In 1990, a group of medical researchers theorised that Vincent van Gogh suffered from Ménière’s disease, rather than epilepsy. Ménière’s disease is an inner-ear disorder, causing vertigo and a fullness of the ear that leads to constant noise – something equivalent to listening to a seashell. Hearing loss occurs and worsens over time. Many sufferers will experience a ‘full-blown attack’, sometimes a series of them, in which they perceive the world as violently spinning for hours on end, the noise in their ear reaching an extreme level. Though I have found no validity in the theory after much research on Van Gogh (nor can I find anyone else who supports this theory), I can, and do, imagine what it might have meant.
THEY’RE CONSTANTLY FIGHTING these days. The weather is maybe to blame, having driven them indoors so that they’re together more than what’s natural for any two people, easy to fall into the tetchy rut of it – though Vincent would say that it’s because he’s ill and his friend doesn’t see it. When you’re spiritual brothers, he thinks, these things shouldn’t have to be spoken aloud. Instead he says that they have to get more; there has to be more of them – a colony. His intensity’s been known to drive people away.
Before him lies his palette. He has chrome yellow and chrome orange, together the colours of a murky joy. He has an endless hankering for these particular colours, so there’s a penetrating brightness in his paintings that grieves him. There is melancholia, thoughts of death, a recurring dream about a dying boy whispering in his father’s ear, It was him, and pointing to Van Gogh. Somehow he is the man, rugged bones and ruddy skin, who’d harmed the dying boy, and yet he is also the dying boy. Three times in five nights he’s woken from the dream, sinking and tight in the chest, frustrated because he wants to fall asleep when he lies down to sleep, and to stay asleep until morning. It’s gotten so bad that every time he looks at his bed he feels a tiny death. Dread is a tiny death, and the night is too long. And when he lies down in this nightmare nest, the bed rocks uneasily. He’s far too aware of nausea to shut down; he’s bodily obsessive, so anxious that he’s wide awake while the rest of Arles sleeps. It’s unbearable until the inevitable happens, and when he does fall asleep there are dreams of water pushing him down, dreams of murder and death where he’s trying to make his father hear but his father can’t hear, too much noise rushing through the old man’s ear. Of course he wakes, sweating and falling – sleeping is such hard bloody work; being awake, worse. He feels like Jesus must’ve felt when the buzzards picked at his useless body while he was hanging on the cross, alive. There is a strong ache to die. There’s an impulse just as strong to live.
And there is also viridian among the chromes, a colour of shock and exposure, and vermillion, a colour of absurd familiarity that goads comfort. These colours speak to him. He can hear them, but because they talk at the exact same time he can’t make sense of the words. That’s it: that rush.
Lately, everything’s been building – if it isn’t the colours it’s the bickering and the rain, the relentless and inscrutable rain, nature moving in and taking up all the space. But more than anything it’s the painting, the painting that builds like madness builds: ideas, brush strokes, multiple preparations for one-and-only masterpieces that no one he knows could reproduce and no one he knows would dare to buy. He is his own genius, his own critic, his own murderer and his very own death, and he knows what it all means. It will stop, this artistic rush. It has to stop. His body, soon, will betray him, is already betraying him, so along with his chrome yellow and chrome orange, his viridian and vermillion, Vincent van Gogh has fear.
And so much noise in his ear.
Sometimes he goes back to his first night in Arles, where the hearth at the café glowed with a new wood, the scent not yet discernible to him. He’d known colder nights, much colder nights, but because he was expecting sunshine and a pleasant warmth, he was angry with the climate, in a foul mood, and he would have scowled at the others in the café if he hadn’t been so interested in them. What did the serious eyes say about the man who wouldn’t sit down, only stood near an empty table, staring, occasionally, at Vincent? Were the two in the corner about to become lovers? Their shoulders seemed to touch both reluctantly and avidly. And the man next to them – was he drunk or depressed? Or both, or neither? Perhaps he was merely exhausted. Vincent tried to read the lips of the other men who sat near the door. It seemed like they were talking about water. A drowning. A floating body. What would become of him in this new town? And then, as panic crept upon him, and just as he was about to slam his glass down too hard on the table, spilling his wine, making a scene, he noticed the snow outside the window. It fell straight down in distinctive flakes – the very best kind of snow – and it immediately blanketed everything it touched. No stranger to snow, having come from up north, he was like a boy losing his virginity and opening his eyes just at the moment of climax. Now close those eyes, Vincent. Smell that wood. Can you feel that snow? It’s so silent. The world is silent. He’s trying. He is trying.
The palette and the colours and too many canvases to paint – time is running out. He needs to make up for the time he’s lost and the time he is about to lose. Already the noise in his left ear sounds like the endless rain about to drown him (the men near the door on his first night in Arles very well could have been foreshadowing what is soon to come), and there’s a feeling of falling and never hitting anything definitive, never crashing, just falling and falling and infinitely falling. There is the knowledge that soon (but when?) he will crash, he will drown, the noise in his ear will turn violent and the falling become spinning and the spinning so fast that he will crash, he will drown. And of course there is depression, when taking responsibility for anything seems implausible and life’s questions are so much larger than they’d ever been before. It’s a shit existence, and it can’t just be him. Surely everyone else must suffer, too, in their own private ways. He can’t save the world – he can’t even save himself – but he can make something beautiful. He can make art.
VINCENT’S KNOWN AS the man who pushes his body against the wind through the stinking streets at a forty-five degree angle just to cross over into the cultivated fields made wild by weather and sketch nature in its foulest moods. When the mistral is at its worst it jostles him about, his vertigo and ear completely noncompliant, and maybe, he thinks, I brave the wind so well because it lives within my body. It howls, as wind is wont to do. It rushes, angry with confinement. It dishevels him completely, giving him a look that falls somewhere between dazed and dog-tired, between stunned and beaten. Wind. Strong wind. Life doesn’t stop for the mistral and Vincent is known for securing his easel into the ground with fifty-centimetre iron pegs and lengths of rope so that he can sketch the angry breath of the landscape moving things about, and only when he adds colour, later, in the stillness and quiet of his room, does he see the true magnificence of captured movement. His body suffers, but it’s worth it. There is a sort of religion in that because there’s always beauty in chaos.
Today the mistral has conspired with the rain and Vincent knows only a madman would sketch in this monstrosity. True, he’s been called a madman by the townsfolk, but he knows the value of wet paper, which is nil. Today he stays indoors and adds colour: the chromes, to remind him that though winter bleaches the air, it cannot kill detail: the viridian, so he’s reminded in this fug of atmosphere that there’s life-blood, sex and desire, too, and when he steps back to look at the viridian he’s applied, he feels all of those things; vermillion, because it stabs him in just the spot where pain is released and given permission to flow, and it overflows. He feels the weight of the brush resting in his fingers until there’s no weight at all, until the brush is like air and he is like God creating the world, stamping it onto the canvas. This is my world. Ha! And so is the canvas drying over there. And the other one yonder. And the one next to it, and next to it. These are my people. The peasants, the farmers, the ladies of ill repute who tell him their stories, eyes heavy with self-medication. This is life. This is art.
He loses footing. His head dips to the side and the brush follows in a downward arc. It’s okay. His art is imitating his body. He rights himself, as well as the brush, and that’s when he realises that he is perfectly erect, he was always perfectly erect, he was never falling, never dipping to one side. It’s the ear and what it does to his balance. One of his life goals is to capture it with paint, express the inner movement of his body and somehow show that everything important experiences movement: the Earth, with a capital ‘E’, on its axis; the earth, with a lowercase ‘e’, due to all of its quakes and evolution; the molecules in the air; the molecules trapped under our skin. Illness is a menace but at the end of the day, when he stops to see all that he’s created, he knows it to be a blessing, something that’s given him an insight so unique that he’d be a fool to squander it. I am sick for a reason, he thinks as he paints impastos of the mistral in the trees and the sky and in the wheat, and it’s a desperation that can only be attributed to time running out. He puts his faith in art, and also in God. He always has, from the time he was a tyke in Groot-Zundert.
– I think I’ll preach, father. When I’m grown. Don’t you?
Theodorus van Gogh’s body was a magnificent foreground to the bleak white wall as a backdrop behind him. The new baby’s cry wasn’t enough to distract Vincent’s father from his sermon, hands behind his back, looking down when he thought and up when he spoke, the careful tenor of his voice – but with that statement, Theodorus stopped and turned to his eldest son.
– Perhaps you’ll be happier sticking to your flowers and insects, my boy.
He smiled, but his face was stern. He was a warm man with a hard edge.
– But I want to be like you. And I can do a good job. People will listen to me.
– That’s all well and good, Vincent, but I happen to know the Lord has his own plan for you. You wait and see. You just wait and see.
But waiting is not something Vincent is good at, hurrying being more apt. All day he’s been hurrying with his paints – if only his father could have lived to see this one, this ‘God’s plan’ of his. Theodorus never had the chance to witness his son succeed at anything. Though if success is measured by money, and money is something Vincent definitely hasn’t, then maybe his father never missed a thing when it came to his eldest child.
– You must stop persisting, Vincent; your calling is not with the Lord!
This was years later, when Vincent was pushing his luck with a group of miners in a bleak town.
– I am a vessel for Him. The people just haven’t warmed to me. My style is loquacious. They can’t follow me yet. I need more time. I need more time!
His yell made the chickens in the neighbouring yards cluck in a flurry.
The rows between father and son were loud and frequent, Vincent’s mother even blaming them for her husband’s early death. She always took everyone’s side except for Vincent’s.
– Can’t you just serve him quietly and leave the poor people alone?
Vincent paints the poor people; he is one of them. He paints for the people, of the people, in the people’s landscape, and in this way he paints the soul of man and of the land, and if you tell him the land hasn’t a soul, he will preach to you for an hour on the personification of an olive grove and how the soul of a thing is the light of God so God is in each olive branch. Like in winter, when everything is a silhouette except for light, which can be dirty or blurry but never not-there. Even in darkness there is light. He imagines his soul is a dark place with pounding light, filled with God. He tries to paint it. His soul. God. The peasants as if he were one of them. The olive grove as if he were it. Gnarled tree roots twisting into the earth, the soul of the point where the roots and the earth meet. Blasphemy has no place in his art.
It is dark when he leaves the canvas. In December, night comes on too early for his taste but it’s good that something forces him to stop. His body is working overtime on simple things, like standing and moving. He sets down the palette and looks at what he’s done. The new creation could be called Movement – but couldn’t they all? It’s moving, sure as tiny wisps of energy skate on his skin, diagonally, from the top of his forehead to the ends of his toes. It’s like his palette: the streaks of paint on it mimic the exact direction of the wind in his body – top right to bottom left, as if he’s trying to close the gap between painter and the act of painting. Embodied art.
He says it out loud, and then he yells it, half in a moment of eureka and half in exasperation. In the next room, Gauguin is woken from an early evening nap.
IN THE EVENINGS they come together in the kitchen, where Vincent usually writes letters to his brother, Theo, and Gauguin reads from one of his novels, a house favourite being Daudet. The men exist side by side. Nearer the fire is Gauguin in his sophisticated chair, deep and rich, while Vincent sits firm in his rustic one made of straw. He’s not writing a letter tonight. His last letter to Theo was a week ago, when the illness made its intentions clear. He’s dizzy and it’s difficult to find the words to write, as writing is an art of its own and one that doesn’t overtake him and abandon him to his talent the way that painting, thankfully, does. At this stage of his illness, choosing words is like trying to catch an irritating fly between two paintbrushes: frustrating and, ultimately, pointless. So he reads – he’s trying to read now, a medical book – what is this that keeps happening to me? – though he’s distracted. Distraction while reading is also a thing now that the illness is so invasive. It seems at every minute the ear is trying to make sure Vincent knows who’s boss, and he has always taken pride in being his own boss. Impossible to concentrate on anything that isn’t his body. Unless it’s painting. The painting is constantly happening. It’s the only thing saving him.
– But sensuality matters, Vincent.
– It is not at the centre of the soul. Not necessarily.
– Isn’t it?
This is how it begins, though since the illness has come back, their discussions leave off banter and degrade into arguments. It’s already happened twice today.
Tonight Vincent’s feeling the weight, heavy on his emaciated shoulders, such little food keeping him alive because chewing messes his head around and nausea is persistent. He’s tired and angry, cranky with the waiting. When’s it going to happen? When’s he going to crash?
– God is at the centre of everything, Gauguin, you must learn to see this. He’s in the bird’s flight as much as he’s in the soul.
Vincent’s on a religious kick. It’s been known to happen to him before and it usually occurs with a breakdown of sorts. He’s close to Jesus now. When the suffering reaches its true potential he’ll be closer than ever. He’ll be close to God then, too, because he’ll be so close to death.
Gauguin is going on about imagination and memory again because God is but a feeling and the object should be more assured than that. Art with feeling plus possibility and, most important to him, sensuality.
– Imagination and memory, good man!
But Vincent has no patience. It comes through in his rebuttal, an angry mix of Dutch, French and English at once.
– Imagination and memory is an exotic mix with little purity and a twisted soul. Your memory and imagination lead you to a spatial crisis. I admire that because I’m aware our world is not what we think it is. But feeling, Gauguin – what is the subject beneath your object, and what is the subject beneath that subject? It is God! Spend one day looking around you as if what I say is true and you’ll see that it is. It’s unavoidable.
Vincent lights his pipe, frazzled and fumbling, knowing he is right but sensing that he’s not getting through.
– God is internal, can’t you see? He is feeling, and feeling – like God, like sickness – is movement, movement, movement.
He puffs on his pipe, trying to settle before he calmly says, I give you Millet.
– Then I give you Toulouse-Lautrec.
Vincent feels the sour turn of the repartee. Gauguin is always this way, stirring him up to stimulate the occasion, but really, Vincent isn’t in the mood. He puffs twice more, then rests the pipe between two forefingers and a thumb, in turn resting them against his crossed leg.
– Mostly facades. Some, yes, and those would be the subjects who sat for him. But I ask you again: what is the subject beneath the subject? No, Toulouse-Lautrec paints rooms full of masks.
Vincent turns his head and sucks the air from behind him then spits on the floor.
– Please don’t do that.
– Do what?
– Spit on the floor.
– I live here.
– So do I, and we need to talk about that.
Vincent knows what this will be because he’s been waiting for it just as he’s been waiting for the crash. This is part of the crash. This is the part where Gauguin tells Vincent he is leaving and, after he’s gone, Vincent has an attack. The universe will set him spinning and he’ll throw-up for hours and hours and he’ll be alone. First Theo’s letter to him and now this. Of course the crash will come and of course he’ll never feel more destitute than when he’s lying in a puddle of his inner carnage. He’s been waiting for this moment since the illness reared its nasty head, which really means since the illness showed him its stinking arsehole.
– Don’t say it. Vincent growls.
– But you know that I must.
Gauguin’s calm rationality is so damn infuriating.
– Sometimes it’s good to be by oneself… You want and want of me as much as you do of your painting, but I am a man, Vincent. Sometimes I don’t want to work. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about work. Sometimes I don’t want to think about it.
Gauguin has a pleading look on his face, though there’s a hint of a smile. Eventually, he drops his stare and sighs through his nose, as if he is reconciled with the fact that nothing he says is getting through to Vincent, which it isn’t. Gauguin looks out the window as it rattles irritably.
– I think I will work better if I’m given space.
– Rubbish! Vincent yells, and for a second Gauguin appears afraid for his life.
– You’ve wanted to leave since you waked through that door. Before then! When we were writing letters about an atelier in the south. You’re too weak to devote yourself to art fully and completely because to do that you need other artists surrounding you, day and night, painting, painting, painting, ingesting it, eating it, drinking it, fucking it. Don’t you get it, you sod? Without this, you’ll go years being lost. You’ll take extended breaks and when you return you’ll have to return to still lifes! Still lifes! Vases and jugs and fruit. Fruit!
Vincent feels the blood in his head. His ears are fit to burst with rage and the left one, especially, with all the fluid swimming around. It’s screaming at him now. It’s yelling at Vincent to show Gauguin who’s the boss.
– You haven’t suffered yet and that is your problem.
He’s crying, can’t help it.
– Bernard will come. I know he’ll come. We just need to coax him a little. He’s a good sort. You’ll be happy with him here and it’ll make such a difference to our work. And he’ll come with Laval. We’ll all be together, painting. If you leave now, it will be ruined. You must know this.
There is snot running down to his mouth. He senses his ugliness and can do nothing about it because it’s part of the moment and what the moment has made him.
– It’s a dream, Vincent. You have to wake up. This house is not a refuge for painters who enjoy light and colour; it’s more and more a place of bad taste, antagonistic and full of accusation.
– It’s not!
– It is, Vincent. I’m done, my friend. I’m going back to Paris.
HIS POCKETS ARE empty. They keep their money in the honour box and the honour box is skint, only holds enough for minimal food and paints, both of which there is never enough. Gauguin is packing and will surely take half of the money. Vincent needs out. Must get out of the stifling house. He fails to rationalise a three-franc screw and settles for a fevered wank. It begins with Gauguin, fuelled by anger, but then he sees Rachel – not the prettiest or most flamboyant prostitute, but his favourite. One night she was there with him when he’d had an episode – the worst kind of episode. He fell on the floor and couldn’t rise, vomiting in chunks then in strings until finally there was a pool of acidic stink. He moaned. He cried. She cleaned up his mess and touched his back. Afterwards, she watched him sleep.
– I must’ve snored something fierce, I was that worn out.
He looked around the bedroom of the familiar brothel, amazed to still be alive.
– You didn’t snore. You were like a baby.
Strands of Rachel’s hair stuck to her face. There was a thick summer heat coming through the windows and Vincent couldn’t imagine that life, outside, was going on while he, inside, was being cared for by a living angel. Of course she’s an angel; he’s in love with her. He knows this because he’s been in love before.
His cousin Kee wore her widowhood buttoned up to her chin. Her nose seemed to rest when she smiled; otherwise it was on duty, sniffing out oddities. Upon seeing her pull on some worn gloves, stretching her fingers as if they were peacock feathers, examining their length and delicate width, he fell in love. Elegant in her tatteredness, he wanted her, but no one else thought it was a good idea, Kee included.
Sien picked at her skin after meals – her cheeks, her décolletage, the webbed space between her fingers that was always flaky-pink and dry. When Vincent kissed her skin, she’d rub it furiously afterward, as if trying to rid herself of a pestilence. She was a natural incubator, though consistently heavy on the booze. A mouth on her like she’s forever stepping in horseshit. The only man she ever loved died in a duel, never mind he was merely the second and not the one duelling. She told Vincent this at least a dozen times with a far-off look in her eyes.
Rachel speaks with her eyes but mostly the right one, which dips when she smiles and tears up first when she cries. She speaks as if no one wants to hear her and she fucks like she’ll disappear if she doesn’t. All she’s ever known is a longing for something more, the ending to all of her stories. When Vincent told Rachel he loved her, she flung open the shutters and began massaging her feet, unable to look him in the eye. Two days after she nursed him during his attack, Vincent arrived at the brothel with a painting for her: a portrait of Rachel on a cane chair, straight-backed and serious, though sad and soft. In her hands, an ear.
– I’d like to say that you have my heart but I think that might be too bold, so we’ll settle for the ear.
– The ear. How perfect.
They shared a quiet smile.
The sex is remarkable (though he’s paying for it, he knows) and they talk so intimately, of family and childhood and tragedy and fear, because he has fear, and so does she. But why would Rachel in her sensible shyness and natural selflessness want a man like Vincent: his haggard roguish looks and fiery temperament, his drastic ups and rock-bottom downs, his foreignness, his poverty? He knows he will never have her, and he knows that she has him.
I’m faulty, he’s thinking, everything about me is sick, like this, and this, and this–
He has come. He grabs a handtowel from a hook and wipes away his deed. Returning the towel to the hook, he leans back in his chair.
Vincent’s voice travels through the walls; the drying canvases tenderly tremor.
A resounding No! and he winces, upset that the fight had not been a dream. The wincing makes his head spin a half-revolution, though his body is still. He gets up, slowly. He steadies himself. The colours on his palette whisper about him but he can’t make out their words because the noise in his left ear is louder today than it was yesterday, which is getting to be a pattern. He whispers back to them but they ignore him. He yells at them.
– Snake! Fly! Murderer!
Anything to make them stop. The noise in his ear takes over, drowning out the paint entirely, and it’s so loud it’s as if he’s invited the stormy ocean in, the one caused by the mistral that’s been pissing out rain for days. He hits his head with his fist, twice, and the noise continues, his head losing its balance upon his almost permanently wind-chafed neck. He grabs the razor next to his mirror and puts it in his coat pocket.
THIS IS HELL, this malfunctioning body, this secret he keeps from Gauguin, this waiting, this waiting for the crash. The streets at night a kind of hell in themselves. True, he finds joy in his friends who sit with him, sit for him, and listen and talk. The Ginoux. The Roulins. He’s been working on a picture of Augustine Roulin, sitting with a length of rope she uses to rock her baby’s cradle. It brings pangs of regret to him for having such a hostile relationship with his own mother, but joy in that Augustine sets an extra seat for him at the dinner table where, once they’ve eaten, he bounces the baby on his knee. Joy can be easy. There is joy in the blossoms after winter, the cherry, the almond; joy in the summer that follows spring, and in the wheat fields with the crazed murmuring of the cicadas, noisy as Babylon in the build-up to Armageddon; joy even in winter, though it’s harshest. There’s joy in the Café de la Gare and in the pockets of bawdy laughter on Rue Bout d’Arles, where Rachel lives, where women like her wear their hair down and where even the fighting pumps his heart with something fiery and lustful. These are my people. But still, there are the black eyes, small stares then quick flits. They mightn’t mean anything, but to Vincent they sting.
The Arlessiens call him Van Gog because they can’t pronounce Van Gogh. So close to Van God, which is how he feels deep down when he doesn’t feel like the devil. Their eyes are stern and hateful. There’s panic, quite probably a hint of recognition, and it’s always worse at night.
He splashes through the cobblestone street of rivers, unconcerned with his soaked feet, and he looks for a glimmer of the moon just to watch it dance. But it’s fruitless. He wonders if it means something that even the moon is hiding from him. Gauguin, he’s had it now. He’ll be gone when Vincent returns. Theo will leave, too, and Vincent realises that if he dies now, he’ll die alone.
Fretfully nervous, he wonders why anyone who isn’t crazy would be out on a night like tonight. He feels like a monster – nearly collapsed, but a monster nonetheless. He’s struggling against the wind in slow motion, yet hurried in his urgent need to outrun the oncoming attack. Eat, paint, sleep has yielded to almost all paint, and must continue in this way until the foreseeable crash. Because it will come, and so he’s waiting for the onset, he’s looking for it everywhere he goes, that moment when it’s happening and he loses all that surrounds him. People, oils, mountains, religion – they’ll fall away and he’ll be left with only his body. This is when he’ll know it’s an attack. It’s an unmistakable feeling. This is when he’ll know the closest he’ll ever get to death is about to be now. Just thinking about it, preparing for it in this way, makes him want to die; but then there are his friends, the Rue Bout d’Arles, the peasants in the field and painting them, sunflowers, any given blade of grass.
He supposes he can run screaming until he falls before the attack hits him, just to be dramatic, the earth tilting on a left-hand spiral, the stupidity of gravity. Can he see Rachel without a sou and ask her to just listen? He has so many plans and doubts. Even if he had money, he couldn’t screw now. Anyone touching him will turn his body to hot rubber and will make him wobble from the inside out. But he could touch her – the line from the back of her ear to her collarbone, then follow the collarbone to the hollow space that’s usually shadowed by her down-turned chin. But he’s wretched, sure as he’s Dutch, and why would Rachel want him, Van Gog?
He mumbles the name of his brother – Theo – and picks up pace, damning the vertigo – Theo – walking like a drunk, which is what he’ll be by the end of the night if all goes according to plan. Until today, Theo was the one person he could trust, his brother and true home. He almost ripped up the letter after he’d read it. No, there’s no trusting him anymore. Married? But ripping the letter to pieces would have been an abomination because Vincent knows the written word to be just as important as the painted image. A respectful narrative, if one cares enough to be honest, and he and Theo care deeply. Art. Art. Art and encouragement. Literary and biblical referencing. Dark places. Light. Gauguin. Health. Art, art and money. Money. But the letter he left crumpled on his floor was about marriage, and so, of course, it was one of parting. Theo will marry Jo Bonger and Vincent will be exiled from his brother’s life. Not now, not while he’s on the verge of an attack that will be followed by another, and then another, because once an attack decides to strike, it multiplies, shows its victim who’s the boss. No one has ever been the boss of me.
His father came close.
– You need to leave her alone! We will banish you if you continue to pester her.
Theo was there for him when the family abused him for falling in love with Kee, and he backed up Vincent’s decision to live with Sien and her child, too, when that dream was being lived out. Theo is still here now, paying his rent and keeping him in supplies. But only for a time, now that there’s Jo.
They rarely see one another these days, depending strictly on the postman who comes three times a day, delivering, one of those times, the brothers’ letters. When they were little they played together often, Theo completely in awe of his older brother.
– That’s not how you do it. Watch me.
Vincent held a stick, nimble between his fingers. He spun in circles, holding the stick halfway into the summer’s grass because he could; spinning was easy then. He outlined swirls in the grass and it was beautiful.
– See, see?
When Theo tried it, he fell. If he hadn’t been laughing he would’ve been crying, so eager was he to please his brother. Then, as young men, Theo hung on Vincent’s every word when they spoke of art: when to draw and how to carve that space into their everyday lives; the superiority of Japanese prints; which Impressionists to look out for and who to buy. He still does. The brothers could open quite the gallery with all of the paintings they’ve amassed, and though Theo’s made a name for himself as a serious art dealer, his own private collection’s superiority is primarily due to Vincent’s talent for instinct and his practised eye. All those years of scrapbooking clippings as a boy paid off; Vincent has become a man of honed and acquired taste, and Theo knows this, admires this, trusts his brother implicitly. Always has, always will. And this is how it is with them. Without Theo’s dotage, who is Vincent van Gogh?
Nuenen was a place of a drab and boundless sky. There marched Vincent van Gogh during his first taste of illness, easel-laden. One minute he was sure of the world and the next minute woozy, as if walking on a small boat in an unforgiving sea. He slowed his pace. He concentrated on feeling. What was this new feeling? What was this noise in his ear? As if in a dope-fuelled daze, he’d made it to the front door and fell clumsily inside.
There were people in the house but he couldn’t have told you who they were, such a stupor, getting quite dizzy now.
– I’ll just be up in my room.
They left him to himself, as per usual. The family found it best to let Vincent be Vincent and not make a fuss, all except for Theo, that is. But Theo wasn’t there on this momentous day. He was off making a success of himself while Vincent struggled and hid himself from the others in the family, who left him to his spinning room, the ceiling, the floor, the ceiling, floor, and his vomiting, so much vomit. They were gardening – they must’ve been gardening or else wouldn’t they have heard him and thought to call a doctor? Once, his mother knocked on the door, but by that time the trauma had passed.
– I’m not feeling well. I just need to sleep.
So she left him to his sleep.
Still, today, they really only tolerate him with shakes of the head and rolls of the eyes, nothing subtle, especially from his mother who usually tells him to get-out-of-the-house-you’re-driving-us-all-mad. There doesn’t seem to be much empathy. Do they ever worry about him? Do they even love him? The siblings seem to care but there’s a lack of connection between them and Vincent – save for Theo. They aren’t ‘home’. No hearth draws them together. There is always a fire in the Van Gogh house, but very little warmth. Thank goodness for Theo. Thank God for Theo.
As brothers, they give of each other and they take too, though often it’s lopsided with Vincent doing most of the taking, Theo the giving (and giving and giving). What’s to be now that there’s Jo? The marriage will surely be a loss to Vincent, and he doesn’t handle losses well. He’s eaten dirt. He’s eaten paint – but that’s like eating life, another form of embodied art. The aftermath of his last attack saw him losing pieces of his self and he stared at a gun so long that he imagined startled birds flying from a wheat field. Farewell my overloaded body; I release you. Farewell my bastard mind; I only wanted to triumph over you. Farewell – but no more. How can he continue with Theo, with art, with the cyclical seasons and all of the in-betweens?
Vincent opens the door, smacks one hand against the other six times and then switches it up until both sets of fingers are tingling and alert. His eyes feel enormous, dilated and famished. Can he remember this image? The sour faces and smiles of those who speak quietly? Because he could paint it. If he remembers, like Gauguin insists. But he will not remember.
– A bottle?
– ’Tis bitter out there.
– A bitch of a night.
The proprietor sets a glass and bottle of red wine before Vincent, smiles and tells him Merry Christmas.
Vincent turns his head and hisses through his teeth, a nervous habit. He’s edgy tonight; how else can he respond?
The proprietor brings him some greens even though Vincent hasn’t ordered any.
– You’ll need your strength tonight.
Vincent measures out his bites in sizes similar to tiny grains of sand, like those that the oils trap on his canvas when he’s painting on the shore. Chewing food moves his head ever so slightly, which makes him hugely dizzy, which makes him rather nauseous, which makes him lose his appetite even though he never had an appetite to begin with. His stomach churns threateningly and he gives up, three fourths of the vegetable still on his plate. What a waste of food. He, himself, a surplus of space.
It would be better if – he drinks, knowing the wine will work. If he can get drunk, he might not notice how dizzy he is, he might not care so much about Gauguin and his brother. He might, at last, feel good. But it’s a fallacy because halfway through the bottle he’s thinking about vomiting, right here on the table, sick like a beast, Van Gog: so pitiful, diseased and misunderstood. He holds it back. Not yet, he thinks. Not now.
When he finishes the bottle he’s drunk, dizzy-drunk, Van Gog-drunk, and when he rises, he falls. A loud crash of dinnerware as he tries to hold onto the table. The proprietor tsks, helping him to his feet.
– Go home.
– To Gauguin?
– Go home.
What can Gauguin do for him, especially if he’s not even there? The man finds it impossible to live with his wife or play with his children so how could he possibly nurse a grumpy, ailing man stinking of rotten vomit, because the vomit will surely come. The vomit’s waiting for the right moment just as Vincent is waiting for the vomit. But it’s true that Gauguin has heart, only too often he reserves it for himself. Just as soon as he pours it into his art he licks it back up and swallows it whole. It’s an endless, selfish cycle, and maybe Vincent is being unfair, maybe Gauguin is a fine example of both artist and man, but the man, of course, is not Theo, and then Vincent remembers that Theo is no longer Theo. What will become of Vincent now? They’re leaving him to this?
– I go home.
He’s shaken and bewildered, the noise in his ear finally unbearable.
THE MISTRAL IS spiteful, ill intentioned the moment he shuts the door to the café behind him. It slaps him in the face and he braces his weakened body for its power. He has forgotten the nausea because his sense of sight is heightened now, the rain stabbing the ground at crazy angles. He’s concentrating on the presentness of it all, on keeping straight, trying to stay strong enough to get himself home to the Yellow House. He would cry if it wasn’t so important to hold things together.
It seems as if everything is closed, but still there are people with black eyes. Gauguin will be out, discussing things with artists who probably think Vincent a hag of a man. A sorry try-hard. A dreamer and pretender. Clearly there is a crack in the foundation of the atelier and they can’t go on opposing each other. They love one another; they hate one another. They’re spiritually and artistically interdependent. Even if Gauguin leaves they’ll be connected, inescapably. Though maybe it’s in his head.
Vincent is endlessly argumentative now. Even in his state of distress, he knows it’s most likely his temper that’s driving his friend away, not the unfulfilled promise of what an atelier might do for their art. He’s always known he’s quick to shout, but it’s getting worse – who can blame Gauguin? Living is harder now, for days the building, the rush, the insomnia and nightmares, the painting, the whooshing, the wind and this, this moment of angry desperation when Vincent has finally had enough. The noise of the mistral is devouring his ear from the inside out. He screams Ya! at nature as it wounds him.
Words are gone now. Van God doesn’t need language. He’s more primal than that. Closer to the earth. Van God is body. In-the-moment. Wind. Rain. Master of Gog, and tonight he’s calling the shots. He’s the boss before the time comes when he can’t be the boss anymore. It scares him and thrills him. Night prowlers zigzag through the rivers of the street. His wet clothes stick to him, providing a much-needed bath.
Last night he’d thrown a glass of absinthe at Gauguin’s head; nothing was solved. Gauguin is father, brother and son to him and Vincent is vilely unpredictable, staring over Gauguin as he sleeps, imagining he knows what the man is dreaming because it is art, which Vincent used to dream too. Vincent fell into Gauguin’s arms as the proprietor cleaned up the glass. They left the café, Vincent a bag of wet wheat in Gauguin’s arms, barely walking, dizzy as sin.
They could be a mighty pair if Gauguin would only try. It is everything for Vincent – the Yellow House full of artists – and he will have it, one way or another.
He pushes against the wind, trudges through the water.
And there’s the Yellow House, there’s Gauguin, there’s the razor in his coat pocket.
– The murderer fled! he yells, and then he’s bulling his way toward Gauguin-as-matador, pressing his body against Gauguin’s, which feels like one enormous and terrifying heart, beating out its fear, and he holds the razor to his old friend’s neck, breathing frozen air through his teeth, terrified. He lets Gauguin go and runs toward the Yellow House, which is not his home because home is Theo but he is not and somehow he is running.
– THERE ARE PEOPLE, Vincent. What will they think?
– That Vincent van Gogh has fallen in love.
– With a woman carrying someone else’s child? Think of it, Vincent, how will you step through the church doors?
– Wretchedly, mother. Is that what you want me to say?
His sisters pretended to busy themselves. There was endless sweeping and one was darning, while Vincent stood with his hands at his side, feeling as if his clothes had grown too large for him. The shoulders of his suit coat were angular; when you’re being belittled, it’s hard to fill anything out.
– She’s no good. A low-life. Didn’t we raise you to do better than this? Have not the values of your father sunken in with you yet?
– The child is mine, he rasped, his jaw clenched, his chest somehow suffocated by the ill-fitting suit. And then he nearly split in two, shouting, We are a family!
And this was what he needed to do to restore equilibrium: to yell, make fists with his hands and turn a dangerous shade of brilliant pink, demand everyone pay him attention.
His sisters looked up from their chores. His mother gasped and grasped at her heart. They were paying attention, all right. All of them.
– Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I must go for a walk and sketch something beautiful. Something that will restore the joy that’s been so rudely ripped from my soul.
If only he could do that now, retreat to his chalk and crayons. If only he could drown himself in art instead of this sickness and rain.
He shuts the door to the weather and, inside the Yellow House, the world is a new place. Not as wild and uncontrollable, and for a moment he wonders if he can rest. He knows he must calm down – it’s of the upmost importance – but even in the quiet of the indoors it is still too noisy, and even in the dimness of the indoors he can see the room diving into itself. Insanity. All he wants to do now is lie down in his bed, but he’ll never make it to his room. This has to stop this has to stop this has to stop this has – and he realises he is still holding the razor.
MY DEAR THEO
Thank you very much for your letter, for the 100-franc note enclosed with it, and also for the 50-franc money order.
I myself think that Gauguin had become a little disheartened by the good town of Arles, by the little yellow house where we work, and above all by me.
Indeed there are bound to be grave difficulties still to overcome here, for him as well as for me. But these difficulties are rather within ourselves than elsewhere.
All in all, I think personally that he’ll either definitely go or he’ll definitely stay. I told him to think and do his sums again before acting.
Gauguin is very strong, very creative, but precisely because of that he must have peace. Will he find it elsewhere if he doesn’t find it here?
I’m waiting with absolute serenity for him to make a decision. Good handshake.
THOUGH EVERY OUNCE of fluid in his body rushes and rages in a way that makes sense only to disease, he is calm as he looks in the mirror. He doesn’t look anything like the man he knows himself to be and wonders if this means he’s seeing himself truthfully for the very first time. A destitute man, unable to care for even himself and certainly not those he loves. He is culpable. The flickers of shadow from the gas lighting are nothing more than waves on the wall and dancing in the air. Who invited the shadows? This room of his should be only light with green shutters permanently flung open.
And it’s the same mirror he’s looked into for hours on end more times than he can count, painting self-portraits, all of them different, as if a separate man occupied each canvas. One man appears sturdy, though that’s just a trick of colour. Another is wind-blown, leaf-like, discarded on the damp ground. Another’s been pressed face-first into the unforgiving streets and is coming back to life, reminding himself there are people, what will they think? Toughen up. One man has given up; another is afraid. One has seen ghosts. One is a ghost. One has everything; he hasn’t yet cracked. One has cracked. One has spilled. One is a skeleton smoking a cigarette.
The next self-portrait will be even more unlike the others, if he makes it to the next self-portrait. Such a strong desire for death. Such a need to stop the noise.
He knows he should never look into a mirror while dizzy, so intense is the vulnerability. But he does. He looks into the mirror, concentrating with all of his might on keeping things straight, but the harder he tries, the faster the room falls in on him, and he’s not ready for the crash yet. Keep it together, man! The bags under his eyes are a bruised golden-green, contrasting starkly with his bloodshot whites. He’s crazed. He’s been pushed too far. He would forget it all if he could pick up his brush and paint or, especially, use the knife to slab on the oils thickly and ardently, but he feels today might have been his last attempt for a very long time. That’s the loss he experiences most because he needs his art, will surely die without it. It’s an impotence of the very worst kind. After tonight, he will be useless. He’s useless now. He’s too far gone.
The first sound of his sob is monotone and high pitched, a minor key, inimitable. It echoes through the empty house. The mice cease their scurrying to salute this battle hymn. Eventually he gives himself over to wailing, choking. He is keening, more dead than alive if you look at him but loud if you listen. He’s tilting, falling, unaccepting, unaccepting of the ear. What once he referred to as insufferable needs a stronger word: infuckingsufferable. His slippery fingers on the razor, and the aggression with which he pulls his ear away from his head and holds the razor to it, as if he’s about to sculpt himself for the first time. Something like Dalou might do. Something in which nothing is wasted, everything costly. He is an artist, after all.
Then another first. He thought he was too far gone to feel the pain but it’s hot and fighting and he knows he must do the thing fast if he’s to do it at all, and now it’s begun. Flesh isn’t made to be sliced by one’s own hand, cartilage even less so. It’s almost as if he can taste the cut. That slipping metallic release. It’s almost as if he’s swallowing it, refusing it, up-chucking it too – but it’s all happening too fast for any of that. There are hard bits, where God doubled up to give his ear structure, and the slicing turns into sawing, the blood set wildly loose, a tube of paint squeezed so hard it bursts and sprays like an artistic style yet to be conceptualised. Blood stains his neck and hands and clothes, the floorboards beneath his feet. It’s a red without any special name, a nameless red against his bleached violet-grey skin, and it strikes him as something of great awe and he saws faster, pulls and tears, hacks away, something like a grunt, something like slaughter, and there’s no telling how long it takes for the thud of his ear on the splashed floor, no messing with time now, no such thing as time, how in the world had time ever mattered?
His heartbeat is encompassing and there is his ear. There is his ear, yet it’s no longer his, lying at his feet, rejected like Dalou’s excess clay. Van God’s making of a man. Van God’s slashing of an ear. What he’s done is taken back control, though he knows he’s a monster and he’s likely to die and he knows the ear, even severed, will win. Is it saying something to him? He daren’t bend down to listen. Shut up! He’s the boss. For this one moment in time, he is most definitely the boss. And then what? Because he’s dying. The blood is a nightmare he momentarily saw as art but, now that the horror has passed, is nothing more than an aftermath of a massacre, and he knows he must stop the flow. The wank cloth from earlier makes a perfect bandage smashed against his head. He rips his smock to hold it in place. It’s immediately soaked. No other cloths to be seen. He runs through the house, holding towels to his head, dropping them in drenched disgust. He litters the house with his butchery. He no longer wants this. There is blood on the stairs, in Gauguin’s room where he lights a lamp so that when Gauguin returns, he’ll be able to see. This goes on, frantically as he bleeds a mess yet cautiously as he readies the house for the return of his old friend. He is jumping calm, confusedly serene. Who is this stranger? What is this blood?
If he could get to Rachel right this minute, would it all go away? Rachel of the thick scar. Rachel of the tiny eyes. Rachel of the white neck, the bunioned feet, missing teeth, world-in-a-smile, soft-breasted Rachel.
When he re-enters the room, there is the ear, there is the ear in gruesome gore. Carefully he picks it up and walks to the basin, completely unaware of his body now – the trauma has taken care of that. The ear is an alien in his hand as he rubs it softly, as if it might complain if he’s too rough, the water turning a soft but serious crimson. An unborn thing. Not his, but his, as the baby was not his, but his. As Theo. As Gauguin. As his very own art. He could have loved the baby as he loves this severed piece of himself. Precious, so small. He gently pats it dry and wraps it in paper. A treasure.
BROTHELS ARE KNOWN by their locked doors and painted-over windows on the ground floor, because what goes on inside is not for the passer-by but rather for the punters who purchase tenderness or rough-housing any way they want it, risking blindness, paralysis, the sure death that is syphilis. From the second-storey windows, such language. It’s well-known that mothers put their hands over their children’s ears while husbands put their hands over their wives’ ears. Two soldiers hurry past Vincent, eager for the brothel, and Vincent is shocked by their speed, so sure that he himself is running, but in fact he’s measuring, safely, each step he takes. The shock of his deed is enough to make him faint and the wind tempts his vertigo by insisting he let go, just fall over, never get up. Not an option.
When the double doors are opened for the soldiers, Vincent imagines he is close enough to say Wait! I’m here! but he’s still two houses away and the mistral’s too noisy for him to be heard. It will take costly minutes to get there. He is thirty-six years old. He is an ailing, dying man. I have always been dying, he thinks, and he’s standing in front of the large double doors, poised to collapse, a vision of his father opening the door, disappointment all over his dead face. But it’s the sentry instead, looking as though he’s worked in this brothel all his life and never had even a smoke break.
He wonders if the sentry understood. He can barely understand, himself. But it must’ve worked because Rachel is standing behind the sentry, looking awfully frightened.
– Rachel. For you. Take good care of it.
And before she has a chance to open the paper parcel, Vincent faces the wind and rain, convinced he is now through with the night, and maybe life altogether.
Elsewhere in town, someone is pulling out his best friend’s tooth; a woman is pushing out her baby boy and dying. The sounds from both of them are drowned out by the mistral. A drunk is spewing on the trunk of a tree; another is pissing against a door. Someone is being robbed, so someone else is thieving. A crazed man is walk-running down the road, more like a lunatic’s limp, slightly lopsided and curving to the left. It’s the strange Dutch painter, the one who stares that little bit deeper, taking them all aback.
And now it’s the moment before the moment when his body fails. That rush of ensuing malfunction, that first thrill, first dread of recognition. Does the new mother never-to-be feel the moment too?
It is happening; he’s thrown to the ground. Hanging onto the edge of the world, which is nothing more than the park’s mud. His face is in it. Mud in his mouth. Vomit in mud. It’s happening, can’t do a thing about the spinning around him, nothing staying still. The sky diving into the rain, razors slicing toward the earth, the sky, the mud, the sky, mud, drowning in a deluge that’s sinking in bile and mud and more bile and mud. This is where he surrenders because he hasn’t an alternative. He is nothing but a breaking body and that’s all he is: body tantrum, body freak, body trauma, body breaking. A black outline of a man bends down and yells something at Vincent, who keeps on vomiting what isn’t even there. The outline leaves. Vincent stays. His body is mud-bound for at least another hour. Body completely broken.
HE DOESN’T KNOW how much he craves familiarity until he walks into the Yellow House. That is where they take their meals. This is where they write and read. That is the door that leads to his bed. Heavily, he goes to the stove and adds more wood. It’s something useful he can do and he’s trying to regain some control. The vertigo is manageable now, the pain on the side of his head much worse. When the suffering in the park had finished, Vincent’s first thought was of Rachel. Does she understand his gift to her? He wonders where she’ll place it when she puts herself to bed tonight. Bed. There are bloody rags and towels wherever he looks. He’ll need to mop up the mess. Later.
In certain clusters of everyone’s life there is absolute clarity, and Vincent’s is his bedroom. It’s his nest. Not the nest of a family, a woman and children – the heat they could give off tonight! He could paint a picture of that nest, and he has, too, again and again, but it has always belonged to someone else. He’s painted this nest before too. His bedroom. Nest of objects he can touch because they’re his. Nest of chairs, table, jars, frames. He’s rejoiced in his nest many times over through sketches of it for the painting of his bedroom, and all those early paintings in preparation for the one he likes the best. If he could have painted himself painting his bedroom he would’ve captured the feeling of happiness, in light cerulean blue. Most of his self-portraits are dominated by various tones of blue. Mostly, while painting, he is blue. Happiness: it’s something he must remember when all of this is over.
There is the mirror that has seen it all, the cloth that usually hangs on the hook, guilty. The floor, worn with a year of shoes that are also his, bloody. The crumpled letter on the floor. The bed.
The bed is pure. Centre of the nest. And it is all that matters.
Vincent strips down, too cold and weak to shiver, and carefully puts on his underwear. He is as calculated as a man lying down in his grave, taking in all the comfort he can get for his final hours. When he pulls back the covers, his body is already sighing. He lies down with his bad ear, his no-ear, the throbbing wound facing up and closes his eyes. There’s a heavy sleep awaiting him. If the world will leave him alone he can sleep until winter is over. Maybe, in springtime, he’ll paint something nice.