The Words of Van Gogh

Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 1886-1890: A Facsimile Edition (Amsterdam)

with an introduction by V.W. van Gogh
Scolar Press (London), in association with Moulenhoff International BV, two volumes, 1,100 pp., £180 (the set)

Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh; drawing by David Levine

Flaubert is not Flaubert until we have read his letters to Louise Colet. Yet Flaubert died in 1880, whereas the full text of those letters did not appear until 1926. There will always be such cases. By comparison, the editing and publishing of the complete letters of Vincent van Gogh gave no trouble at all. Nearly all of them (some 650 out of 750) had been written to Vincent’s brother Theo and were lovingly preserved. As a young bride, and later as a young widow, Madame Theo did all that could be asked of her in the way of archiving, and until his death a few months ago her son V.W. van Gogh (born 1890) proved himself an exemplary guardian of the flame. In 1953 the centenary of the birth of Vincent van Gogh was marked by the publication of all the letters then known to have survived, together with reproductions of all the drawings with which the correspondence was truffled.

It was a family affair, that publication. Madame Theo (Johanna van Gogh-Bonger) had sorted the letters, put them in order, and written the long biographical foreword that is still a prime source for the facts of van Gogh’s life. Roughly two-thirds of the English translation had been done by her before her death in 1925, and the rest was done by a Dutchman, C. de Dood, in whom she had confidence. (Certain concessions to American usage were made for the New York Graphic Society’s edition). V.W. van Gogh had a clear run in preparing the centenary edition, in that all previous editions of the letters were out of print, and he included all the surviving letters from Theo van Gogh to Vincent and a whole batch of reminiscences of Vincent that had appeared—mostly in Dutch—in out-of-the-way periodicals.

To a reader who has no Dutch there would seem to be an instinctive plain rightness about the renderings of the 450 and more letters which were written in Vincent van Gogh’s first language. Mrs. van Gogh-Bonger’s brief preface raises some doubts about her command of English, in that the archaic form “ere” is used twice within the space of eight lines for “until.” When she writes, moreover, that “many dates failed” we know what she means—that many of the letters were undated—but the Germanism sits very awkwardly in English. But as we read through the letters themselves we come to believe in her implicitly. The final effect is, indeed, not so much that of a professional translation as of a family conference on which we are privileged to intrude.

Collected letters are almost as difficult to keep in print as they are to assemble—the correspondence of Eugène Delacroix, for instance, is one of the great unread books of the world—and when the English-language edition of van Gogh’s letters went out of print it turned out that it would be very…

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