Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew, by Susan Fletcher

Set in the baking heat of the Provence summer of May 1889 Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a beautiful story of age and loneliness and the steady beat of the rhythm of life. Love features prominently as a theme- the love of mothers for children, husbands and wives, how love and happiness are not always the same. The book examines how feelings evolve over time, how marriages develop and age.

The novel takes place around the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole. Once a monastery, it's now a home for the mentally ill. Presided over by the Warden Trabuc, a kindly ex military man, the hospital's future is uncertain. Trabuc has his loyal nuns and an assistant, Peron, both men (ageing as they are) work too hard and too many hours to sustain- and they have not received a new patient in years.

Trabuc's lonely wife Jeanne spends her days in their white cottage at the edge of the hospital's grounds. Her hours are filled with washing, cleaning, picking the fruits of her vegetable garden, avoiding the gossip of the other wives in the market town and cooking for her husband. She wonders what her three grown boys are doing in their far flung corners of the world. Jeanne has an adventurer's spirit- she knew her boys would travel and wishes that she could've seen more of the world herself. Her husband's horizons are and have always been small, limited to his hospital and the olive groves around it. The wheat fields, herbs and groves, framed against the Les Alpilles have been her only views in the 30 years since her marriage. Beautiful no doubt, but unchanging. She might be one of the loneliest, most isolated characters I have read in any recent novel, and it's impossible not to grieve for the young Jeanne's hopes and ambitions as she slogs her quiet middle age away as a dutiful wife.

In May 1889, the hospital receives a new admission- a Dutchman, a painter. Rumours and tales of his fiery personality, his mania and savagery and his self mutilation find their way to Jeanne before she lays eyes on him. Burning with curiosity and desperate for companionship, she sets about befriending the red-haired painter, disobeying most of her husband's rules in the process.

I liked how Vincent became a catalyst for Jeanne's second happiness. Though Vincent excites and interests her, her feelings for him are totally maternal. He simply enters her life, enriches it through friendship and through offering a new perspective. He makes her feel valued. I really liked Jeanne's transformation throughout the book, and how being seen was so crucial to how she perceived herself. Even the familiar scenery around her became more beautiful when she felt visible. She didn't haunt the groves any more, she occupied them. When she was seen, she could see the things around her too. There is no romance between them, no illicit love- but through Vincent's attentions and conversation she is able to find a greater happiness with her husband- one of communication and openness rather than stifled formality and stiff reserve. The novel is definitely a love story, but its an unconventional one.

One of the things that impressed me most about this book is the beautiful influence of Van Gogh's art- the brilliant colours, the thick swirls of paint. The waywardness of his style, his refusal to be tamed by convention is subtly threaded through the story not in Vincent's character, but in his art. We learn more about him through what he creates than by how he behaves or what he says. Which is appropriate really, as we can so rarely piece together a proper picture of the lives of our most beloved artists.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a wonderfully evocative, uplifting read about two loyal but disconnected characters and the mysterious, unlikely force that brings them together. The baked, ochre earth of Provincial France, the dusty heat are conjured brilliantly, and the soul destroying drudgery of routine (however accidental) is very relatable. It's a scary thought, to see a character put her broom down and wonder where the last 20 years went. I think that's something a lot of readers will respond to.

Books about art and artists is one of my absolute favourite not-quite-genres, so to celebrate the release of Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, and to point all the readers that loved it (or will love it if they liked these) towards more beautiful books that explore similar themes, here are some more novels that I've also loved that have an artist/the creative process/a painting/inspiration as its core. I particularly like the recurring conundrum of creativity and mania. Is creativity born of mania? Or is the creative soul more prone to it? Is inspiration inherent, or must it be sought? Does the art come from the void or is the void caused by the art? I will never get bored of reading about that struggle.
So, in order of publication, newest to oldest. There are probably many more, but some of my favourites;

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild
A re-discovered Watteau masterpiece tells the story of its creation to its discovery in a London junk shop by a destitute chef. I loved the idea of giving the painting its own voice- she tells her own story, her life experiences of hanging on the walls of Madame de Pompadour, Hitler, Louis XIV and Queen Victoria. The book also talks about the subjective value of art- the monetary/cultural/personal/aesthetic/historical value of a piece of canvas covered with oil.

The Ecliptic, by Ben Wood
Set in an artist's retreat, this beautifully written novel centres around the artist and their inspiration and the curse of the creative; to be torn between a need to produce, and a need to produce with integrity and vision. It's almost like creativity is an elusive but powerful animal, capable of great violence and beauty.

How To Be Both, by Ali Smith
An interesting exploration of the connection between a painting and a viewer. Again, the 400 year old painting gets to speak (or the painter himself, as represented through a painting). Smith asks but never really answers a lot of questions about art and its importance. How art affects people differently, the strength of connection that can (rarely, but still) occur between a person and an image from centuries ago and how alien this connection can seem to others. It explores the legacy of the creative, the duty of some to tell stories to pass on, and the duty of others to understand them later.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The titular painting by Carel Fabritius is rescued from a gallery explosion by 13 year old Theo Decker. Dazed and disoriented, he stumbles out of the ruined gallery to discover that his mother has been killed in the explosion, and the artworks all assumed to be destroyed. For the next 14 years, Theo is the unofficial custodian of a masterpiece- it is both the millstone around his neck and his most precious possession. The Goldfinch is essentially a complicated coming of age story about dealing with loss, betrayal and about the weird adventure that friendship can be. It also has beautiful themes of the importance of cultural history and the preservation of beautiful, important things.

The Grl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
A similar situation to the #ManIKnew that uses Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring to explore the relationship of the portrait's subject to the artist. The book was apparently inspired by the intensity of the sitter's gaze upon the viewer/artist and the untold story that Chevalier read in her face.

Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood
An accidental feminist icon artist returns to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. Interesting themes about childhood trauma, being haunted by past tormentors and difficulties forming relationships and how that comes out in the creative process.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew, by Susan Fletcher is released in Hardback and ebook on June 2nd, from Virago books. Thanks to Susan de Soissons for the review copy, it was brilliant.

No comments:

Post a Comment