Van Rijn by Sarah Emily Miano

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The Independent Culture

On 29 December 1667, a young Amsterdam intellectual, Pieter Blaeu, was deputed to take a visiting Florentine prince, Cosimo de' Medici, to the house of Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt was then 61, and an extremely famous man, but his was a shadow-life, darkened by bankruptcy, misfortunes, nasty- minded gossip, ailing health and - at this time particularly oppressive - a decline in fashion for his work. He had to be approached via his young son, Titus, who acted as his agent, keen to restore both his reputation and finances. Pieter was a good choice for such liaison-work. He had a lively knowledge of contemporary arts, and was himself from a key family of Amsterdam's Golden Age, his grandfather Willem the pre-eminent globe and atlas-maker, his father Joan a distinguished publisher. Pieter, however, was not then acquainted with Rembrandt personally. All this was recorded, and readers can find an account in Simon Schama's magisterial Rembrandt's Eyes. But for Sarah Emily Miano, the episode is her conductor into a fictional recreation of Rembrandt's life, world and artistic ambitions.

Pieter encounters Rembrandt in his winter-gloomy house without initially realising who he is, though "despite his age and poverty, he behaved like a man accustomed to the curiosity of others." And he sees there a self-portrait which, far from disguising the advance of old age, unflinchingly conveys it. From these moments onwards, Pieter determines to devote himself to Rembrandt, to finding out more about him, to penetrating that carapace which both the painter himself and Dutch society have built round him. He is not to have much time for his quarry, and appalling sufferings mar what time there is. Rembrandt's beloved Titus dies of the selfsame plague that had carried off (among many others) the painter's no-less-loved common-law second wife, Hendrickje Stoffels. Rembrandt's illness will intensify to produce a blindness that, even though it will lift, shatters his whole nervous system (though he continues to work). And he will die in October 1669. Pieter - unhappy in his relationship with his over-worldly real father - quite overtly wants Rembrandt as father-surrogate, and it is an index of Miano's learned empathy with her complex subject-matter that she succeeds in convincing us that he doesn't altogether wish for this in vain. We can even believe (look again at the picture after you've read the novel) that Pieter was part-model for that late masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669).

Pieter's narrative, which contains courageous confrontations with ageing, poverty and fatal illness, is broken up regularly and schematically, first by extracts from a journal of Rembrandt's own, presenting his life from his early Leyden years to his sixties, and secondly by scenes from a play in which he is the major protagonist. These last are perhaps a tribute to the Dutch drama of the day, created by such masters as Vondel and Jan Six, but they remind us too how Rembrandt organised plays for his students, to develop their imaginations. While there is much to fascinate in Rembrandt's accounts of the gestations of his paintings (in reality we have but few pronouncements of the artist's on his work), that certainty of tone in Pieter's story is missing from these other approaches.

It's not hard to understand why; dialogue in representations of the past is a notorious minefield. Rembrandt may indeed have exclaimed the 17th-century Dutch equivalents of "I have as long as it takes!" and "Bugger off!", but these are expressions with, for us, far too much social specificity to be quite acceptable here. On the other hand, when Miano's people rise to the challenge of their engulfing predicaments (she is an admirably physical writer) or to explorations of the metaphysical implications of these (Spinoza makes a most engaging and plausible appearance), it is quite another matter. "How have you managed without Hendrickje?" someone asks Rembrandt, who'll answer: "I never captured her true face, but it is still here, inside my head, so why not live there?"

But for us, as this novel impresses, Hendrickje does still live externally, as Bathsheba, naked, and, for as much of eternity as we can envisage, reading her fateful letter from King David, in one of humanity's supreme creations.