1889. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There we find Jeanne Trabuc, wife of Charles – ‘The Major’ – the warden of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, hospital for the mentally ill. It’s been four years since the hospital has had a new patient but as the novel begins, Pastor Salles, a childhood friend of Charles’, brings an educated man with him. One who’s come for the landscape, so he can paint, but is also erratic. In Arles he has self-harmed, been a drunkard, visited sex workers and been guilty of indecency. The locals have gathered a petition against him. If you know your art history you’ll have realised by now that this man is Vincent van Gogh.
Charles has always forbidden Jeanne from going to the hospital but she decides to disobey him for the first time in thirty years. Once she’s been in, it’s easier to return, this time to the yard to see the new patient.
And she gasps, then. She gasps because this man is not like other men: this man is on fire or he seems to be burning for his beard is a flame of bright-orange and red. Its copper and autumn and rust. It is fox, perhaps, or the pelt of a deer. The shade of fevered skin.
Jeanne returns many times to see van Gogh, striking up a friendship with him which she hides from her husband. But the novel isn’t about van Gogh, he’s a catalyst for Jeanne’s long hidden feelings about her life and her marriage.
When Salles tells Charles and Jeanne that van Gogh walked into Place Lamartine, Arles one evening ‘entirely unclothed’ she recalls her younger self bathing half-naked in the yard outside her father’s house, overlooked by other houses. She remembers the yellow dress she used to wear, now kept in a trunk under the bed; she wonders why Charles moved their beds apart after their fifth child (the third to survive) was born; she thinks about her friend Laure who left Saint-Rémy and her husband, Peyron.
Jeanne stares. Here among the views and trees and sounds of her life, the brown cups and flowered plates, his uniform and her pinned hair, Jeanne never sees anything that’s new any more. Or if she does, if there is newness in her world, it’s only old things shifting themselves to a slightly newer state so she might call them new, but they’re not: a wearing-down of a shoe she’s worn for years, or a new splinter in the same, splintery door. She may see the wheat change – new stalks of it, a new crop, but this crop is the same shade as the crop the year before. A night sky may give her pause, but they’re still the same stars. Fruit comes from the same trees. It’s taken to the same market square. Laid on the same pale cloth.
As the novel progresses, Jeanne rails against Charles’ rules, wondering why they exist beyond the fact he served in the Crimean War. What begin as minor transgressions come to signify a much bigger need, a need to see what’s beyond their house and the walls of the hospital.
Fletcher’s prose is taut and precise. That it feels restrained for large parts of the novel only add to the surprise and wonder at those moments when Jeanne feels free – whether that’s recounting her youth or looking at van Gogh’s work – when the sentences run on and the world seems to expand.
Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is a wonderful novel about marriage – how it changes over time, how you can never really know someone even after thirty years – and the power of art to change the way you view the world. I was gripped from beginning to end. A word of warning, however: don’t read the final fifty pages in public unless you want to explain to a stranger why you’re weeping in the corner of a coffee shop.
Thanks to Virago for the review copy.