About freddie

Van Gogh’s First Literary Appearance Discovered

starry night, by van gogh, 1889

starry night, vincent van gogh, 1889

Van Gogh is often seen as the epitome of the tortured artist – misunderstood, rejected in his lifetime, and only slowly building up a posthumous reputation after his early, self-inflicted death.

This supposed obscurity has been shown to be a myth before. But that legendary image still clings to Van Gogh, helping to make him one of the world’s most popular, iconic artists.

vincent van gogh

vincent van gogh

Now Dutch journalist Sander Brink has unearthed the first mention of Van Gogh in a piece of fiction. It throws up some fascinating insights and surprises.

Because Van Gogh’s first appearance is startlingly early – 1903, in a novel called De Winkeljuffrouw uit Oiseau d’Or – Chapeaux pour dames et enfants. (translation: “The Shopgirl in Oiseau d’Or – hats for ladies and children”)

The novelist, Cornélie Noordwal, far from being some kind of avant-garde writer at the cutting edge of modern art, was a hugely popular writer of mainstream (arguably middlebrow) bestsellers, romances and childrens’ books.

Van Gogh’s fleeting mention in De Winkeljuffrouw will thus have formed the first exposure thousands of readers ever had to the artist…

cornélie noordwal, turn of the century blockbuster writer

cornélie noordwal, dutch blockbuster writer in the 1890s and 1900s

What interests me first is the relative standings of Van Gogh and Noordwal.

In 1903, Noordwal was a famous, rich, successful writer (albeit one many critics despised), whereas Van Gogh, thirteen years dead, was only just beginning his phoenix-like rise from obscurity.

In the 110 years since, of course, their positions have radically reversed. Like most middlebrow blockbusters of bygone ages, Noordwal, for all her merits, has lapsed into relative obscurity, while Van Gogh has become the elemental incarnation of genius, whose works sell for hundreds of millions.

The second thing which interests me is the nature of Van Gogh’s fictional début. Because he is sketched in terms remarkably close to his alienated, self-dramatising self-image (as expressed in his own letters), which has driven another core aspect of the Van Gogh myth.

In the novel, Jan, a poet, is writing to Nora, his beloved, and he mentions Van Gogh as being similar to her:

Of course you won’t know who that was. He was a man who was nothing but soul, like you, and his life was violently troubled by it; he painted and drew things, considered laughable and insane by laymen, and yet showed himself more of an artist than a mass of famous painters who create impeccable landscapes and  pictures.

(translation, by Freddie Oomkens, from the Dutch quoted in Sander Bink’s piece of 3rd July 2013)

The third interesting thing is that this figure of Van Gogh already seems fairly close to being a stock character, a Romantic literary archetype of a sort popular in the period. Think of the Les poètes maudites (1884), or D.H. Lawrence, or Leonard Bast in Howards End (1910), or a host of others.

It may sound fanciful, but it is almost as if literature, by means of this dainty little novel, were co-opting Van Gogh to join this gallery of characters whose noble sensitivity ejects them from society…

The final interesting thing, one which also intrigues Sander Bink, is the part played by letter-writing in this story.

Van Gogh’s letters had been published well before 1903 – indeed Albert Aurier’s famously influential article about him (Les Isolés, published in 1890) was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s letters.  Noordwal, who lived in Paris (she died there in 1928), may well have read the article, which appeared in Mercure de France, a magazine popular among lovers of modern art, as well as extracts of the letters which appeared in Holland and France throughout the 1890s.

All in all, a fascinating insight into how consistently, and from its earliest days, Van Gogh’s iconic international image was shaped by literature, as shown in his very first (so far!) fictional entrance.

Jackals and Arabs

This little parable, like a fairy story, is utterly unlike most people’s idea of Kafka, reading like an enigmatic tale for children:

Jackals and Arabs

a place where jackals and arabs might meet

a place where jackals and arabs might meet

Reading this story to his daughters – and seeing their delighted reaction – inspired Matthue Roth to create My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs, which is published this week.

The idea is long overdue – for almost a century, Kafka has been imprisoned in a Kafkaesque prison not of his own making.

It’s high time someone set him free.

translating keyserling

eduard von keyserling’s masterpiece of literary impressionism, waves (wellen), has never been translated into english before.

it is now being attempted over on oomkenscom

the bay of puck on the baltic sea, setting of keyserling's "waves".

the bay of puck on the baltic sea, setting of keyserling’s “waves”.



The Great Gatsby (the novel) Flayed

Great Gatsby movie poster

Hilarious debunking, by Kathryn Schulz, of The Great Gatsby.

If I don’t agree wholly, it’s because I think the novel’s iconic stature is deserved. In persuading us of its greatness, its shortness helps, too – allowing readers to supply a lot of the thematic power Fitzgerald merely sketches in.

Having said that, Schulz does land some telling punches – “third person sanctimonious” is good as the narrative voice Fitzgerald gave Nick in Gatsby – and this was something which someone just had to say roundabout now, with the umpteenth (well, fifth) Hollywood treatment  hitting the screens.

Schulz: Why I Despise The Great Gatsby — Vulture.

4 years’ prison for stabbing sister in Swedish ‘honour killing’ case

swedish honour killing victim

Her brother was only 16 when he stabbed her more than 100 times, in April 2012.

She’d returned to Sweden a year before, fleeing an arranged marriage in Iraq.

Knowing the possible consequences of her brother’s concern for the family “honour”, she always slept with a knife under her pillow.

Local authorities, terrified of upsetting sensitivities, ignored repeated warnings from the anti-honour-killing group Tank.

The boy duly killed his sister. Originally sentenced to eight years, that sentence has been halved in light of his age at the time of his crime.


Court slashes sentence in ‘honour killing’ case – The Local.

david foster wallace on planet trillaphon

david foster wallace–lavishly admired depressive and novelist who killed himself eight years ago–is the subject of three new books now reviewed by thomas meaney, who concludes, in a mixed metaphor of baroque exuberance, that:

to be the master distiller of the times for a generation is no small feat. It requires a willingness to dirty your hands in the culture to a point at which most novelists would flinch. It means being willing to swallow boredom whole.

wallace’s greed for drugs was, apparently, as epic as the taste for tedium meaney ascribes to him, but neither could numb his life-consuming depressions.

he poured his preoccupations with modern life’s minutiae into knowing post-modernist prose, intellectually flashy, emotionally absent.

his reverential treatment of items which used to be thought unworthy of such (TV pre-eminent among them) is getting tired and dated today, but his books are beautifully emblematic of his time.

David Foster Wallace on Planet Trillaphon | TLS.

she lifts her veil: a vision – three rondelets


I was in the Musée d’Orsay last week and took this picture of a striking sculpture by Barrias (Nature Revealing Herself to Science).

(From this angle her limpid marble eyes have a disconcertingly full, yet vacant look, brimming compassion yet somehow indifferent – although that may be a fanciful not to say pretentious notion…)

Coincidentally, I have been working on a poem called She Lifts Her Veil.

It consists of three rondelets – a charming medieval French lyric form.

The subject of the poem isn’t medieval exactly nor is it really about the grand Victorian personification of Nature Unveiling Herself to Science. It’s more about modern men and women and how they see each other:


she lifts her veil –
a vision: blank, dilating eyes,
she lifts her veil.

you breathe, the smell of her inhale,
flushed lips mouth fire – as flames chastise
brazen flashing immodesties –
she lifts her veil:


they see her face –
fragrant and nude, beyond the pale:
they see her face

itching to put her in her place –
frustration makes them bluster, flail,
so helpless – lewd and sexed and frail –
they see her face:


she drops her veil
lets it float, fall, fade where it lies…
she drops her veil

to speak her peace – a piece of tale
embodies what she prophesies,
when in the mirror of our eyes
she drops her veil.

freddie omm, spring 2012

My Novel "Honour" Published

My best-selling thriller “Honour,” published by Mad Bear Books, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon stores worldwide:

(USA AmazonUK Amazon)

Paperbacks are also available from Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace e-store: Honor (USA edition) –  Honour (UK edition).

Shocking, darkly funny, edgily post-feminist, “Honour” is about men who kill for honour, the girls who “drive them to it,” – and love in an age which consumes it…

the enemy within

Paul Berman, in the New Republic, reviews Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea.

It is a disturbing book showing how Islam is being corrupted by an aggressive and intolerant ideology.

The late Abdurrahman Wahid, once President of Indonesia, described radical Islamist political and terrorism as the product of an “extreme and perverse ideology.”

This ideology, as Berman notes, contrasts with

other, more tolerant and traditional currents of thought within Islam, more compatible with modern liberal ideas—such as the peaceable Sufism endorsed by Wahid, together with sundry humanist currents that descend from Islam’s medieval Golden Age.

Yet it is the radical Islamists who are making the political running in Islamic societies worldwide.

They wage a campaign of violence and intimidation whose most high-profile events were gruesome – the hacking to death of Vincent van Gogh on an Amsterdam street, the murder of Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator.

But less high profile victims (Christians in Egypt, Somalia and Algeria, for example) abound, and the campaign’s success is partly the silence in which less spectacular events pass us by:

Incidents in which artistic or intellectual presentations have been cancelled without any accompanying violence or arrests have become fairly common: the sandblasting by the Dutch police of a mural in Amsterdam protesting the murder of van Gogh; the removal of artwork from London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 2006; the cancellation of a display at the Tate Gallery; the cancellation in Geneva in 1993 of a production of Voltaire’s play Fanaticism: or Mahomet the Prophet (followed, a dozen years later, by a minor riot when Voltaire’s play did receive a French production); the quiet removal of artworks from display by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2010 (though I wonder how Marshall and Shea would judge the Met’s ambitious new wing of Islamic art); the removal in 2009 of the Danish cartoons from a scholarly Yale University Press book about the Danish cartoons; the cancellation in 2009 of a German mystery novel about Muslim honor killings; the flight underground of a threatened cartoonist, Molly Norris, of the Seattle Weekly; the decision by eight hundred newspapers in the United States not to run a syndicated cartoon by Wiley Miller. And so on.

 Meanwhile, campaigns against “hate speech” and “Islamophobia” proliferate, often based on quaint paranoia about Western intentions:

 The doctrine postulates a conspiracy theory, according to which Crusaders and Zionists have been plotting to annihilate Islam for many hundreds of years—in the case of the Zionists, ever since the Medina controversies of the seventh century.

 The legal systems of the West have been instrumentalized to silence Islamism’s critics. Geert Wilders in Holland and Mark Steyn in Canada are well-known Western victims of these bizarre and shameful prosecutions, but many more are from Muslim backgrounds:

 the Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who converted to Christianity; the brave and morally precise Italian-Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam, who also converted (at the hands of the pope, no less, such that his middle name is now Cristiano); the writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Holland, until she left Holland; Necla Kelek, a German feminist from Turkey; Ekin Deligöz, a German Green politician from Turkey; Souad Sbai, the head of Italy’s Association of Moroccan Women, and too many others to list.

 Finally, perhaps most fatally, the campaign is leading to self-censorship of a kind which cannot bear even to acknowledge itself – a literally self-effacing cowardice.

umberto eco flayed for anti-semitism

in daniel johnson’s hatchet job in standpoint, umberto eco is accused of flirting with anti-semitism.

johnson says eco tries to pass off a chesterton quote as his own (When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing: they believe in anything) – a moot point, given chesterton himself didn’t actually write it…

johnson has no time for eco:

His novels are case studies in postmodernism, which elides all categories of truth, beauty, morality and politics into an esoteric game.

the article’s payoff:

The doubts sown by the book fall on fertile soil, for ours is a culture that long ago lost its bearings, thanks to the prestige of postmodernists such as Umberto Eco. He stands for the intellectuals of the 21st century who, like those of the last century, commit trahison des clercs by flirting with anti-Semitism when their duty is to take a clear stand against it.

if postmodernism truly is nothing more than a futile, meaningless game, it seems harsh to accuse it and its practitioners of fanning the flames of anti-semitism.