Lust for Life – Irving Stone

5 May

The biographical novel is a much maligned art form. There is always some sniveling factasaurus off in the corner saying “how do they know that really happened?” It’s not enough to put a little faith in the biographer and assume that an informed guess was made as a result of intense and thoughtful research into the subject. No, no, no. That kind of fool-hearted assumption is how wars get started, flags burned and puppies get kicked. We’ll have none of that! If the general public can’t bear to slog through a well-written biography to get their glimpse into the past then that’s their problem. Part of the fun of learning about a historical personage is being bored to tears.

Now, I like a biography or two. I like two biographies. At least. But even I can start thinking “when is this guy going to die already” with some of the most interesting subjects. I think that this is the result of biography writing being pretty dang tricky. First, you have to live and breathe subject to the point that your friends see you and run off with excuses of laundry to alphabetize or food to repair just so that they won’t have to hear about that new journal you might have found of someone’s gardening habits. Then you have to write about this person in a way that makes them interesting for someone even during the sections of their lives when they are paint-dryingly dull. By then you might not even remember why you wanted to author a book on this guy in the first place and now you have to make their love of even numbers sound as interesting as some guy cutting off his ear (sorry, Vincent).

I think that Irving Stone not only excels at the art of biographical novel but I think that he defines the practice. Vincent Van Gogh doesn’t not need much help to become an interesting subject but Stone does more than keep our attention. He makes us feel like we know Van Gogh. For the rest of my life when someone makes a joke about this artistic genius being Looney Tunes, I’m going to take it personally, as if someone were commenting on my real life friend.

Vincent’s life is tough. Quite a lot of what makes it challenging is that his talent makes him pretty solitary. He sees the world differently and we have trouble allowing someone to do that, don’t we? He didn’t care about social conventions, money or status. He really just wanted to paint things that were real. He was so in love with life that it pained him. And though I wish that there wasn’t an Iggy Pop song of the same name (because that’s what played in my head every time I picked this book up), the title of this book is very fitting. Van Gogh literally could not rest because he felt so drawn to paint the beauty of the world.

Van Gogh spent time as a minister, preaching to the very poorest miners. He saw how dire and dangerous their lives were and he gave everything that he have only to find that there wouldn’t ever be a solution. That part of their survival involved living on the sharpest of edges. Then he started painting and attempted to learn from those whose vision was much narrower than his own – both in art in and life – if you don’t play the reindeer games they stop inviting you to play. I think that you combine his unique talent and his sensitivity and your result is a man that isn’t going to be a round for very long.

Did you ever hear the song “Starry, Starry Night” by Don McLean, the guy who wrote “American Pie”? We sang it when I was in show choir and I loved it at the same time that I thought it was cheese-rific. Now I think that you couldn’t really write anything about someone who felt everything so deeply without kind of sounding like you’re a thirteen year-old girl.

So, yes. Please read this book. Or at the very least look up this painting: ” Sunny Meadow in Arles”. Notice how he puts the horizon towards the top of the painting? That’s supposed to make us feel calm because we know that this setting surrounds us. And the colors? That’s something that Van Gogh discovered during his time in this part of southern France. The sun was so intense and winds (called the mistral) were so forceful that Vincent knew that his sanity was leaving him but he felt like he needed to paint anyway. Doesn’t that kind of gusto deserve a biography that doesn’t just list names and dates? Oh, gosh. I sure think so.


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