Summer has come and gone. The expiry date for my ten books of summer has passed. I only made it to No. 6. I apologise.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list. In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list. In whatever genre. Forget genres. Here is something new.
Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old, the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) ON earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.
I do not know what there is to say about this book. Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.
On Earthtakes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother
who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her. In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind, in Hartford,
…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight. The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business
… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt
Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to humanise modern America, to bring the worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience. How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK
“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.
If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I. “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s back cover. But I would say this. Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future. This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.
This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.
Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere, getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime. These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition. The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert, to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.
These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death. They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.
“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself. Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”
And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest. In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.
“Unreal desert. Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many. None thought the trains would bring so many. Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”
In one scene as children cross the desert a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children. They two groups will not know each other. They will never meet. But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb. He is being “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth. “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”
In a parallel storyline and universe a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost: the Apaches, the children. A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’. At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.
Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading thousands of acres of poetry.
But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book. For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before – short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids. But I asked around, found some teen fiction titles and read them.
Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group? Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story? But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?
Hall’s wartime service is described by Purnell as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”, her service even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale – or any other scale much. Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.
Virginia Hall experienced many rejections in her life but she never allowed these to stand in her way. Repeatedly refused work in the diplomatic corps in the US (she was a woman for goodness sake who had ever heard of such a thing) Hall nevertheless in 1940 (aged 34) travelled to France to volunteer as an ambulance driver. Later she went to England where she got picked up by Churchill’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out disruptive work behind enemy lines – and sent to France to help coordinate the resistance movement.
In 1940 the SOE itself was not the fait accompli that, with the wisdom of hindsight and Sebastian Faulks’ novels, we now assume it to be. Purnell explains:
“Advertising for recruits for such subversive work was obviously out of the question – the government never mentioned SOE in public and if asked they would deny its very existence. Traditionally, British Secret Services had drawn from a shallow pool of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, but this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.”
Virginia Hall, however, was.
Subtitled The Untold Story of Virginia Hall WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Purnell gives us the story of this courageous lady whose exploits are not dissimilar although in many ways even more extreme than those of war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in Iraq in 2012.
Reporter for a US newspaper was the alias that Hall first used when she went to France where she had been tasked with coordinating and building up the French resistance, starting in Lyon when she fought to stay one step ahead of the notorious butcher Klaus Barbie. This ‘staying one step ahead’ at one stage involved Hall having to travel to Perpignan and cross the Pyrenees in midwinter in order to reach Spain which was, at least officially, neutral. This unimaginable feat – with a prosthesis – this treacherous crossing that had felled plenty of fit and able young men:
“sometimes escape parties would come across a frozen corpse, occasionally in an upright position, gazing forward with a fixed stare.”
was undertaken by Hall with the slimmest chance of survival, along with an unfriendly guide and two other men, even as the Wehrmacht combed the town behind her with sniffer dogs.
Despite the fact that the internet age was still half a century in the future, the germans were never short of information or the ability to trap spies from other nations, yet Virginia eluded them, even though they knew about her, including a description, even though she limped and had a prosthesis. Even thought they put her on their most wanted list. She seemed to have an uncanny ability not only to adopt different physical disguises but different demeanours too.
The book is hugely readable and fascinating. But most of all it made me feel ashamed that I had barely heard of this lady. Yet which of us has not heard of Douglas Bader? In 1956, barely a decade after WW2 ended, a film was produced with Kenneth More in the title role playing Bader. If Hall had been a man it is unlikely we would have had to wait so long to hear her story. Purnell’s book is more than a biography it is the setting straight of a record that has long needed setting straight. I urge you to read it.
A Review of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish. Bob Gilbert (Saraband)
I am as ambivalent as man Londoners about my city, loving it but longing, much of the time, to be out of it; living somewhere overhung with trees or with a sight of the sea or with the shape of hills to look at. And this is my compromise; this untidy patch of garden with its chickens and its struggling vegetables, this defiant gash in the city’s concrete skin. It is a wound that I tend with broccoli and potatoes…
Not exactly on a mission to re-wild London, but certainly to examine more closely what is beside, behind, beneath and above us as we all rush about, what has survived and adapted, the author has traced ghost outlines of the wild that once covered the area of East London known as Poplar.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.”
Gilbert’s book seeks out those memoranda and signatures. But to focus purely on history, on the lonely open landscape that once existed – a landscape of ‘wide and windswept estuarine marshes’ where now there are tower blocks and urbanisation. That would be a book only about loss.
‘It was possible, on a day of shifting, watery grey cloud to still feel the imprint of the reed beds and the osiers, of lonely cattle grazing on the open marshes, of the cry of a passing curlew…’
I doubt if many curlews cry over East London now. But this book is not a eulogy. Far from it. There is much wildlife here to celebrate. Gilbert charts new habitats in surprising places, gives us new causes for appreciation of the here and now. He seeks at the edges of shopping centres, at the side of rail tracks, the base of lamposts in the cracks between paving stones, in Churchyards and parks and in allotments for the new urban ecology As well as a biographer of the ghost outlines of estuarine marshes which once covered Poplar, Gilbert is a chronicler of our contemporary urban adaptees of the natural world.
Thus in an imaginary conversation the writer has with Richard Adams, (he of Watership Down fame) who apparently was rather grumpy about London and claimed to see nothing inspiring other than a few crocuses in a hotel garden, the author writes:
“I wanted to tell him of the black redstart I had seen feeding in front of the building’s bulldozer, of the pheasant I had found foraging on an urban allotment and of the skylarks I heard singing in a landscape of chemical works and pylons.”
Ghost Trees is the result of what must have been thousands of hours of painstaking research not to say hundreds of miles of walking and hours of looking and note taking. It traces the outlines of the rural places that have been. It also charts the history of the mulberry tree, plane tree and other arborial inhabitants cultivated by humans in this our great city of London for one reason or another. It is a book of plant histories but especially of plant stories
I found the account of the Mulberry’s arrival in the UK particularly fascinating. In order to facilitate a supply of raw silk without having to buy the stuff from abroad somewhere because that is (a) too expensive and (b) vulnerable to political interference, England in the l6th century needed its own Mulberry trees. Mulberry leaves are bread and meat and wine to silkworms; they require many of them to sustain their arduous workload. Under the patronage of King James, 10,000 mulberry plants were ordered, Gilbert tells us, including a plantation at Westminster. All this is now subsumed beneath concrete, with the poetically termed Mulberry Gardens the sole surviving relic of the project, along with Mulberry Street; Mulberry House; Mulberry Tree pubs etc etc. Sadly and for various reasons this is a project which failed and England never was able to support its own silk industry. But next time you go for a pint at the Mulberry Tree pub spare a thought for the little silkworms.
Gilbert also gives us an image of the post-human forest, and perhaps given current events that is not such a fantastical idea. These are the trees and plants that will colonise the land when humans no longer do. The goat willow, buddleia, plants that are happy to colonise neglected areas, abandoned urban corners, thickets of broom, cherry, aspen and birch, taking their place in the empty streets, decaying buildings, fractured windows and disused doorways of a post apocalyptic world. I rather like the idea that nature will go on, rather like Celine Dion’s heart, regardless of the worst man can do.
“But there was wildness too, in those individual trees that sprang up outside the confines of cultivation; the seedlings and the saplings that appeared without permission on lawns, in flowerbeds, along pavement edges and in pots in my back garden…. This would be the wilderness returning, and these would be the post human trees.”
Where there are trees can the shades and the Forest of Arden and the magic be far behind? I found this book awe inspiring in its wisdom and abundant historical and horticultural knowledge, although perhaps a little impersonal at times. No doubt the author, like the rest of us, has been inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane and although not quite in the same poetic bracket, this book is an inspiration and a wake up call. Nature has not given up, nor should we.
But loos are the least of the gender data gap problems, a symptom of a much wider malaise. Structural male bias is everywhere. Accurate data is vital for research and appropriate solutions. Yet accurate data is not available if half the human race is excluded from its gathering simply because no-one has thought to consider whether one size really does fit all. If you base your research on skewed data, you get a skewed result. This is obvious, perhaps, when it is baldly stated but not at all obvious in the accepted course of knowledge production which has been going on for millennia. This term ‘gender data gap’ is something I barely understood before reading Perez; now I understand it, it is frighteningly omniscient, and it is costing female lives.
I have chosen to look at two areas that the author discusses, health and the formulation of GDP.
I start with health – the most important thing for a human being before you get to the wealth or happiness bit. Go into any bookshop (assuming you can still find one) and look at the medical and anatomy sections, Perez suggests, you will discover that the human figure is male. The author found that:
‘as recently as 2017, the covers of books labelled ‘Human Anatomy’ ‘were still adorned with be-muscled men’
Because it is assumed that the human body is male and that on a one-size fits all model (ie, apart from the reproductive bits there is not much difference) what works for the guys will work for the gals. Horrifically this appears to be current medical thinking! Women are as a result largely being excluded from medical research. Why? Because the results of clinical trials are being presented as valid for both men and women, even when women have been excluded from the study and even though as a result of this data on whether a particular drug will be efficacious for a woman is unknown.
This despite the fact that researchers have found sex differences in every tissue and organ system in the human body as well as in the ‘prevalence, course and severity’ of the majority of human diseases.
“Sex differences appear even in our cells: in blood-serum biomarkers for autism; in proteins, in immune cells used to convey pain signals; in how cells die following a stroke. A recent study also found a significant sex difference in the ‘experssion of a gene found to be important for drug metabolism’. Sex differences in the presentation and outcome of Parkinsons disease, stroke and brain ischaemia … have also been tracked all the way to our cells …”
The inclusion of sex specific information in textbooks is dependent on the availability of sex specific data, but because women have largely been excluded from medical research this data is severely lacking. And because this data is lacking, it is not being taught in medical schools.
Most early research into cardiovascular disease was conducted on men
Women represent 55% of HIV positive adults in the developing world … we also know that women experience different clinical symptoms and complications due to HIV. Yet a 2016 review of the inclusion of women in HIV research found that women made up only 19.2% of participants in antiretroviral studies, 38% in vaccination studies and 11.1% in studies to find a cure.
And because of their routine exclusion from clinical trials we lack solid data on how to treat pregnant women for anything. Perhaps it is understandable that pregnant women would not want to take part in clinical trials, but that is no reason Perez states to throw our hands up in despair and do nothing.
The absence of female representation in clinical trials also means that drugs are not sex specific and drugs that work for men are finding their way into general use without anyone knowing if they work for women. Conversely, drugs that do not work for men are discarded during the clinical trial process without anyone finding out whether they would have worked for women.
The formulation of a country’s GDP is an inherently subjective process, states Perez.
She quotes Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at Manchester University.
‘A lot of people think GDP is a real thing. But actually it’s a confection, with lots of judgements that have gone into its definition. And a lot of uncertainty.
Measuring GDP is, she says, not like measuring how high the mountain is.’
In the 1970s – a period which has always been seen as a ‘golden’ window for productivity GDP rose (in the UK).
But what was actually happening during that period is that women were leaving the domestic sphere and starting to do out to work. Work in the home had never been counted as part of GDP, as presumably it still is not.
So the things done in the feminised private sphere which were invisible, suddenly got visible and added to the male-dominated public sphere.
The failure to measure unpaid household services is perhaps the greatest gender gap of all. Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries and as much as 80% in low-income countries. If we factor this work into the equation, the UK’s GDP in 2016 was around $3.9 trillion (official figures $2.6 trillion). In 2015, unpaid care and domestic work in Mexico was valued at 21% – ‘higher than manufacturing, commerce, real estate, mining, construction and transportation and storage’.
None of this is the result of some dire scheming or deliberate policy, it is because of structuralised, self-perpetuating sex discrimination which has become so natural to us that we no longer see it. Because women are invisible, it is not deemed to be necessary to collect sex specific data. Because there is no sex specific data, women are invisible.
“Failing to collect data on women and their lives means that we continue to naturalise sex and gender discrimination – while at the same time somehow not seeing any of this as discrimination. Or really we don’t see it because we naturalise it – it is too obvious, too commonplace, too much just the way things are to bother commenting on. It’s the irony of being a woman: at once hyper-visible when it comes to being treated as the subservient sex class, and invisible when it counts – when it comes to being counted.”
“There is an overwhelming need for women to be more involved in research, the author concludes. “When women are involved in decision making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten.”
This book must have entailed a huge amount of work. It is thorough researched and detailed. Thank you Perez for showing us the male bias by which our still achingly patriarchal society is structured. Sisters, there remains a long road ahead of us.
Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist and human rights campaigner. She is best known for getting a woman put on the Bank of England banknotes and for campaigning for a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.
Or rather, the people who look after sheep are having a moment.
There was James Rebanks A Shepherd’s life: A Tale of the Lake District about his struggles to take over the family farm in Cumbria which led him from rebellious teenager hanging out at the local chippie, to adult education to, ultimately, a double first from Cambridge.
Then Amanda Owens A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess flabbergasted Hay Festival audiences with tales of farming in the remote Yorkshire area of Ravenseat, including how – becoming disgruntled with local midwifery services who wanted her to give birth in hospital – she gave birth to her 9th child (not a typo) on the kitchen floor, waking her husband only after the event to tell him she’d had the baby!
There are not quite the same dramas but different ones in Heida the story of our eponymous heroine who farms 500 sheep in the Icelandic highlands. Although Heidais written in the first person, it is in fact a biography translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. There is much haymaking, herding, sorting, pregnancy scanning (of ewes – a big business for those with the appropriate knowledge and equipment apparently) and a great deal of extremely hard work done carried out mainly alone – although Heida admits that her Mum does the cooking! Here the ground is so unforgiving that when the old dog Glámur dies in winter his body has to be put in a cardboard box and kept in the freezer to await the ground thaw in Spring for burial.
This is a story of shepherding in and on land beset by fierce icelandic elements; of failing machinery; of battling (sometimes) angry family members and even volcanic eruptions. Bloggers she says have been known to write of her land that the only thing that can survive there are ravens and foxes. Strange then she says, that I have had to fight so hard to stay here. The narrative voice is of a fiercely independent, and yes sometimes fierce woman as I imagine you would need to be to live this life; an ardent feminist who could never understand why you needed to have a husband in order to farm, and a despiser of racial and other inequalities.
Ironically as she lives in such an isolated and barely habitable place Heida’s greatest struggle has been against corporate capitalism. She has been locked in a battle to stop part of her land being flooded to create the Búland Power Plant. She describes in detail how developers try to set one community off against another; how they offer money which someone, somewhere, will invariably accept, leaving others to struggle on in the fight. How all the so called ‘expert’ opinions, the environmental impact assessments are bought and paid for by the people who want to do the developing; whereas those in opposition are not allowed to present their own scientific evidence. Also how can it be right or fair, she asks that it is the developer who finances the research and selects the engineering firms? Holy guacamole do I recognise THAT scenario!! from a recent battle undertaken against a giant corporate air poisoner.
“We humans are mortal; the land outlives us. New people come and go, new sheep, new birds and so on, but the land, with its rivers and lakes, vegetation and resources, remains. It undergoes changes over the years, but it remains.”
Yes it remains. Or in the past it could be said that the land has always remained but is that any longer true? Now there are impredations from which the land cannot recover. A power plant is one. Climate science tells us it is no longer enough for us to rely on the courage of people like Heida. This battle belongs to us all.
This Summer I will be taking part in 20 Books of Summer. A great idea from Cathy@746 Books to review twenty books over the summer period except my 20 will be more like 10. I realise there are not quite ten books in the photo above! My other three titles are not yet available to be photographed but will be within the next two days. A Big Thank You to Sister Rune for trekking to the Hay Festival to make these purchases for me. The remaining three titles are:
Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Siguroardottir
Coleridge, The Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels. Adam Nicholson
River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye by Marsha O’Mahony
Mary Oliver Upstream: Selected Essays Penguin Press, (New York 2016)
So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear. This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to, as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.
In any case, he didn’t come to stir up the Government, or open another café, or- heaven forbid – a fast food restaurant, or mouth off opinions about gay, antigay, or what he thought of the artists, or write endless complaining letters to the town paper.
‘Dear Bear,’ Oliver writes. ‘It’s no use the world is like that. So stay where you are and live long. Someday maybe we’ll wise up and remember what you were: hopeless ambassador of a world that returns now only in a poets’ dreams.’
Caroline Criado Perez. Invisble Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men(Chatto & Windus, 2019
Women are used to queuing when they go out. Says Caroline Criado Perez in her book “Invisible Women” Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for men”. She meant for the loo of course. Any lady who has been to the theatre or opera or ballet or cinema in London or any city is used to queuing round the block in the interval, while the men pop in and out of their unencumbered spaces and have plenty of time to rock up at the bar for a nice cooling drink. Gender neutral only makes things worse. Because guess what. Women need cubicles and can’t use urinals. Men don’t – and can. Sorry if that came as a bit of a shock, Barbican management.
Apparently the Barbican hadn’t thought of that when they casually announced that all their loos – simply by changing to the sign on the door – were now Gender Neutral. Tada!! Fabulous. How many politically correct boxes that must have ticked with no effort or cost whatsoever.
But then, shock horror. It was discovered that the ‘gender neutral’ urinals were only being used by men who were of course also entitled – should they choose – to use the cubicles. All the Barbican had succeeded in doing is increase provision for men and exclude women. Needless to say, no sanitary bins had been provided in the so called ‘gender neutral’ urinals. The supposedly equal provision of loos had been done with men in mind. A male dominated management team, you think?
Another anecdote – if it can be called that – related by Perez is when a senior member of Google Sheryl Sandberg became pregnant and her feet swelled up, it came to her notice that she was having to walk miles across the car park because there was no provision for pregnant women to park nearer the main entrance. When she approached Google’s founder Sergei Brin about reserved parking for pregnant women he said he had never thought of it but that arrangements would be made. No wonder he had never thought of it. He is a man and will never be pregnant nor have to consider policy for those that will and are unless it is spelled out to him in words of one syllable. It had never presumably occurred to Sandberg either until it happened that she found herself unable to struggle across the car park.
And no, this is not a mere inconvenience if you’ll excuse the pun, easily rectified. It is part of a cultural and economic exclusion which even in the 21stcentury is still rampant across all cultures. One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap, says the author is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite it is a way of thinking that has been around for millennia, and is therefore a kind of not thinking.
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe
Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver
This is a tough read but beautifully written and poetic if such a thing is possible on dealing with the subject of child rape. The author was raped at age 9 by a man who is finally brought to justice on the chance of a random DNA sample – more than two decades later. By this time the author has married and had a son. But she painfully charts her mental and physical collapse – and her efforts to recover, the therapies she undergoes, the Court case. Traumatic memory is such that the part of the brain that deals with autobiographical memory (the prefontal cortex) cannot access the trauma which has been buried away by the amygdala that can only be treated by those with specialist knowledge of PTSD relating to sexual violence, all too often poorly recognised or understood.
‘How ugly ignorance is when it is concealed under learned airs,’ says the author. And she has good reason to know.
One of the most poignant parts of the book is the list of names, not unlike a eulogy, of those women (all victims of this same man) who could not bring themselves to attend Court. Who risk criminal penalties for failing to answer a subpoena rather than be forced to recount in public over and over again lurid details of what happened to them when they were six, seven, eight or nine. They are part of what is described as the ‘black number’ of victims of sexual violence. An estimated 90% of the victims of rape do not report it, and this number is even higher for child victims
Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet. This line, spoken to a priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness, seems to me central to the director’s vision. With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line, although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it. It feels unrealistically self-confident.
Reading Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, intellect and erudition shine through, certainly financial worries and an inability to find love, but self confidence? No. I wouldn’t say so.
There is more than one reference to Christ in the film, including pictorial ones. Jesus himself, Van Gogh tells the priest, wasn’t famous until forty years after his death. Well maybe but that’s not a line guaranteed to get you out of the asylum in France in 1890.
The artist himself wrote:
‘’…on no account would I choose the life of a martyr. For I have always striven for something other than heroism, which I do not have in me…’
(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)
Has Van Gogh become obscured by his own mythology? And does it matter? This clearly is a concern to Ronald de Leeuw in his 1990 introduction to the Penguin edition of Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo. It is worth pointing out here that the Editor of the letters was at the time of the book’s appearance Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – so hardly a slouch in terms of authority. Both de Leeuw and the translator of the edition are clear that Vincent took his own life.
Yet film makers beg to differ. He was shot they claim, by a local thug. In this respect At Eternity’s Gatefollows on from the excellent and exquisitely rendered artists film, Loving Vincent(2017) which also pushed the shot-by-a-local called René Secrétan angle. Whereas scholarly thinking is that he committed suicide.
It’s hard not to be fascinated …
by the life stories of artists and this one in particular. After all, Van Gogh painted his way from unknown son of a preacher man to incipient global icon in a period of roughly 11 years, making the decision to become an artist (a late start for a painter with no particular formal training in 1879) and dying aged 37 from gunshot wounds in 1891.
Possibly no other artist’s life – or death – seems quite so intriguing to us or quite so surrounded with mysteries. And film loves a mystery. But there is scholarly theory that these mysteries are not mysteries at all but are add ons to our popular image of the ultimate tortured and impoverished artist. I do not claim that there is no substance in these ideas – the ear chopping episode (mercifully done off screen in Schnabel’s film) is sufficient evidence of a mind and body in torment. But to make a shortcut between that and genius, and to claim little else for the man? That I don’t accept. Also the fact that the artist had self- harmed so spectacularly makes a greater case for his subsequent suicide, rather than a lesser one.
Van Gogh rarely discusses his illness in his letters to his brother perhaps not wishing to make him anxious but occasionally he does make reference to his illness.
When I came out of hospital with good old Roulin, I fancied there had been nothing wrong with me, it was only afterwards I felt I’d been ill. Well, that’s only to be expected. I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod.
But when I am in a delirium and everything I love so much is in turmoil, then I don’t mistake that for reality and I don’t play the false prophet.
(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)
One aspect of Schnabel’s film which seems on the surface intriguing, but which is in fact inaccurate, is the matter of the missing ledger book. An empty ledger book was given by Madame Ginoux to Van Gogh for him to use as a drawing book and which the film claims was returned to her (although without her knowledge) complete with more than 60 of his drawings. Heavens! What would that be worth now? The ledger, the film says, mysteriously disappeared and was only rediscovered in 2016.
The first thing that occurred to me when I saw this was why? If the artist was reviled in his lifetime certainly by the local populace of Arles, and if so few of his paintings sold, why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a ledger book to all intents and purposes considered worthless at the time? And where was it all those years? How exciting! The answer however – as answers often are – is more prosaic.
Martin Bailey, in an article dated 29thMarch 2018 for The Art Newspaper, writes that the book was not authentic.
Schnabel told The Times that it is “irrelevant” whether the drawings are genuine or not. He has seen them and says “they were pretty damn good”. This comes as a surprise from an artist, since the sketches are weakly drawn, derivative works. The Arles Sketchbook is not authentic, as the Van Gogh Museum determined after an exhaustive examination. (And the sketches were not discovered “in 2016”, since I had been shown some of them in 2010.)
Our need for the tortured artist as sacrificial victim should not overtake historical accuracy in biography. For the film maker it seems, it is not enough that Vincent should have taken his own life but that someone needed to do it for him. Perhaps so that we may be yet more convinced of the rightness of his vision. Perhaps genius can only exist against a backdrop of ignorance, so that it may shine ever more brightly? I don’t know. But here is the artist’s own voice on the subject:
“… I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make pictures that give rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about art and life.”