This month, we are thrilled to publish the new novel from Susan Fletcher, Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew. It tells the tender, vivid story of Vincent van Gogh last years, set at the turn of the Twentieth Century in Provence in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole – home to the mentally ill. We follow van Gogh’s life in Provence, in the company of Charles, van Gogh’s doctor, and his wife Jeanne Trabuc. Jeanne is told not to approach the patients, but one man seems worth breaking the promise she made to her husband. It is a decision that will change all of their lives.
In this exclusive piece for Virago, Susan Fletcher describes how Van Gogh’s art inspired her writing, and how it changes the way she sees the world.
I don’t know how old I was when I first became aware of van Gogh. But I have a clear, early memory of seeing his famous sunflowers in a hardback book. They were bright, textured, heavy-headed; there was a strangeness to them that made me narrow my eyes. They felt, I remember, too much. I didn’t understand them; I didn’t feel ready for a world that looked like this.
Years later, and I have van Gogh’s prints on my wall. I’ve come to love that strangeness that I’d shied from; their vibrancy and restlessness makes sense to me now. But most of all, I love them for a different, less obvious reason: for what – or who – van Gogh chose to paint.
As a child, I loved trains. In particular, I loved the journey from our nearest station – small, with a footbridge and a view of the park – through the rest of Birmingham’s suburbs, and into the city’s heart. We made it every few weeks. The journey was not a rare event, and yet it always seemed like an adventure: the diesel smells, the low-hanging branches that brushed the glass, the movement of the carriage that meant my mother and I swayed back and forth in our seats, holding hands. I loved the level crossings, each station. The orange fabric of the seats was smooth and dark-grey, in places – worn down, I supposed, from years of bottoms, making their way into town.
It was on these journeys that I became aware of how the best things – or most interesting, at least – are rarely beautiful. It was a slow lesson to learn. But, gradually, I realised that the things I looked forward to on the journey, which made me rise up in my seat, were not dazzling or new. There was no denying that the hanging baskets at Solihull station were lovely; I also remember the rainbow that hung over the city once, as vivid and defined as if drawn in felt-tipped pens. But these things were extra-ordinary. It was, I learned, the ordinary that I peeped for, through the glass.
At first, it was litter. I’d scan the embankments for it: shopping trolleys or car parts, a mattress sagging with rain. With them, questions filled my head: why were they there? Who had left them? What might happen to them, over time? I knew graffiti from our local park – but here, by the railway, was a far more intricate kind. How had they managed to spray it? On the sides of bridges, like that? I’d imagine a boy, held by his ankles – hanging, an over-sized bat.
I loved, too, the backs of things. Most people only saw the front doors of buildings – but not us. We saw the tradesmen’s entrance or the fire escape, the No Smoking signs or catering bins – and there was a privilege, somehow, in glimpsing them as we rumbled through Tyseley, and on. My mother, specifically, loved the backs of factories: pipes, winches, pigeon roosts, faded company signs that pre-dated her mother and her mother’s mother. We talked about Birmingham’s heritage – metalwork, custard powder – on that rickety train.
But most of all, I loved houses. I adored passing the backs of people’s homes, particularly at dusk. As the train clacked past the ends of gardens, I’d press my nose against the glass to see the evidence of lives I knew nothing of: a rope swing or a washing line, an Aston Villa poster on a bedroom wall. Even better, I might see the lives themselves – a woman with a kettle, a television being watched, a dog being fed or an embrace. These were the briefest of moments: like magic, they came and went. But such sights stayed with me. They were flashes of lives that looked like my own life – habitual, small-seeming. Yet they’d also been whole worlds.
Now, I no longer press my nose to the glass. But I know it’s still the ordinary things that I’m drawn to. To my friends, I am sure it seems bizarre. I have, for example, a dozen postcards of sepia photographs of people I never met – herring girls, lighthouse-keepers – that I bought in a Scottish museum for no other reason than I liked their faces and liked to imagine their own everyday lives. I have books on Roman artefacts in which the dog-eared pages aren’t on altars or bathhouses but on the tiny, domestic finds: spoons, a buckle, glass beads. An LS Lowry postcard looks at me, as I type this: an urban crowd in which everyone seems exactly the same and yet, of course, none are. And in my teens, I found Edward Hopper: his paintings of middle America – a petrol forecourt, an empty office, rooms where no-one is speaking – feel so human and true. They all depict ordinary lives – their ennui, beauty and pain.
This, above all, is what I love about van Gogh. His brain and techniques were far from commonplace, but his subjects so often were. ‘I think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day,’ he wrote – and so it feels that he often leaned towards what was overlooked by most people, less lovely and more flawed: even those sunflowers were splayed and past their best. Of people, he favoured the poor – choosing to paint labourers or drinkers or prostitutes instead of exotic beauties that, say, his friend and rival Gauguin did. It was, in short, the plain who caught Vincent’s eye. And no sitter was plainer than Jeanne Trabuc, the wife of a hospital warden in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. He was both repelled by her, and spellbound; he was dismissive, tender and bewitched. She was, Vincent wrote, ‘a faded woman, an unfortunate, quite resigned one, and really not much, and so insignificant that I myself have a great desire to paint that dusty blade of grass.’
This description of Jeanne resonated with me. The first time I read it, I was rushed with feeling: I felt sorry for her, and liked her; I wanted to find out far more about this life that I’d glimpsed, momentarily, through Vincent’s handful of words. I dived onto Google – and found that he had, indeed, painted her. And the face that looked back at me may have lacked beauty but it was also entirely compelling. Jeanne Trabuc was ordinary, mesmeric, bright-eyed and, to me, a little sad.
With that, I knew I had my next novel. I wanted to take this faded housewife and tell her story – and so I travelled to Provence, walked where she’d walked. I looked up at the mountains that she, too, had seen. I wanted, perhaps, to do what I’d longed to, on those childhood trains: to take the smallest proof of a quiet life and expand it, write it down; to take a life that seemed insignificant and to show it as anything but. What did Jeanne mean, to Vincent van Gogh? I can’t know for sure. But I know that she’s changed my own life, in her way. I know, too, that I’ll think of her when I next catch the train, past houses, to Birmingham Moor Street and back.
Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is out now in hardback and ebook. Find out more here.