Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review: Lust for Life by Irving Stone

Most artists know passion as the essential driving force of their creative work and recognise it as a precondition for their advancement and eventually success. It can grow so powerful, though, that it becomes an all-consuming, often uncontrollable obsession bordering on lunacy and even closest friends or family react with incomprehension or fear. A strong fit of working passion may bring to light a great masterpiece or result in the complete breakdown of the artist. Sometimes neither. Sometimes both. The classical “bio-history” Lust for Life by Irving Stone shows the painter Vincent Van Gogh as he changes from a not quite ordinary young man from Brabant who seeks his true vocation in life to the fanatical painter who finds his own way. Whatever he does, he does it with all his body and soul risking physical as well as mental health and not wasting a doubt on whether his efforts are worthwhile or not.

Irving Stone was born Irving Tennenbaum in San Francisco, California, USA, in April 1903 and later legally adopted his stepfather’s surname. After his studies at the University of California in Berkley and a stint as a teaching assistant, he lived in Paris with his first wife for the rest of the 1920s. Back in the USA, he began to write and, after several setbacks, he made his literary debut with Lust for Life (1934), a “bio-history” surrounding the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. In the course of fifty years the author brought out many other popular biographical novels and non-fiction biographies, most noteworthy among them Sailor on Horseback (1938) about Jack London, The President's Lady (1951) about American president Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel Donelson Jackson, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961) about Renaissance artist Michelangelo, The Passions of the Mind (1971) about Sigmund Freud, and The Origin (1980) about Charles Darwin. Irving Stone died in Los Angeles, California, USA, in August 1989.

In 1874, boundless Lust for Life comes over Vincent Van Gogh. He is twenty-one years old and in love for the first time. His career as an art dealer in London is promising, not least because he belongs to the important Van Gogh family and his childless uncle is owner of a half of Goupil Galleries in Europe. Alas, his adored vehemently rejects his advances and during summer holidays in Brabant where his father is dominie, he becomes once again the gloomy and reclusive lad he used to be. Back in London, he can hardly bear selling art.
“[…] Vincent had lost his sense of delight in making money for the gallery. He had very little patience with the people who came in to buy. They not only could not tell the difference between good and bad art, but seemed to have a positive talent for choosing the artificial, the obvious, and the cheap.”
After stints in other jobs, Vincent decides to follow the family tradition and become a minister, but slowly he realises that he isn’t cut out for formal theological studies at university. Instead he undergoes three-month training in Brussels and becomes an evangelist in the Borinage, the coal mining district in southern Belgium. Having discovered during a visit his scandalous way of sharing the hardships of his flock, his superiors forbid him to preach. Not knowing what else to do, he stays in the Borinage and before long he feels the growing urge to draw. Vincent is half starved and ill, when his brother Theo comes to see him and makes an unexpected offer:
“[…] Now if there is something you want to do, and you will need help right at first, simply tell me that you have at last found your real life work, and we'll form a partnership. You'll supply the work and I'll supply the funds. After we've put you on a paying basis, you can return the investment with dividends. […]”
From then on Vincent lives off the money that Theo can spare from his salary as an art dealer in Paris. He paints obsessively to find his own style. For a while he lives with his parents in Brabant, then he moves on whenever he feels that it’s time or he is forced to leave by a scandal surrounding him. He goes to The Hague, to the village of Nuenen, to his brother Theo in Paris, to Arles, to the insane asylum of St. Remy, and eventually to Auvers-sur-l'Oise.

As a fictionalised biography Lust for Life, of course, gives detailed account of all important – and usually well-known – facts surrounding the painter Vincent Van Gogh, but most of all it shows him as the exceptional, not to say eccentric innovator of art who lived his vocation with incredible passion and against all obstacles. There can be no doubt that painstaking research preceded the writing of the book, and yet, there may be aspects of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and his character in it that art history as well as psychology refuted or specified in the past eighty years. For instance, what kind of mental disorder caused the painter’s fits and brought him into the insane asylum is subject of dispute until today. Not least thanks to his thorough knowledge of the extensive correspondence between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo as well as of the places where he lived at different stages of his turbulent life, the author managed to write a very authentic and vivid portrait of the painter. Also the dialogues, thoughts and visions that he had to imagine feel entirely credible. The novel’s language is simple with a pleasant flow that makes it an engaging read.

It’s true that Lust for Life by Irving Stone isn’t actually the most recent novel surrounding the life of Vincent Van Gogh whose pictures keep selling for breathtakingly high prices whenever one of them is put on the market. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it as a rather interesting as well as succeeded introduction into the environment and time that made him (and many others) the accomplished painter who didn’t live to see his new technique recognised. In my opinion, one of the book’s greatest merits is that its focus is on the man, on his relationships and on his personal development rather than on his one crazy deed – cutting off his ear or part of it – that still puzzles, intrigues and makes shudder. I wouldn’t rely on it, though, as regards Van Gogh’s mental state because Irving Stone was a layperson in such matter just like me and most people. Still it’s a worthwhile read.

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1 comment:

  1. Great review Edith. This one is on my list to read. I loved Stone's Michelangelo novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy. I have also read Immortal Wife and Love is Eternal, both about wives of US Presidents.


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