On a dark night in Provence in December 1888 Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear. It is an act that has come to define him. Yet for more than a century biographers and historians seeking definitive facts about what happened that night have been left with more questions than answers.
In Van Gogh’s Ear Bernadette Murphy sets out to discover exactly what happened that night in Arles. Why would an artist at the height of his powers commit such a brutal act? Who was the mysterious 'Rachel' to whom he presented his macabre gift? Was it just his lobe, or did Van Gogh really cut off his entire ear? Her investigation takes us from major museums to the dusty contents of forgotten archives, vividly reconstructing the world in which Van Gogh moved – the madams and prostitutes, café patrons and police inspectors, his beloved brother Theo and his fellow artist and house-guest Paul Gauguin. With exclusive revelations and new research about the ear and about ‘Rachel’, Bernadette Murphy proposes a bold new hypothesis about what was occurring in Van Gogh’s heart and mind as he made a mysterious delivery to her doorstep that fateful night.
Van Gogh’s Ear is a compelling detective story and a journey of discovery. It is also a portrait of a painter creating his most iconic and revolutionary work, pushing himself ever closer to greatness even as he edged towards madness – and one fateful sweep of the blade that would resonate through the ages.
©2016 Bernadette Murphy (P)2016 Random House AudioBooks
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"A triumphant challenge of van Gogh myths"
Bernadette Murphy has lived in Provence for 30 years and has immersed herself in researching the true story behind van Gogh cutting his ear. The received version is that in one of his recurrent periods of mental instability he cut off just the lobe and presented it to a prostitute called Rachel at the local brothel. Through painstaking research and dogged worrying away at her subject - and her fluency in the French language - she has scotched the myths and shown that van Gogh did indeed cut off his entire ear, and presented it to Gabrielle (the 'Rachel' of the myth) who worked as a general cleaner in Arles, including the brothels. Murphy explores in detail the forms of mental illness which blighted the entire van Gogh family, and in particular the delusions which plagued Vincent leading him to believe that he was a Christ figure, which explains exactly why he presented Gabrielle with the newspaper-wrapped ear addressing the startled young woman with words echoing Christ at the Last Supper.
This is an important work in van Gogh studies with plenty of new material. Murphy also corrects the myth about the petition which was organised to evict van Gogh from the Yellow House in Arles, and explains her understanding backed up by letters and details from the paintings themselves of Gauguin's unsuccessful stay with van Gogh. Along the way there are many extremely interesting and finely researched topics including prostitution in Arles, treatment (such as it was) for mental illness, the role of absinthe drinking, as well as insightful analyses of van Gogh's paintings.
Murphy has chosen to include herself and her arduous pursuit, and some of this could have been usefully edited out as it can become bogged down in detail interesting only to herself. But generally, her choice to include herself does make the story hers as well as van Gogh's which adds another dimension.
If I were Murphy I would be deeply disappointed at the choice of narrator whose worst offence is her French pronunciation - and inevitably there is a great deal of French language for her to mangle. WHY was a fluent French speaker not chosen as a narrator? Even when the French accent is acceptable, it is clear that Su Douglas is not comfortable or fluent but, more seriously, she makes a catalogue of truly dire errors which really do spoil the whole narration. 'La place Lamartine' in Arles is repeated many times and at least twice, the narrator calls it 'Plaice Lamartine' which is unforgivable. A turkey 'dindon' is more than once called a 'dee-don' and the final 't' in words such as 'pont' and 'esprit' is routinely sounded. The French for august 'aout' is not pronounced 'eh-oo'! The list could go on...
So, full marks for Murphy's research, zero for Su Douglas's French.
This is an inspired work, the detail gone into amazing. If you like Vincent van Gough you will love this - the real story of his life & paintings.
"Wonderful story but so hard to listen to!"
There is rather too much about the author's search; more needed about Van Gogh rather than the author's difficulty in catching a certain train. The audio edition is so hard to listen to, as the reader constantly emphasises the wrong words, and mispronounces words as well. If I could return it, I would.
Not as an audio book.
The reader actually makes it hard to understand, by putting emphasis on the wrong words, and mispronounces words like 'decade' as 'decayed' with the emphasis on the second syllabub.
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