Wednesday, December 23, 2009
This Day in History...
On 23 December 1888 at 11:30 pm, Vincent van Gogh walked into the brothel at no. 1, Rue du Bout d'Arles in the town of Arles, asked for the prostitute named Rachel and handed her a piece of his ear, wrapped in newspaper. (Click here for a post about our sources for the incident and here for a post about my visit to the Rue du Bout d'Arles in 2007.) Against all odds and expectations, Vincent recovered from his injury and the accompanying psychotic episode, returning to his yellow house in the Place Lamartine just after the new year. The self-portrait pictured here (click to enlarge) was one of the first paintings he made after leaving the Arles hospital. He does not hide what he has done; the bandage is there for all to see. To me this painting is an affirmation -- I am still here, the man in the picture seems to say. I can still paint.
The "ear incident," of course, appears in my novel "Sunflowers." It had to -- Rachel is my narrator. But it proved to be one of the most difficult scenes to write, for two reasons. First, readers' expectations. Most people reading the book know that it's coming. I build up to it for a few chapters; the tension escalates, Vincent becomes more and more unsettled at events in his life. The scene needed to live up to what readers would expect -- it needed to be dramatic, it needed to be a true turning point in the story and in Rachel's character development. But -- the second reason it was difficult -- it had to be told in a convincing way. Think about it: he gave her his EAR. How do you write that in a way that's not too gory or worse, too campy? Tell it badly, and the reader's going to snicker: popular culture makes enough jokes about Vincent's severed ear. The scene underwent a few drafts before I reached a tone and narrative I was happy with. I aimed for spare prose, using as few words as possible, and I decided to use the fact that readers already know what's in that package. How? Read the book and find out! :-)