The Season of Migration: A Novel

The Season of Migration: A Novel

by Nellie Hermann


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The lyrically told story of one of the world's greatest artists finding his true calling

Though Vincent van Gogh is one of the most popular painters of all time, we know very little about a ten-month period in the painter's youth when he and his brother, Theo, broke off all contact. In The Season of Migration, Nellie Hermann conjures this period in a profoundly imaginative, original, and heartbreaking vision of Van Gogh's early years, before he became the artist we know today.

In December 1878, Vincent van Gogh arrives in the coal-mining village of Petit Wasmes in the Borinage region of Belgium, a blasted and hopeless landscape of hovels and slag heaps and mining machinery. Not yet the artist he is destined to become, Vincent arrives as an ersatz preacher, barely sanctioned by church authorities but ordained in his own mind and heart by a desperate and mistaken spiritual vocation. But what Vincent experiences in the Borinage will change him. Coming to preach a useless gospel he thought he knew and believed, he learns about love, suffering, and beauty, ultimately coming to see the world anew and finding the divine not in religion but in our fallen human world.

In startlingly beautiful and powerful language, Hermann transforms our understanding of Van Gogh and the redemptive power of art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250094698
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

The Season of Migration

By Nellie Hermann

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Nellie Hermann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71173-3



May 12, 12:00 p.m.

He walks. Cold water is pouring from the sky, and he tries to hear the rain falling around him, onto him, trickling off the brim of his hat, over his eyes, through the hair of his beard, over his lips. He listens for each drop of water cascading against his skin, into the streams along the side of the road, onto the crows sitting on the thin, bare branches of the trees. The knapsack that he carries is thick canvas, but it must be soaked through. He thinks of the letters tucked inside, tied together with a length of twine, and imagines the words on them turning to water and washing away. He knows he should worry about this, but he cannot muster the strength.

What is the sound of the rain? It is too overwhelming to be a symphony; it is a whoosh, a swallowing, a leviathan with open mouth and lifted tongue. He is inside the cold body of a devil made of water.

His hands are growing numb. He touches the sprig of ivy that he keeps in his pocket, and its contours are blurry to his fingers. They cannot see it, he thinks, his fingers are growing blind with cold. The shape of the ivy emerges in his mind; he sees it rise behind his closed eyes, but his fingers fumble against it clumsily. My mind is not yet numb, he thinks vaguely, and trudges on.

He is going to Paris to see his brother Theo. Theo, at long last, Theo who abandoned him, whom he hasn't heard from in nine months, since Theo visited him in August. Is that right? Is that where he is going? Suddenly he is confused. His feet are carrying him somewhere, but his mind does not know where. Who will be there at the end of this road; who will greet him when he arrives at his destination? Theo, Father, Angeline? He sees his father's top hat, resting on the table inside the parsonage door; Angeline's delicate hand, her long, slender fingers topped by nails blunted and dirtied by too many shifts in the mine.

He is walking through the rain; he will walk on until it stops. This is all he knows. He is somewhere near the border of France; he knows this because for a long time he was walking along the train tracks. Did he reach France today? Was that yesterday? He is walking. His life is collected in his footsteps; there is no past or future, only one step and then the next. He feels as if he has been walking on this road his whole life. The water has reached his feet through his boots; he wears a suit of ice water under his clothes.

He fights the temptation to lie down in the road. He walks on, a man made of water.

* * *

He wakes up in a bale of hay. A blanket that smells like a horse is pulled up to his chin. When he opens his eyes, he is first aware of the warmth. His body is shining heat; the center of him is a sun.

He looks around him: He is lying on a hay bale in the corner of a barn. A floor strewn with hay strands, a rectangle of bright light cast from a dirty window on the wall opposite, a pitchfork leaning against a pile of bales, a scythe cast onto a bale nearby. And in the corner, a stall with a cracked wooden door, through which he can hear the sound of a bull chewing calmly.

He thinks of getting up, but the sun inside him is a weight holding him down. He thinks he must have a fever, and closes his eyes instead. When he opens them, there is a man standing above him. The man looks down at him through a shaft of light coming from the dirty window. He blinks up at the man, the outline of whom, against the light, is bright and fuzzy, particles of dust lifting off like the gentlest insects, floating away into nothing. For a moment, Vincent thinks he must be dead, and that the man is an angel.

"I found you in the road in front of my farm," the man says. He does not look angry; he is only stating the facts. "You were wet all the way through. You can't be feeling good now." The man pauses, looking down. His face is dark and blurry, an image from a dream. He speaks again: "Who are you? Where are you going? How did you get here?"

Vincent opens his mouth and then shuts it again. He looks up at the man with what he feels sure is a dumb expression. It is safer than uttering a word.

"Okay," the man says, and nods. "You can tell me later. Rest now." He turns around and leaves the barn, easing the creaking door shut behind him.

Who am I? Where am I going? How did I get here? The questions swirl in his head. Who am I where am I going how did I get here who am I how did I get here where am I going who am I? These are questions he should know the answers to, words that should carry weight, carry meaning. He thinks of his knapsack, the stack of letters inside, probably destroyed from the rain. He raises his head to look around him and sees the bag, resting against the bale of hay across which his coat is draped. The sight of it makes him think of mining country, where he has come from, and he feels in his chest the burden of all that those letters contain. He has given an account of himself, there in those pages; he has already explained himself once. Having written the story, he thought that the memories would disappear from his mind.

He lays his head back and closes his eyes. He is feverish and uncomfortable, cold waves traveling up and down his skin. Images flood him and he squeezes his eyes tight against them: Madame Denis in the doorway in her apron with a broom; Cricket, the three-legged bird, hopping on the windowsill; Alard laughing by a bird's nest at his feet; a pair of men in dark suits and top hats, looking down at him with stern expressions; Angeline, the outline of her dissolving into darkness; then blood, strewn across the field in front of the mine, bodies wriggling, severed limbs, Madame Denis with a dark red streak down her cheek.

He sleeps, and when he wakes, it is to the smell of coffee. On the bale beside him there is a tray: a porcelain mug, a roll, a bowl of some kind of stew. He is not sure of the last time he ate—was it yesterday that he started to walk? He sits up weakly and rests his back against the stack of hay behind him; the barn spins a bit and then settles. The coffee is perfect; he holds the mug in both his hands and breathes in its smell. The stew is cold but hearty, with large chunks of tomatoes and chewy meat. He devours it, using the bread to scoop out every last drop. When he is done, his stomach rumbles with confusion at the sudden work. He thinks he will probably be sick for eating this much this fast, but he doesn't slow down.

The bull in the stall across from him is quiet now; the sun still shines outside the dirty window, but there is no longer a rectangle across the floor. He feels like he has swallowed a whole bag of flour. He turns onto his side and caresses his belly.

When he next looks around, the whole barn is cast in a thin pink hue. Through the dirty window the sun is setting—a line of deep pink on the horizon. He looks around him with amazement: How the most ordinary things can be transformed by the whim of nature! The saddles and horseshoes that hang by the window have been softened and look like disembodied shapes, strange sculptures with no earthly purpose. He hears the beast breathing again behind the stall door.

What can he do to express his gratitude? He has nothing. In the pocket of his damp coat, which is draped on the bale that held the food, he finds a piece of paper still sodden with rain. He sits back on the hay bale and, lightly touching the paper with his pen so as not to tear it, he draws a quick sketch of the window, the saddles and the horseshoes surrounding it. It is an image, he thinks, of how man speaks to nature: how man has gone out to meet the world, how man has conspired to keep the world at bay. With quick, light strokes he sketches the outlines of what he sees, barely looking down at the page.

But when he finishes and inspects the drawing, he feels dismay that he has not captured it: Everything is flat to him, the window merely a square with six smaller squares within, the saddles and horseshoes simply abstract shapes with strange smudges of black. In his rendering there is no relation between the objects, as he wanted. They are not in conversation; they are only sharing space—window in center, horseshoes on right, saddle on left. He looks from the drawing to the wall before him and then back again: He has been faithful to what he sees; he has even tried to capture the waning light on the leather of the saddle, the angle of fading sun on the edge of the horseshoe. Why doesn't it please him?

He is embarrassed by the drawing's crudeness, but it is all he has to give. Perhaps the man will see something in it that he cannot see; he hopes that it might be enough for the man to remember him with something other than the effort he has cost him.

On the paper, beneath the sketch, he writes, Thank you for your hospitality and generosity. It was more than I deserve. Vincent van Gogh.

* * *

His name is Vincent Wilhem, but he is not the first. His brother, who had his name, was born dead on the same day that, one year later, the second Vincent was born alive.

His parents heralded the second Vincent's arrival as a miracle—or so they were sure to tell him every year on his birthday, though he was never quite sure that he believed them. He was Vincent Wilhem, that was all—not the same one who died, but then again, who could be sure? Perhaps he was the same; perhaps the Vincent Wilhem who died was the Vincent Wilhem who lived; perhaps there were never two of them. His birthday was a death day, a time to celebrate a life and death that were, he understood from the earliest age, in many ways the same.

It is built into the very foundation of him: a wonder, a sensation he can never shake, the vague but sometimes nearly positive sense that he is already dead. He is a ghost in a human's skin. There are days that it feels like only a part of him has died, while the rest of him went on to live; other days it feels like all of him has died, and then a different him was born. And some days it feels like there has only been death, death, and always death, with no life to follow.

Every Sunday until he was almost ten years old, he went to the cemetery to look at the grave with his name on it. The whole family—his parents, Theo, Anna, Elisabeth, Wil, and he—would put on their worn black clothes and make their way out the rectory and around the back in a mournful group to the cemetery, where, if it was warm enough for her to clip them from her garden, his mother would stop at the creaking iron gate and hand each of them a small cluster of flowers.

Every Sunday, he'd hear his mother crying at the grave of Vincent Wilhem, and he'd hold back the impulse to cry out to her, "Mama! I'm here!" His mother knelt by the foot of the grave, her skirts growing even darker by the knees, and she clasped her hands before her and closed her eyes, her shoulders shaking with sobs that never failed to come. The five children stood behind her, their father next to them but with his mind in a far-off place. Only once, Vincent had cried out to her, and his father had put a large hand firmly on his shoulder. "It is not advisable," his father said simply, "to disturb a mother's grief."

The tiny little gravestone spoke Vincent's name, and the words of Luke 18, "Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the kingdom of God." It was a quote that his father did not preach on but that they all knew by heart, a warning from a far-off place that had the power, at times, to make Vincent feel as if there were a hand tightening around his throat. He went over the page where the quote resided in his own copy of the Great Book so many times that he could picture the entire paragraph in his mind, but he was always perplexed by the meaning. Did Jesus really want the children dead when they came to Him? Vincent pictured a kingdom of tiny dead children, babies dressed in colorful nightdresses, tiny hands stuck in perfect tiny mouths, while groups of perfectly clean and proper older children in neckties and dresses lay together on clouds, all of them languishing under the golden throne of God, and he wondered if he should desire to join them. If this was the kingdom of God, a land of dead and frolicking children, what kind of kingdom was the one where his feet were presently standing, the low branches of the willow tree bending over his head?

Who was this Vincent Wilhem whom his mother cried for, and who hushed his father as he stood behind her, his large hand placed gently on her back and his head bowed? Vincent imagined himself as a dead baby, caressed by a silken bassinet in the Kingdom of God, bathed in the light of his parents' perfect and everlasting and unshakable love. Was his mother crying for what was dead, or for what was alive? Could there even be such a separation? He never knew.

He was always happy when they left for home, so close but so far that it seemed an apparition. When they finally turned from the grave, it was like a curtain was being drawn over something he truly did not want to see.

How could a person who never lived have so much power? Vincent wondered, lying on his back in bed at night after a scolding, Theo sleeping soundly next to him under the checkered quilt. He imagined the look on his father's face when he shook his fist at him. There was a moment, he was sure, when his father ceased to see him—it was a clearing in his eyes, a sharpening—when his eyes would harden to a tiny pinpoint and he was no longer seeing him as he stood before him, but the ghost of him as he lay under the ground.

His father never said so; if he thought of Vincent's dead brother when he looked at him, he did not say. His mother, however, would frequently conjure the dead Vincent when she was upset with him, holding fast to his arm and reminding him of who the dead baby would have been: The first Vincent would have been obedient, and quiet, and ever-loving, and why not the second? How could he be so full of hate when the Vincent before him would have been so full of love? Always, then, she would repent. Almost as soon as the words had left her mouth, she would pull the living Vincent close, holding him fiercely, apologizing, insisting that she loved him and that he was special, so special, and that he was all that mattered to her. "You're mine, you're mine," she would say, and rock him back and forth. At times she held him so close that he was afraid she'd break a bone.

Did he provoke his parents so he could make them see him? It is possible. Often it seems to him that his whole life has been an attempt to find someone who can see him, his blood and veins and his beating heart, the recesses of his bowels and the aching of his groin, all of him so terribly alive, so terribly unseen.

It reached a point where he was sure that he hated his dead brother, Vincent. He walked by the cemetery every day and felt that little grave calling to him; he squeezed his eyes shut and looked the other way. He loathed that grave, that stone, that body lying there, that life that had cursed him before he could even speak. Such confusion at that grave on those gray Sundays, standing on that damp cemetery ground beneath that willow tree! He loved his brother; he hated him; he was not his brother; they were one and the same. Baby Vincent was alive, he was dead—no, it was the other way around—Vincent Wilhem was alive and blessed, the baby was blessed and dead. He pictured the baby, his tiny body tucked in a box somewhere below their feet, his miniature hands permanently and for all eternity crossed in a perfect prayer, perfectly pious in death.

* * *

It is nearly dark now, a band of shrinking light on the horizon. His thin coat is still damp, and he thinks it might make him warmer to take it off altogether. Instead, he pulls it tighter around him and blows into his hands. It wasn't advisable (he hears his father's voice say the word) to leave the farmer's barn just as it was getting dark. But he couldn't face the man's kindness again. Eventually he would have had to answer for himself. And what sort of answer could he give? He knows how he looks, a mirage appearing on the horizon in rags and with darkened face, a shuffling shape moving slowly, inadequately dressed, improbably thin, across a stark landscape. He knows how he looks, how he seems; it is what people have been telling him his whole life.

He walks on, beginning to feel hungry again. He shouldn't have eaten that stew; it is when he doesn't eat that he feels the least hunger.

His knapsack over his shoulder, he moves down the road, trying to hear the sound of his footsteps over the voices in his mind. Who are you where are you going how did you get here. You are not the same any longer.


Excerpted from The Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann. Copyright © 2015 Nellie Hermann. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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