April 16, 2014 by Ray Yanek
The Night Cafe — Vincent Van Gogh, 1888.
I had to search for something to match with the letter N and when I came across The Night Cafe by Van Gogh, the strangest thing happened.
It was as if I knew the place, as if I had been there before. Immediately, almost simultaneously with that feeling, the words “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” slammed into my brain hard enough to make me rock slightly on my feet.
Those words are a title, of course, the title to a story written in 1933 by Ernest Hemingway.
I thought more about that story, then thought I must have been mistaken in my early thoughts. The old deaf man in Hemingway’s story drank his brandy not inside, but outside, on a cafe terrace in the quiet and stillness of the night.
Still, though, there was something…
I haven’t read Hemingway’s story in awhile, and I needed a refresher. In the story, it’s late and an old man who is deaf drinks his brandy and shows no sign of wanting to go home. Two waiters–one young, the other older–watch the man from inside. The young waiter wants to go home to his wife. He never get’s home before 3 a.m., he complains, and what kind of time is that to go to bed? The older man, feelilng sympathy for the old man, brushes the younger man’s complaints aside. He tells the young waiter how the old man tried to hang himself a few nights ago. Then the old man orders another drink and the young waiter mutters that the old man should have killed himself the other night. He fills the old man’s drink and whispers into the ear of the deaf man:
“You should have killed yourself.”
In August of 1888, Van Gogh writes to his brother telling him he is about o start work on “The Night Cafe”. These cafes, he writes “stay open all night. This way the ‘night prowlers’ can find a refuge when they don’t have the price of a lodging, or if they’re too drunk to be admitted.”
The old man in Hemingway’s story needs that refuge, I think. And he is drunk.
“He is drunk every night,” the young waiter tells me.
I look back at Van Gogh’s painting, waiter there wearing the white coat. Then I scan the tables, looking for the old man, but I can not find him there.
It’s the voice of the old waiter I hear in my head this time. “This old man is clean,” he says. “He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him.”
In my mind, not the painting, I do look at him. I see the old man seated at a table, his back straight, his eyes forward even though an unseen weight droops his shoulders. He has only the sounds of memories echoing in his ears.
Knowing Hemingway, I wonder if he didn’t put the sounds of war in the old man’s head, the memories of explosions and mortar fire, of guns and screaming, of death and destruction.
In the painting, the thick red of the walls could symbolize the memories of all the blood the old man saw spilled on the battle field. The garish light with their harsh glows seems like explosion.
But the colors are too garish for the old man and his dignity.
Try as I might, I cannot place the old man here, but neither can I shake that feeling that he is here.
I can hear the old waiter speaking again, somewhere off in the distance, almost as if his words pass through old phone lines that swing in wild breezes.
“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” he says. “With those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
I look at the painting again. Why can I hear you, I ask, but not see you?
“You do not understand,” he says. The cafe where he is at, where the old man drinks, is a clean and pleasant cafe. “It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows on the leaves.”
And then I discover that The Night Cafe wasn’t the only painting Van Gogh did of the late night establishments. In the same year that he created the painting above, he also painted “Cafe Terrace at Night.”
Although the crowds are still there, although the painting puts us in Paris and the story in Spain, in my heart none of those details matter. When the crowds clear, it’s here, in this oasis of light that keeps the night dark-blue rather than black, that the old deaf man drinks his brandy. It is this place that the old waiter is reluctant to close.
In my mind, I take a seat here too and feel the night breeze and the quiet. I think about my confidence and about my age.
Then I order a brandy for myself and another for the old man, although I now he is already drunk.
When the old man leaves. I watch the old waiter order is own drink. Eventually, despite his reluctance, he’ll go home too. And as the young waiter and I sleep soundly in the warmth of our wives, the old waiter will lie awake and alone until the dawn.
“It’s probably only insomnia” he’ll think to himself. “Many must have it.”