My posting to this blog has slowed in recent weeks as I struggle through the inundation of end of-semester grading that typically inflicts one who works at a teaching-intensive university. (Four classes per semester.) However, my daily work of shaping and sharpening Yellow continues bit-by-bit, slowly but surely, as I near the date when I am ready to finally send it out. This morning, at my writing desk, I discovered a neat solution to a tiny little problem I encountered in one scene. In the scene, which occurs in the Drenthe section of the novel, Van Gogh confronts the owner of an inn at which he is staying and asks for assistance getting to Zweeloo. The innkeeper, as I portray him, is drunk at the time. In all my drafts so far, I have him drunk on vodka. I guess this seemed like an appropriately working class liquor, and one that certainly could have been found in 19th century Europe. One sentence refers to the man "reeking of vodka."
Along with a million other concerns about other parts of the book, a nagging thought remained in my head over the past couple years about this scene. First, exactly how popular would vodka have been in Holland then, and secondly, does one really "reek of vodka"? Vodka isn't odorless but it does not have nearly as strong an odor as other spirits. And culturally it does seem more strongly associated with Eastern Europe, Russia in particularly. In fact, after reviewing an online article I've learned the term vodka belt--those northern, central, and eastern european countries where vodka has historically reigned and where even today consumption is highest in the world. Holland, as it turns out, is not part of the vodka belt.
Seeking out another likely liquor choice for a hard-drinking 19th century Dutch innkeeper, I immediately thought of gin. I don't know. It just seemed right. Well, of course, I didn't rest there. I wanted to make sure it was right. A little internet reseach later and what do I learn?: Gin was invented in Holland! Eureka. In fact, the English first discovered gin when their soldiers went to Holland to fight against the Spanish in the 1580s. They proceeded to bring gin back to England, where it quickly became popular among the working classes. And of course it still remains popular in England--and America--today. But what matters is that it certainly makes sense as the drink of choice for my red-faced, semi-fictional innkeeper. Would it cause one to reek? Well, a couple things come to mind in answer to that question. First, gin is a berry-flavored grain spirit. It certainly does have a distinct, if not overpowering, smell. But more to the point--and pardon me for being so personal--my dear departed father demonstrated a strong fondness for gin late in his life. I think it's safe to say, one could smell it on him.