Monday, 22 April 2019
Featured author: Sam Meekings
Sam Meekings is a poet and novelist. He is the author of Under Fishbone Clouds (called "a poetic evocation of the country and its people" by the New York Times) and The Book of Crows. Reviews from the Stacks said of his latest novel, The Afterlives of Dr Gachet, that "This book does not work like any other I have read; it is on a level all its own, and truly a masterpiece of our day.” He has spent the last decade teaching and working in China and the Middle East. He currently balances his time between writing, teaching, raising two children as a single father, and drinking copious cups of tea. His website is www.sammeekings.com.
Here, Sam talks about his latest novel.
On The Afterlives of Dr Gachet, by Sam Meekings
I first saw Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet in a newspaper article about it being the most expensive painting ever sold at auction (of course, that record has been broken many times since then). Something about that melancholy look on his face got snagged in my mind, because I soon found myself reading up on the strange and extraordinary painting. I found, to my surprise, that though thousands of books have been written about Vincent Van Gogh, there was very little information out there about that sad old man he painted in the last month of his life. My novel is therefore a product of both research and imagination: the end result of my journey to bring this fascinating character back to life.
The book tells the story of Paul Ferdinand Gachet, the subject of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous portraits: one that shows what the artist called "the heartbroken expression of our times." But what caused such heartbreak? The novel follows Doctor Gachet from asylums to art galleries, from the bloody siege of Paris to life with Van Gogh in Auvers. It also looks at his afterlife inside the painting, from the bunkers of Nazi Germany to its mysterious disappearance with a reclusive billionaire in Tokyo. In this way, the book uncovers the secrets behind that grief-stricken smile.
Extract from The Afterlives of Dr Gachet
We have been here for some time. Look at his face. Or rather try to look at him without tilting your head.
He is leaning backwards, his head nestled against his fist, and his tired but unflinching eyes stare back at you. Or rather they stare into you, they burrow as deep as a corkscrew through the skull. His look confirms that there is nothing that can be done. His left hand steadies himself against the table. His face – and therefore the focus of the painting – is off-centre, and so the immediate impression is that everything is slightly out of kilter. The world is worn down at the edges, as weather-beaten as his thin and haggard face. We have moved in so close that he need only whisper to be heard, though this will not be necessary; there is a closeness between us that nudges beyond the limits of speech. We have been here for some time.
Get a better look. His body looms large – the canvas cannot contain him, and he threatens to spill out the sides. His heavy blue jacket appears stitched from some stormy ocean. It is buttoned close to his neck (the collar sags open, revealing a shock of white) and is almost indistinguishable in texture and material from both the cobalt blue mountains seen behind him, and beyond them the azure blue sky – each laps at the edges of the next, like waves crashing one after another at the edge of the shore. There is little attempt at depth: the background is blurred and empty of detail, a wash of swirling blues. The painter appears to suggest that his subject knows full well that blue is shorthand for a particular kind of melancholy, and knows too that he is already deep within it. His eyes affirm that this is the depth to which we test ourselves.
Who is this man?