A Walk with Vincent: Finding a Voice in the Letters of the van Gogh Brothers

Nellie Hermann

Vincent van Gogh loved to walk. It is one of the first things you learn about him, if you look into his biography or start to read his letters. In the very first letter he ever wrote to Theo, his younger brother, the theme is there: “I go walking as much as I can.” His story is dotted with epic journeys, walks of many days. He was an explorer, walking not only to get from one place to another, but also to get to know landscapes, to see what there was to see. He loved walking for the peace it gave him, the calming of his often churning brain, the movement giving him a purpose.

The Season of Migration
Barnes and Noble

When I first started to learn about van Gogh, his preference for walking was one of the things that affected me. I, too, love to walk, and have experienced the particular clearing of mind that happens on a long journey, the way the landscape around you seems to focus and the world becomes more accessible, a door opening. Learning about van Gogh’s walks was a connection point for me, a window I felt I could climb through to reach the man. When I was deep into the book and feeling stuck, I would go for walks, and his voice would come to me again.

The idea for my novel The Season of Migration was born in 2004, when I was in graduate school at Columbia. I took a class called “Writing Narrative History” with the great historian Simon Schama, and our final assignment was to write a “true short story.” I was casting about and found myself in the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library with van Gogh’s letters. To write about something that was directly in the purview of my professor (Schama has written most widely about art history) was potentially ill-advised, but I was instantly captured by Vincent’s voice and couldn’t let go. His letters were touching, heartfelt, and insightful, but more than anything they were written with a stunning facility of language.

Soon I stumbled on the long silence in 1889-90 between Vincent and Theo—they went ten months without a letter, a break that never again occurred in their lifetimes—and my imagination was peaked. I searched in the biographies for explanations of what happened during that time, but none seemed clear. Van Gogh was working at the time as a lay preacher in the Belgian mining district, the Borinage, a job at the end of a series of jobs that hadn’t panned out for him. All the biographies agreed that it was a crucial time in his life—at the end of the silence between the brothers, Vincent committed himself to being an artist and never again wavered about what he should be. There was mention of anguish, of a crisis of faith, of enormous soul-searching, and quotes from witnesses who heard Vincent crying in his hut that winter, lying on the floor without a blanket in order to punish himself for who knows what. There were also at least two significant walks—one from the Borinage to Brussels, and the other from the Borinage all the way to France, both times to see people that had some connection to art. Vincent was searching. His brother had come to visit him—the visit that prompted the long silence—and had called him an “idler,” the 19th century equivalent of “just get a job.” When I first read about this, I was in my late twenties, the same age that Vincent was in that far away time, and also wondering what I would do with my life.

I wrote the story for Schama’s class, and then went on to finish my first novel and publish it in 2008. But van Gogh’s story never left me. Around 2008 I started to read his letters again in earnest, and to experiment with the voice. And I loved writing as Vincent. Perhaps it was from reading his letters or because of the particular freedom that comes from writing as someone else, but the voice came easily. It was the story that was harder to piece together. I found it difficult to give myself permission to make stuff up when I was writing about a person who was not only real—and famous—but also someone whom I felt so dedicated to, protective of. No matter how I thought of the story, the fact was that this was a long period of time when Vincent was very much alone. How do you write a book about a man alone and make it interesting to read? The book needed to have a relationship to Vincent-the-real-man and the artist he would become, but it also needed to stand on its own, minus whatever things the reader knew or thought they knew about the historical figure.

The first draft of the book was entirely in the first person. I put all the excerpts from Vincent’s letters in italics—there were many of them. The result, of course, was distracting, flags frequently taking you out of the narrative, but I didn’t want to subsume Vincent’s words as my own, and I also didn’t want to take out the quotes because I loved his writing so much. And there was another problem: Vincent’s voice—even an approximation of it—is not an easy one, and it’s not every person who wants to be locked in it for a few hundred pages.

I don’t remember exactly when the idea came to frame the novel with a third person narrative of a walk to Paris to see Theo—I think it was a friend that suggested it, actually—but it was the solution, and the one that turned this project into a novel. I had been focused in early drafts on the real walk that Vincent took to see the artist Jules Breton in France—but to turn that walk into a trip to see Theo gave the book the narrative drive that it had been missing.

I miss Vincent. I never was particularly interested in him before that day in 2004 when I started to read his letters, and I certainly never thought I would be the author of anything people would call a “historical novel.” But writing this book, even at its most frustrating and impossible moments, always felt important, and I never lost my faith in it. I miss going for walks and being visited by Vincent’s voice—strange as it sounds, he helped me to see many landscapes with clarity I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Living in his world was a true pleasure, an immersion that I genuinely miss. Writing about Vincent finding focus, I found focus.

Nellie Hermann was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her first novel, The Cure for Grief, was published in 2008. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University and has taught and lectured widely on the use of creativity in nontraditional contexts.