Van Rijn by Sarah Miano

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Van Rijn by Sarah Miano

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: While occasionally getting bogged down in detail and its own cleverness, this novel still provides enough insights into the painter's life to repay the necessary perseverance.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 475 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330411813

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The Van Rijn of the title is, of course, Rembrandt. This novel is an attempt to give us a flavour of the man. Flavour is apt here, because, at its best, the book vividly evokes the smells and tastes of 17th century Amsterdam. The difficulty faced by the author, Sarah Emily Miano, was that Rembrandt left very little written evidence of his life. So she is forced to compose, through imagination and obvious (sometimes too obvious) research, a fragmentary portrait of the man behind the paintings.

The word 'portrait' highlights another problem with fictionalising Rembrandt. His own self-portraits were unflinching in their candour. It could be said that no writer can capture the essence of the man as honestly as he did himself.

Miano tackles this by inventing a notebook in which the artist jotted his thoughts, recollections - even his shopping lists. This comes into the hands of Pieter Blaeu, the son a wealthy publisher. Blaeu narrates alternating chapters of the book, recalling encounters with Rembrandt towards the end of the painter's life. Pieter's fascination with Rembrandt, and his various attempts to find out and tell his story, are the driving force behind the book.

Most of the other chapters are written as transcripts from Rembrandt's notebook. They reveal a man certain of his greatness, but rooted firmly in everyday actuality. For example, his model for his depiction of the goddess Diana was no ethereal vision but a podgy prostitute. The young Rembrandt's visits to brothels are typical of the novel's earthier pictures of life in the teeming, latterly plague-ridden, city.

Such scenes are balanced by disquisitions on aesthetic theory, Old Testament tales, a philosophical dialogue between Thomas Browne and René Descartes, and even chapters narrated by a dissected cadaver and an anthropomorphised house.

That sort of stark contrast, and the necessarily multi-faceted structure of the book, presented this reader at least with a few problems. I'm reluctant to take issue with an author of such evident learning and diligence, but at times I felt overwhelmed. Like the oft-mentioned collections of curiosities popular in Rembrandt's day, an excess of trivia and extraneous stories obscured the scant plot.

A long description of the painter getting his apprentices to act out a biblical scene is particularly tedious. And occasional snatches of contemporary slang bring us jarringly back into the twentieth century: "penis porridge" is referred to in one brothel scene; we are expected to believe that Rembrandt's daughter-in-law might say of her baby "Oh, she spit up."

I couldn't help but recall another recently-read fictionalisation of an actual person: Julian Barnes's Arthur and George. I felt Miano could have learned from Barnes's ability to pare away detail, concentrating on narrative direction without sacrificing philosophical depth and historical accuracy.

That said, Miano does provide coherence through her use of recurring themes. She weaves in perennial concerns such as the fragile brevity of life, as well as issues of the time, like the relationship between body and soul. The bond between fathers and sons also runs through the book like a thread. It is one of the many parallels between Pieter's and Rembrandt's stories which can confuse, but which ultimately illuminate the novel.

Similarly revealing and fitting, given the subject matter, is her use of colour to bring scenes to life. Those familiar with Rembrandt's paintings will find much to enjoy in the imaginings of the genesis of several key works (the wonders of the Google image search will help those who are not).

By writing some of Rembrandt's diaries in playscript form, Miano also implies the fascination with theatre which clearly informed many of the painter's most famous narrative scenes. There are plenty of meticulous accounts of the mixing of pigments, arguments with sitters and the coaching of pupils. These, as far as is possible, give us the most credible impression of the processes which went into his greatest canvases.

Yet, shining through all the detail, the key events of Rembrandt's life move and engage us the most. His father's blindness, the deaths of his wife and children, and his own ultimate demise, are convincingly imagined. By focusing on experiences common to us all, they bring us closest to the painter's own unique expressions of the human spirit.

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