Book Review: Lust for Life by Irving Stone

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Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers. 1888. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London. Source

Even though I’m often in a mess, inside me there’s still a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings. And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistible urge. As time passes, other things are increasingly excluded, and the more they are the faster my eyes see the picturesque. Art demands persistent work, work in spite of everything, and unceasing observation.
– Vincent van Gogh, the Hague, on or about 21 July 1882, to Theo van Gogh (Letter #249)

It’s been a long time since a book made me cry– and I mean actually cry, not just get misty-eyed. I honestly kind of hate admitting that fact, as this book is very much an artifact of 1934 (when it was first published): while it is undoubtedly a classic, it is also a modernist (i.e. heroic and slightly masculinist) telling of the artistic life of Vincent van Gogh. Furthermore, one cannot help questioning the veracity of the biography because many parts had to be speculations by Irving Stone because of how the book is written. Nevertheless, I, like many others, am a fan of van Gogh’s work and have always been fascinated by his tragic life story. And, in all fairness, credit is due to Stone for his research of van Gogh’s 700+ letters to Theo, as well as his admission at the end of the book that some of the scenes were informed imaginings.

I’ve decided that this review is going to be not so much a full-on book review of Lust for Life, but rather several analyses of parts of the book that align with things that have been discovered about van Gogh and his work in recent years. Also, because I listened to the audiobook over the course of 3 weeks instead of physically reading it, my ability to cite specific quotes will be limited, and I apologize in advance for any discrepancies between my interpretation and the source material.  Continue reading

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