On Sunday evening I laid my kindle aside with a book un-finished – and reached gratefully for something else. Oddly, I only allowed myself to do this having been told by several people on Twitter – that if I wasn’t enjoying my book – to walk away. My guilt was greater because this was a book group read – and one I voted for the evening it was picked (all book groups do that voting thing don’t they?).
It isn’t often that a book completely defeats me – once begun I generally struggle valiantly on. Although this year, I am happy to say, there has been little that has disappointed me – I have had a pretty good run. I am still not entirely sure why this particular book defeated me – it might just have been the case of the wrong time, wrong mood, maybe the wrong subject – for me at least – and not so much the book. The book in question: The Yellow House by Martin Gayford (2006) – a non-fiction book has a healthy number of four and five star reviews on Goodreads, but also many one and two star reviews – so possibly it is a bit of a marmite book. I am certainly not suggesting that this is a bad book – I read enough (a little more than half) to know it is a well-researched book with an interesting subject – I really had expected to enjoy it – and that’s speaking as someone who generally struggles with non-fiction.
The book is about the nine-weeks spent by Vincent Von Gogh and Paul Gauguin in the eponymous yellow house in Arles, the South of France in 1888. The subtitle – nine turbulent weeks in Arles – is a tantalising suggestion of a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating figures of the art world. I do like art – I am certainly not very knowledgeable however, but I do appreciate it, and generally like the work of these two artists. However something didn’t work for me, I was left cold, unengaged and dragged down by an overwhelming tedium. That sounds harsh – but that’s how I felt. Gayford does provide a lot of precise details about artistic execution – which was a little lost on me, I can imagine artists loving these details, and I’m no artist, I can barely draw a straight line.
Vincent Van Gogh is a fascinating figure – and his story was the reason I wanted to read this book – and although he is presented to us here as fragile man already, he remained a little elusive, and Gauguin I certainly did not get to know at all. Vincent was already in awe of Gauguin when he came to the yellow house which Van Gogh had rented a few months earlier, that they should share a house was a plan he had conceived much earlier, and finally brought to fruition in October 1888. The two men collaborated artistically much more than I expected – one of the fascinating things that did emerge from the part that I read – each of them interpreting the same things quite differently. Living together in a tiny house with no bathroom, these two men with different artistic temperaments were always going to have problems. Gauguin begins to enjoy a little success, Vincent doesn’t, is often still thought of as a ‘madman’. I was frustrated by a story which should have completely captivated me, was in fact leaving me cold. So I stopped. This is a period which of course leads ultimately up to the time when Vincent Van Gogh suffers a breakdown and slices off his own ear. Having read only about 55% of this kindle book – it was Vincent who I felt for more – and I really do remain frustrated that the book didn’t deliver (for me at least) what it had promised.
As an aside – the reproductions of images of the artwork in my kindle version are pretty awful, displayed almost as greyish smudges. Although I have discovered that the paperback version only has small black and white images too – considering the importance of colour in the lives of these two men that does seem a shame.
I don’t like to put people off books, so you might want to make up your own mind on this one – we all like and dislike different things after all. The only reason I am writing this post at all is due to a self-imposed rule that I write about everything I read (unless it’s only a very few pages).