion, his place in contemporary letters secure. But do we ever declare him to be our flat out Best Novelist? I didn't think so. Well, it's time that we should.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Holding My Breath


If you check into this blog on a regular or semi-regular basis you've probably noticed that in recent weeks I haven't had a lot to say about specific questions/issues/decisions I'm fighting through in regards to composing Yellow, my Van Gogh novel. Not a lot to say about how I'm "creating Van Gogh" at the moment. Well, there's a reason. I'm living through an exciting but difficult--and entirely necessary--period in which I must do one thing: Wait. To be specific, three readers I respect and trust are looking over the manuscript of the novel, which after years of composing and months of cutting, editing, and shaping had reached a point where I needed to release it to others and get some honest feedback. I liked everything that was there and everything that was there seemed to be there for a good reason, but then again as the author I was way too close to it. It was possible--even likely--that I couldn't see something that would be obvious to another reader. So in December I lined up three literary friends and gave each a copy of the book on a flash drive. And the wait began.

Yes, it's nervewrecking, especially as I am eager to begin final revisions on the book, to get it into firm enough shape that I can begin to contact agents. There are a few agents, in fact, that I already know I will send the manuscript to. Knowing that, it's really hard to sit on my hands. I worry that the clock is ticking on my book. Will it be relevant this time next year? Saleable? Exciting? My head flushes with worries and impatience and gripes; but then I tell myself to calm down. I remind myself of Heather Sellers's sermon in her Chapter after Chapter against rushing books to agents before they are ready. I don't want to throw away four years of work on an ill-timed last move, do I? No. So what do I do while I wait? Well, I've sent several different excerpts from the novel to literary magazines, hoping to earn it some advance publishing cred. I've written two longish short stories and the first draft of something that appears to be a novella. In other words, my writing continues; more than that, it moves on. None of the three pieces are historical or involve painting at all. No one cuts off any ears. No one's mad (not exactly). All three are completely contemporary. That's a relief, I admit. But its hard, and I don't want, to just forget about old Vincent. I can't. Not yet! I know it's likely that there is important writing business to tend to before I can call Yellow truly finished. In fact, I'm eager to get to it. But for now I've something else to do. Wait.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A centering place


When you move up the walkway that leads to the visitor's wing at St. Paul's hospital, just outside St.-Rémy in Provence, the first structure you see is not the buiding that houses the recreated "Vincent's Room," the recreated bathing room, the gift shop, and the viewing room where a short film about Van Gogh's twelve month stay at St. Paul's is repeated interminably. What you see directly ahead of you is the wooden front door of a church. The hospital, after all, started as a Franciscan monastery. The monks, actually, were the first to take care of psychiatrically ill patients. And in Van Gogh's time an order of nuns helped out at the hospital. The church is small and quite dark, given that the only light is what sunlight manages to work through the small door and down the center aisle. It can get so dark that in order to really see the statues you have to illuminate them with the flash on your camera. In the wall behind and just bove the altar, three long stained glass windows are established featuring Saints Peter and Paul and Mother Mary. Like the hospital itself, the church is an enormously quiet location, one that lends itself to a certain urgent, reverent concentration. Even in the height of tourist season, not that many people wander in. Most push on to the other building to see Vincent's room; and the few who do enter speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Soon after first entering this church in 2005 I knew it needed a place in my novel. True confessions: I find no reference to it in the letters of Van Gogh, who had long since given up on organized religion by the time he admitted himself to St. Paul's. But when I saw the statue of Christ affixed to a wall at the front of the church (see photo) I had an idea for a scene. Namely, Vincent confronts this Jesus to whom he gave over his life, in all possible ways, for several years running, adhering so literally to the gospel of giving away all that you have--adhering to it even more literally than Jesus did--that he lost the confidence of the church administrators who had sent him to work in the Belgian mine country. Even after this period of religious frenzy passed, Van Gogh didn't abandon his respect for Jesus. But how, I thought, as I stood there in the dark, this statue before me, could he not--at least in some profoundly painful moments--feel eminently pissed off at the man; how could he not feel used by him? After all, Van Gogh sacrificed whole years of life, years he could have been working at art. Even then, I suspect, Van Gogh knew what was his true calling, and in part I think his persistence in wanting to serve Jesus as a lay preacher or a small town pastor or a missionary to miners (his notions evolved with changing circumstances and failures) was a way of denying the real vocation gnawing at him, because he knew the fierce commitment that the life of an artist would demand; he knew just how much it would take out of him before he could ever reach the level of expertise he would expect of himself. (And he was right.) That's my read on the situation. And if I'm right, how could he not be angry? Especially given how it all turned out; especially given where life had landed him? He would naturally be furious. Not just for those wasted years, not just for his eventual failure as "a man of the cloth," but that the very individuals who most frustrated him--confirmed holier-than-thou traditionalists who saw only one way to view other people and their actions, i.e., good or bad--the very people who scorned him, doubted him, gossiped about him, and dismissed him--were regarded in the eyes of the world as Good Christians whereas he, who had tried in the strictest sense to follow in the path of Jesus, was regarded as a lunatic. Why and how did Christ allow this to happen? What was the point? What was the benefit?

His pent up anger, resentment, and questioning surely would have come out if he ever found himself inside a house of worship, the kind of place he'd deliberately avoided for years. Getting him there was the tricky part. For what reason would he have come and with whom? The nuns who helped at St. Paul's likely had little interaction with the male patients, but I developed a reason why one nun asks permission to escort Van Gogh to the chapel, leaving him at the front (by that statue of Jesus) so that he can engage in private prayer while she waits for him in a rear pew. It's one of my favorite scenes in the entire novel, as I bounce back and forth between the separate perspectives of these two people, with Van Gogh's anger making connections to several different "eras" in his life and the novel: those already shown and some to be shown later. Not anything I intended when I first drafted the scene, but what seemed to magically occur on its own. And nothing I would have thought of if I hadn't stepped through the door in 2005.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Perfect Chabon


Because I'd written last week about Van Gogh's stay in St. Paul's hospital in Saint-Remy, I intended to describe some aspects of the place as it stands today, especially a chapel that sits next to the visitor's wing of the hospital. (The hospital is very much a functioning treatment center today, with the visitor's wing intended for anyone curious about Van Gogh and what therapies would have been used in his day.) The chapel is a beautiful, dark, still, and vaguely musty place. It goes unmentioned in Van Gogh's letters, yet my visit there inspired a scene in my novel. But more on that on my next post. Because today, while reading Michael Chabon's new collection of essays Manhood for Amateurs, I came across a passage that just made me hoot--and salute. So much so that I need to share it with you. And there's actually a connection to what I will write about in regards to the chapel at St. Paul's. I am not Jewish, as Chabon is, but as someone who has tried to assist in a rather liberal Episcopal Sunday school class and in so doing have struggled to explain the ethical sense of certain Old Testament stories, I could only sympathize with the following: "One thing I know for certain, and have known since the age of five or six, is that I really can't stand the God of Abraham. In fact, I consider him to constitute the pattern to which every true asshole I have ever known in my life has pretty well conformed. In His infinite capacity to engineer and experience disappointment, in His arbitary and capricious cruelty, and in the evident pleasure He derives from the exercise thereof, there is probably a sharp insight into the nature of fathers generally, since at one time or another, if not on a daily basis, each of us fathers is the biggest asshole in the world."

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Btw, Manhood for Amateurs is such a brilliant and brilliantly honest book, I'm tempted to say that Chabon, who writes superb fiction, has found the genre he's really meant to work in. Back to Van Gogh next time.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another impressionist novel


For Christmas, my wife gave me Harriot Scott Chessman's 2001 novel Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper. I hadn't read the novel before--I mentioned in an earlier post how long it takes me to get around to certain books--but now I'm glad that I have. In tone, scope, and character it's quite different from what I'm trying to accomplish in my Van Gogh novel. Chessman's novel spans less than three years of Mary Cassatt's life while mine survey almost all of Van Gogh's; her cast is decidedly female (these are the power brokers of Cassatt's world) while in my novel Van Gogh, as he did in life, exclusively surrounds himself with male friends and fellow painters. These two differences makes the atmospherics of our books strikingly different. Yet it's instructive and entertaining to see how a different fiction writer handles a different painter who worked during the same time period, and in the same country, as Van Gogh did. (Mary Cassatt, however, lived far longer than Van Gogh; all the way till 1926.)

Chessman's book is a supremely delicate one, focusing on the interior world of Cassatt's sister Lydia, whose life was drastically shortened by Bright's disease. The novel tells the the story of the composition of five paintings, paintings for which Lydia Cassatt modeled. In each successive painting we see her health deteriorate, even as she must also contend with feelings of regret for a life of marriage and children that could never be realized, her worries that her sister is becoming all too French in outlook, and simple jealousy over her sister's growing closeness with Edgar Degas, whom Lydia first suspects but then becomes infatuated with. This latter development creates a provocative triangle of mutual need, respect, and desire, the background against which Lydia struggles to put aside the inevitabily of her death and focuses on making life purposeful for months or years she has left. It's a deeply felt novel if at the same time decidedly airy, maybe too airy for some readers. As you can tell from this summary, the book is much more about Lydia--her frustrations, resentments, appetites, relationships, and priorities--than about Mary, although Mary (called May by her family) figures quite importantly.

A few stylistic nuances in the novel I questioned, such as the numerous times that French phrases are inserted into the conversations between Lydia and Mary. These are two native English speakers, after all. If the point is to remind us that the family lives in France, the point is reiterated more often than necessary. The motif of Lydia's dreams is bit overdone for my tastes. I was more interested in the real life details of Lydia's struggle against her disease and her disappointments. But these are minor reservations about a book I otherwise recommend. It's fascinating to see 19th century France--not just Paris but also the countryside--as it is imagined and interpreted by another novelist. Chessman's use of details seems impeccable and if nothing else, her lovely little book has rekindled the desire--no, the necessity--in me to return to "every man's second country," as Thomas Jefferson called it. Asap. And I just got back from there six months ago!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Et tu, Adam?


Last time I began responding to Adam Gopnik's well-written and provocative, but I think problematic, essay in the New Yorker titled "Van Gogh's Ear." A number of
speculations--regarding the reasons why Vincent moved to Arles, regarding the "Christmas Crisis" between he and Gauguin, regarding how the esteemed place Van Gogh occupies in art history was essentially determined by this crisis--are presented as facts. I responded to some of these in my last post. But none of the above represents the most serious weakness in Gopnik's essay. The worst fallacy in the essay is Gopnik's acceptance, indeed his propagation, of the notion that Van Gogh turned "mad" during the Christmas crisis and remained so the rest of his life. In point of fact, Van Gogh's "madness" was never that. Like the manic-depressives and epileptics of today, he suffered from a physical ailment that had psychological consequences. His "attacks" came on only semi-regularly, every few months or so; in between them he was more than lucid. In between attacks he was not, and did not act, crazy in any recognizable way. The letters he wrote at Saint-Remy testify to the essential soundness of his mind. While generally more despondent than his earlier letters, they are in no way irrational, manic, or delusional. In fact, because of his steadiness, relative to other patients, he was granted significant and unusual privileges--such as the right to paint at all, and a separate room to use as a studio, and the freedom to walk the outside grounds in search of subjects, even to travel unaccompanied to Arles! If one did not know of his earlier attacks one would have wondered what in the world this man was doing at a mental hospital. (Btw, Gopnik misrepresents St. Paul's when he calls it "an insane asylum," which suggests raving lunatics locked up for life. While the hospital was often proved ineffectual in doing so, the point of anyone being admitted to St. Paul's was to be treated, cured, and released. Its raison d'etre, if you will, was therapeutic not punitive or merely restrictive.) Theo Van Gogh's wife Joanna was surprised to see how healthy Vincent looked when he visited in May, 1890, after withdrawing himself from St. Paul's. Vincent, she thought, looked healthier and stronger than Theo did! (Click here to read a memoir of Joanna by her son.)

But here's the thing that really chews me up about the Mad Artist myth. Van Gogh never saw his illness as anything but debilitating, because that's what it was. During an attack he was completely taken outside of himself. He had no control. He had to be restrained. It was not as if he was enjoying a beautiful, ecstatic experience that he then transferred to canvas. In fact, when the attacks finally passed he couldn't remember what he did or felt or thought or witnessed during them. And the attacks left him completely enervated, useless to do anything. For weeks on end he could do nothing but rest and recover; certainly, he could not paint. And when he finally found himself feeling reasonable normal again and able to start working anew, he did not set down on canvas any brilliant insights or perspectives from his "madness," he merely went back to work painting the world around him, as he had his whole life. The few truly immortal pictures he did create in Saint-Remy were managed in spite of not because.

Van Gogh was so soul-sickened by this illness that he began to resent ever having gone to the south in the first place, because he suspected that there might be something in the southern air that led certain individuals astray. (In an era when the treatment of mental patients was a pitifully no-nothing enterprise, baseless theories like this one circulated frequently.) As productive as his years in Provence were, he almost wished they had never happened. Not the kind of talk you'd expect if his illness had finally allowed him to be the great painter he always wanted to be. No. Because he'd already become that: in Arles, in the spring, summer, and fall of 1888. (See my previous post.) After the Christmas crisis, Van Gogh was only so much treading water: hoping just to get better, hoping to simply be able to work, less concerned about making masterpieces than returning to the same level of life energy he'd enjoyed before the onset of his attacks. Sadly, this last hope was never to be realized.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Et tu, New Yorker?


A friend of mine at UCA, Robin Becker, kindly passed on to me a recent New Yorker article about Van Gogh and Gauguin: "Van Gogh's Ear" by Adam Gopnik. As literary people, dear readers of this blog, you've probably already scanned the article yourself. (My wife and I subscribe to the New Yorker in an off again/on again fashion, depending on how well we can bear up under the frustration of seeing issue after issue come without time to read it. Currently, we're in an "off again" phase.) If so, so much the better. You know the gist of it already. Before I say anything, I should tell you that Adam Gopnik is one of our favorite journalists. His books Paris to the Moon and Through the Children's Gate hold prominent places in our private library. And his memoir essay "Last of the Metrozoids" may well be my wife's all time favorite.

That said, Gopnik got a lot wrong in his Van Gogh article. In fact, it's a glaring and rather frustrating example of a thoughtful writer unwittingly perpetuating the Mad Artist myth. (See my earlier post, "The Real Van Gogh, Part One.") Gopnik's key point, as he argues for the "decisive break [in Van Gogh's painting]marked by the Christmas crisis," is basically this: if Van Gogh had not gone crazy in Christmas 1888, cutting off his left ear, he would never have become the artist we know and revere, and the history of modern art would have been substantially different. Gopnik emphasizes that it was Van Gogh's "madness"--he tolls at this word repeatedly--that led him to new directions, that enabled him to create his most idiosyncratic and influential pictures.

Gopnik also passes on a newfangled argument by two German art historians that is getting a lot of press recently; namely, that it was Gauguin who actually cut off Van Gogh's ear (with a sword). The evidence for this, which Gopnik calls "arresting," seems awfully thin, and reeks of conspiracy thinking: private codes, enforced secrets, interpretations of latin phrases. But I'm far less concerned about his endorsing this peculiar version of what happened on December 23, 1888 then I am the above mentioned fallacy. First, most of the art historians I consulted when researching my novel agreed that Van Gogh's powers were at their peak in the summer and early fall of 1888. To me, looking at the paintings, this is self-evidently true. In fact, in letters from the hospital in Saint-Remy Van Gogh referred nostalgically to the "high yellow note" he previously worked in, explaining that since the sharp decline in his health it was not a style he could aspire to again. Indeed, the colors in his Saint Remy pictures are far muted, less striking; they do not scream off the canvas in quite the same way as the colors in his Arles pictures. This is not to say that Gogh did not paint impressives pictures at Saint-Remy and Auvers-sur-Oise; Gopnik names some of them; but it is to say that most of the pictures we know the man for, that we look at as breakthroughs--"The Sower," "The Sower with the Setting Sun," "Vincent's Bedroom," the "Sunflower" series, "The Night Cafe," "The Cafe at Night," "Starry Night Over the Rhone," his portraits of the postman Roulin and of the peasant farmer and of a zouave and of the Belgian Eugene Boch--were all completed prior to the arrival of Paul Gauguin in Arles in October of 1888. If he had simply stopped painting after the "Christmas Crisis" his place in art history would have bee more than secure, his influence already established.

[Next time, because I've already kept you for too long: What Gopnik got most wrong.]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Real Van Gogh, Part Two


Near the end of the walkway that leads to the visitor's entrance to St. Paul's Hospital in Saint-Remy one finds a bronze statue of Vincent Van Gogh. In his left hand he holds a bouquet of gargantuan, oversized sunflowers; his right hand hangs limp and emptily at his side. His face, meanwhile, is fixed with a far off expression, the look of a man too involved with extraworldly concerns to survive in this unforgiving valley of tears. It's an artfully constructed, and I'm sure for most people affecting, statue, but when I look at it I can only think "Ughh." I griped last time about cliched ideas regarding artists and madness, specifically the idea that Vincent Van Gogh was mad and for that reason--rather than in spite of it--he became a great artist. But there's another, almost equally strong, myth about Van Gogh, one that I see motivating the statue at St. Paul's: the myth of the Artistic Saint. The opposite of the myth of the Mad Artist, this myth insist on seeing Van Gogh as a symbol of almost inhuman purity. Keepers of the myth see him as fundamentally a victim: of his times, of artistic conventions, of poverty, of illness, of anonymity. He was a beautiful soul tortured by ideals too high for this world, creating in the midst of his sufferings those sweet, bright paintings for which he is best known. Listen to Don McLean's cloying "Vincent" (you probably know the song as "Starry Starry Night") to hear the perfect expression of this myth. Like a saint tortured for his belief, Van Gogh suffered for his idealism; and like a saint rewarded for his trials by entering heaven in the afterlife, Van Gogh has gone on to his own eternal reward: artistic immortality.


The Artistic Saint may be an even more aggravating myth than Vincent the Madman, perhaps because it is as impicitly condescending while at the same time pretending sympathy. No doubt Vincent Van Gogh suffered. The path he finally chose for his life--after an extended period of false starts--was not an easy one. But here's the deal: He did choose it. He knew what he was getting into. Anyone who has read Van Gogh's letters knows what a shrewd (in the best sense) and canny man he was. He wanted pity from no one, especially not from his family. In his mind, nothing he did, and none of the physical and emotional trials he went through, deserved pity. They were simply what one could expect when one devotes oneself completely to one's craft. All he ever really wanted from others was the recognition that he knew what he was doing. Which he self-evidently did. Neither was Van Gogh a saint of any kind. He could be short tempered, self-involved, and petty, even toward his brother, whose monthly contributions he literally could not have survived without, and certainly toward his parents. In fact, as I drafted my novel I felt a growing sympathy for Van Gogh's father, who Vincent often potrtayed in letters as a dunderhead and tyrant of respectability. The fact is, Vincent Van Gogh was not an easy person to deal with, even if one loved him and was trying to help him. His whole life he demonstrated an innate fury--he was an Aries, for anyone who cares about such things--that drove him both to extremes and to discoveries. Not until late in his life, physically exhausted and morally depressed by the epileptic attacks that came at regular intervals and clearly would keep coming, did the tone of his correspondence become more despondent and that fury dampen. In their 1955 book Passionate Pilgrim, one of many I've consulted in my research, Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson argue that it wasn't until he was confined in St. Paul's that Van Gogh, his rough edges worn away by illness and defeat, showed the sympathetic personality so commonly associated with him. Now, Passionate Pilgrim is a deeply flawed book, with some grotesque factual errors and an unfortunate carping tone, as the authors go out of their way to say more or less one thing: Vincent Van Gogh was not a pleasant man. Personally, I think the Hansons oversell their case; they overlook a great deal of evidence that suggests Van Gogh was a loyal friend, a cheerful correspondent, an intelligent and determined craftsman, a remarkably astute reader of the contemporary art scene, and--it must be said--a real sap when it came to women he was infatuated with. But they are right about this: Van Gogh was not a saint. If he were, he would not be such an engaging character to fictionalize--and that he surely is proving to be.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Real Van Gogh, Part One


I'm trying to accomplish several things with my Van Gogh novel. First, I'm hoping to conquer the challenging, painstaking genre of literary historical fiction. This is my first foray into the historical novel, and I want to create something of which I can be proud. Second, I'm simply trying to make a good read. The cardinal rule of all writing, a grad school teacher once told me, is Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. (While he was a terrible teacher in nearly every aspect, I agreed, and still do agree, with him on that point.) I'm hoping readers are drawn into the world of my novel and do not want to be pulled out of it. Third, and just as important, I'm trying to create what I think is a more true Vincent Van Gogh.

While there may not be a better known painter in the last two hundred years than Van Gogh, there is also no painter who has been more mythologized in the popular imagination. The only painter who might rival him in this regard is Jackson Pollock, and even Pollack comes up short. It's no doubt true that in the case of both Van Gogh and Pollock the work they created is central to our interest; their radical breaking through to new ground and new techniques, their battles against the conventions of painting in their times. (Click here to watch a short documentary made in 1951 in which Pollock discusses his technique.) But we all know that is not the only reason for our interest in these painters. That cannot be the only reason why we write poems and pop songs about them, why we make documentaries about them, why we plaster their pictures on neckties and baby bowls and t-shirts, why we name brands of liqueurs after them and travel to visit their hometowns like worshippers on religious pilgrimages. In Van Gogh's case, our mythologizing stems from an obvious source: our fascination with madness. Everyone seems to know and love the image of the Mad Artist. To some, usually people who have done no artistic work in their lives, it's an axiom that artists must be deranged or alcoholics or sexual perverts, or all of the above. So that Van Gogh "went crazy" and cut off his own ear is simply accepted as a natural byproduct of his artistic greatness. And it makes us love him all the more. And finally it explains our unrelenting interest in him.

But it's also a myth. As with many alluring stories, it's simply wrong. Or at best half a truth. Yes, Van Gogh did indeed experiences attacks in which his normal sense of self disappeared; and during the first of these he famously cut off his left ear. But he was never simply "crazy." The attacks were the physical result of a physical ailment. (Today's current best estimate is that he suffered from a rare form of epilepsy.) More to the point, in between attacks he was as lucid as the next man. In fact, if you consider his whole life he was more lucid than the next man. His extraordinary letters bear this out. Even more to the point, the attacks didn't even begin until after he had passed his artistic highpoint. It's a commonly held idea--I've actually heard people say this--that Van Gogh couldn't have created the great paintings he did if he were not crazy. Well, my answer is that not only was he never "crazy," but his physical ailment actually diluated his well of creativity and brought an end to the period of his life when he could work with sustained brilliance. In short, my novel is not the life story of a crazy man, but the story of a unique and extremely driven man, one who milked every once of talent in his bones to make the paintings he did. I'm hoping to debunk the myth of the madman--cut off its ear, if you will--and put in its place the picture of a canny, empathetic, and even prophetic person who at the same time could be short-sighted, quick to anger, and fantastically self-centered. Do these qualities make Van Gogh crazy? No! But they make him richly complicated as a fictional character, and much more real to me--way more real than poor Vincent, the Suffering Insane Genius.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Confirmed by Mythbusters


I've blogged before about struggling with those nusiance details of history, hoping to avoid anachronisms that are bound to set certain readers off. I'm not really complaining. It's part of the duty--and the pleasure, really--of being a writer of historical fiction, who in his best incarnation is both radically imaginative and someting of a wonk.

Anyway, another of the details I've debated over while drafting my book is the matchstick. During early drafts of the novel, when I needed Vincent or another character to light something, I did so vaguely, with indefinite references to "flint," assuming for some reason that matches didn't exist in the 1850s to 1880s. With everything else I was juggling with as I composed the book I decided not to worry about it right away, but over time and a little research I came to realize that some form of matchstick probably did exist in Van Gogh's time. So I went ahead and just had him light a match when necessary. Simple, direct. Everybody gets it. What this match looked like I wasn't sure and had to leave it for the reader to decide (normally bad writing advice), but I assumed it would be something akin to those thin wooden sticks, a couple of inches long, that you find sold in rectangular cardboard boxes in drug stores and grocery stores, rather than the paper "matchbook" match, which was what everyone used when I was growing up in the 70s--when smoking was more widespread and every bar and restaurant in America gave away matchbooks as advertising. (In my house, there was always a matchbook around, probably within a few feet of wherever you were.) In addition to not really being sure what these matches looked like, I still wasn't 100% sure that what I think of as a match is what I could really count on as being contemporary with the second half of the 19th century. Until recently, the best confirmation I got was a reference to "lucifers" in Peter Carey's historical novel True History of the Kelly Gang. That seemed confirmation enough, although questions still dangled in the back of my mind that I knew I needed to answer sooner or later, once and for all. Just as soon as I solved a million other mysteries.

What a thrill then that, while watching a recent episode of Mythbusters, a little factoid came up telling me that the first friction match was invented by Englishman John Walker in the 1826! Eureka! Thank you, Adam and Jamie! Another nagging question put to bed. If you've see the Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel--and who in America hasn't at this point--you know how entertaining it is to see the gang on that show test commonly held notions about products and situations and even species. Great to know that Mythbusters is also a resource for novelists.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Top of Provence


While researching and drafting my novel, I took three separate trips to southern France. There are a few sites I have made a point to visit on each trip, mostly because of their connection to Van Gogh, but also because I find them unmatchably serene, visits worth making for their own sake. One of these is the "Pont Van Gogh" (which I blogged about last month); another is St. Paul's Hospital in Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh lived for over a year following the onset of his epileptic attacks. A third location is the Abbaye de Montmajour, located a couple miles north of Arles. The abbey, long abandoned even in Van Gogh's time, is mentioned in various biographies I've read and occasionally too his letters, but it really came to my attention during a guided walking tour I took around Arles in the summer of 2005. At the top of one street, the guide pointed to an impressive structure off in the distance and explained that Van Gogh often hiked up there to paint. I knew I had to go, and so I did a few days later, and it turned out to be one the highlights of the trip.

The abbey, a mammoth structure, is a tourist spot but an enormously quiet one. Visitors come, but in modest twos and threes, and the occasional loner (like me), with intervals between them. The place never feels overrun and for the most part people stay silent, even when outside. For how old it is, the abbey, which dates from the early medieval era, is well preserved and has an interesting history. It's worth the trip just to linger in its huge stone halls and read about the uses of each room. Too, there always seems to be an art or photo exhibition going on.

But impressive as it is, the inside is not why I go to Abbaye de Montmajour or why I stay. In fact, each time I surge through the interior, head to the upper floor, and out a doorway to reach the "courtyard" (for lack of a better term). From there, one enjoys gorgeous views of Arles in the distance, and, closer in, the area known as La Crau, featuring long fertile fields that Van Gogh painted repeatedly (see first photo above). People linger out here, leaning over the stone walls, taking in the scenery. If they speak, they speak at a low murmur. And then they stroll on. Except not me. In an effort to blend my experinece with Vincent's, I've always brought along a sketch pad and pencils. I find a comfortable if stony place to sit and start drawing. It's not that I'm a artist. It's not that I make good drawings. I just want the experience of rendering the place in pictures rather than words. I want that physical sensation. Occasionally, I get a curious stare, but almost without fail people leave me alone, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do. The courtyard has different levels and you can gradually move to higher spots for different vantage points. The abbey also features a soaring stone tower, built for defense not religious purposes in the late middle ages. A circular stone staircase takes you to the top, from which you can enjoy the views of Arles and La Crau from a much higher altitude as well as catch glimpses Fontvieille and Tarascon, far in the distance and at different points on the compass. Anyone with a fear of heights might find this part of the visit a bit too thrilling (there's a thin opening where the floor of the tower top meets the wall, and you can see all the way down), but in my opinion if you go to the abbey you have to go up the tower.

When I visit the Abbaye de Montmajour I find that a couple hours just melt away like nothing. You wonder where the time went. I leave satisfied but also wistful: wishing I could stay longer, eager for my next visit back. I imagine that's exactly how Vincent felt.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A return to teaching


Today, after my morning writing session, I head to the office to firm up plans for my spring classes and start finalizing my syllabi. Our semester at UCA begins on January 14. I greet this semester with uniquely mixed feelings. Last year, after ten years of full time university teaching (i.e., a 4/4 load) I was feeling the first singes of burn out. But for last fall I was granted a sabbatical, which allowed me weeks of unbroken concentration on my novel and a chance, in larger ways, to regroup, even to begin new initiatives--like this blog. Now, with my sabbatical over and facing full time teaching again, I certainly am wistful for the lost free time but neither am I bitter. I can't be. If anything I feel blessed. While on sabbatical, my novel took huge and important strides forward. It's on a course now to be done; maybe even done soon. More importantly, I feel existentially rested and ready to teach again.

I've never subscribed to the easy, self-serving equation that separates attention to teaching from attention to writing and publishing, as if one could somehow aspire to teach a subject that one does not actively engage in every day. If I were a student I'd want to know that my professor doesn't just talk a good game but actually practices what he or she preaches. I would listen to the ones who do, and keep an arm's length from the ones who don't. And, as it turns out, that's exactly how our students do think. They get it. And speaking from the other side of the metaphorical podium, I have to say in the process of preparing for and teaching four sections a semester, I probably get even more out of the classes than my students do. The writing I do with them in class I take as seriously as any other I do in my life. In fact, several published stories and poems have started in UCA classrooms writing along with my students after I have handed out prompts. In the textbooks I've used over the years, I've discovered stories and poems by other writers that will stick with me forever. And in the writing of critiques for my students' work I've enjoyed discovering exactly what is I think and believe.

No, I'm not looking forward to the bureacratic hurly burly of office life: the endless protocol of meetings to attend and reports to file (yes, we have those in academia as much as anywhere), the clash of egos, personalities, and personal agendas that inevitability rears its head at any human institution. But I can never regret engaging a group of students about the act of writing: its pleasures, its challenges, the walls of useful suggestions surrounding it, and at the same time its utter lack of rules. I can never regret see those thrilling pieces of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry young authors generate. I can never regret the learning and the fellowship that occurs during the give and take of workshop. No, I don't and could never regret our students, who are so shrewd, canny, and talented--way more than I was at their age--that it's humbling to be called their professor. The completion of my novel awaits, but a return to teaching can only make that completion a better, sharper, more learned endeavor. So don't worry about me. I'm ready.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A little gem


After a round trip of 3000 miles and twelve rather overfull days, in which by planning or accident my wife and I saw most members of the immediate family tree, I've returned to home base in Arkansas. That means Creating Van Gogh is up and running again--and looking forward to Spring 2010. For my first post of this new year, however, I thought I should return to some unfinished business from last month; namely, another recommendation for a novel to read (as if you don't have enough novels you want to read already). If you've been checking into this blog even semi-regularly you know that while I work on my Van Gogh novel, I've been making a special effort to read more historical fiction. One book I really enjoyed when I read it last month, so much so that I want to tell you about it, was Ethan Canin's Carry Me Across the Water (2001). This cannot strictly be called a historical novel since the book's setting is contemporary and the very interior conflict that afflicts the main character is mostly acted out in the present. However, it is a book which evokes the burden of history, especially as how that burden affects the individual. In this case, the burden stems from World War Two, which, Canin's book reminds us, became and remained life's focal point for the generation of Americans who fought in that conflict. No matter what they went on to accomplish--Canin's Kleinman becomes a successful, wealthy beer manufacturer--it is their wartime experiences which inevitably define them. For Kleinman, understandable if regretable actions he took while fighting on a Pacific island leave him with a store of both guilt and curiosity that a lifetime cannot extinguish, not until as a senior citizen he finally travels to Honshu in Japan.

That's all the plot you need to know. Meanwhile, there is much to admire in Canin's storytelling method, from his provocative way of scattering his scenes to his dramatization of Kleinman's experiences as a soldier. The wartime scenes contrast neatly with the equally well-realized ones in which the older Kleinman battles against his son's lack of trust in his abiltity to take care of himself or act as an effective babysitter for his grandson. While that might sound like a rather banal domestic tension, at least compared with World War II, Canin makes it engaging through use of sharp details as well as Kleinman's self-possession and wry sense of humor. And it's entertaining to watch the uniquely symapthetic relationship between Kleinman and his son's non-Jewish wife. Too, one can only admire the economy with which Canin manages to suggest Kleinman's whole life, from his childhood in pre-war Germany to his family's escape to the U.S. to the history of his marriage and career as a businessman after the war. No parts of this history, not even his present squabbles with his son, are finally untouched by what happened to him as a GI.

The book is a quiet little gem. Perhaps because I am delighted by its crusty if intuitive "hero," or perhaps because in this book Canin seems to have escaped himself and the obsessions of his own generation, the novel is far more satisfying than the two other Canin novels I've read: Blue River and For Kings and Planets. Both of those, I hate to say, were thoroughly lackluster efforts (no matter what the reviews said). There seemed nothing of consequence going on in the latter book. However, if, like me, you know and love Canin from his fine short story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief, this is one of his novels that you don't want to skip.