Disha Acharya's Reviews > Lust for Life

Lust for Life by Irving Stone
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Apr 01, 12

bookshelves: memoir-biography
Read from March 07 to April 01, 2012

‘No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.’- Doctor Gachet (pg.412) This sentence spoken by Doctor Gachet best sum up the brilliant genius that was Vincent Van Gogh. What an amazing painter and individual, driven by the ‘lust for life’, his passion for art, just takes your breath away! What a lonely man, driven by a need for love and comfort but finding none save in his beloved brother Theo and his paintings.
This is a poignant, wonderful, inspiring and yet heart breaking story of Vincent Van Gogh. I have always been intrigued by his story and since I love Impressionistic paintings, I always wanted to read the story of his life, finally after much postponing, I am so glad and thankful to myself and my best friend who lent it to me that I finally read it. As a rule, I do not read biographies, I prefer fiction, I find inspiration and love in the imagination of the writer rather than in the life of the artist. However, for Van Gogh, my rule had to be broken, his story just simply has to be read and enjoyed and cried over. Anyone, who loves the arts, be it writing, painting, poetry etc. simply must read this book. Anyone who has struggled to write or paint or has considered himself/ herself to be ‘different’ in society and has struggled to live by one’s own principles and has faced hurdles to achieve one’s dreams must read this book. It is awe – inspiring and uplifting in such a beautiful way, that it cannot be captured in language. Quite simply put, Vincent’s life leaps from the books’ pages just like his beautiful sunflowers or his cornfields burst with passion and the joie de vivre of life itself.
My favorite painter has always been Claude Monet; I love Impressionism as a movement, simply because it celebrates colour. I love colours too; colours simply define life for us. What would life be without a little (or a lot of) colour? Imagine our life in just grey (mind you I love these three colours as well) or just plain black and white? Is it not terrifying to think thus? Now that I have read about Van Gogh’s love for colour and how he wanted to just capture the brilliance of the blue sky and the red of the sun or the lemon – yellow of the sunset, I must say that I am bowled by him and he is now my favourite along with Monet!
I realize I am digressing as this review is about the book and not the painter- Van Gogh and therein lies the conundrum for me as a reviewer. This is an excellent story a five star or in fact a ten star story or as many stars story as there are stars in his ‘Starry Night’ but then again the book is not that, it is perhaps a three star book but in honour of the memory of Van Gogh and because I want people to know more about his life, I have given it four stars. Let me elucidate for you the problems that I had with this book.
1) The writing was bad. What I mean to say is that it simply lacked depth. It certainly was not passionate like Vincent was, it failed to make Vincent in to a three dimensional character that every book should make its character. The writing is dispassionate and clinical, which was a let down, it did not make me want to turn the pages and read it at a stretch. The only thing that kept me going was my wanting to know what would happen to Vincent next.
2) Some incidents could have been highlighted and given a certain depth of feeling and thought which it lacked. For example, when Vincent dies, perhaps Theo’s grief and heart break could have explained in a better manner.
3) I also feel that what the book lacked was psychological depth. I also do feel that the writer could have done a better job of explaining to us or getting in to not only Vincent’s mind but also other characters, like Theo’s for example. The beautiful, sublime relationship that the brothers shared can be gleaned from the story but not from the writing. It is always unfair to compare but perhaps if the book had be written in the form of ‘stream of consciousness’ style then it would have read better. Ian Mc Ewan for example, brilliantly captures the heart and mind of all the characters in ‘Atonement’.
4) There was a generous, liberal use of French in the novel, which is understandable as Vincent knew and spoke in French and also lived in France, however, not everyone in the world knows French and I don’t think it was necessary to use so much of the language clearly when it was not needed. It just felt like it was put on there without any reason. Don’t take me wrong, I love the language but the fact is when the novelist imposes on its non – French readers a language which is not universal; it does not make it for much of happy reading, I had to scramble to find translations or rely on friends, which impeded my reading even further. A glossary of the translations would have been extremely useful.

I did skim through a few reviews of the book before starting out, and I remember I read one review where the reviewer had commented upon the writing and how it was a wonderful story but suffered from bad writing, I agree with the reviewer a full hundred per cent. The novel reads like ‘this happened and then that happened’; I mean that the writing is that simplistic!
Surely a complicated, amazing man deserved a better form of writing!

5) I had a problem with a certain chapter titled ‘Maya’ which comes under the section ‘Arles’. I thought it was highly unnecessary and quite strange. I understand that Stone wanted us to understand that Van Gogh was hallucinating but surely Stone could have managed something better than Vincent imagining a woman in white and then proceed to have sex with her? That was just so cheesy and stereotypical and also did not fit in well with the narrative or the story. I did not understand how it fit in anywhere with how Vincent was as a painter or a man. Surely the need for love was great in Vincent especially because he was so misunderstood but surely bringing a woman who claims to love him passionately only to make her an illusion seemed to be a little too cruel for me! Stone admits in the ‘Note’ at the end that this chapter is purely fictitious and imagined by Stone and not by Van Gogh.

6) ‘Madness’ which is of course more metaphorical and less literal when it comes to Vincent’s life is not tackled well. The picture one gets upon reading the novel is that all artists are ‘mad’, clinically ‘mad’. I do understand that Vincent did suffer from a serious physical condition, but the writer should have brought out the metaphor of ‘madness’. How anyone different in society and who harbours a different set of beliefs is perceived as ‘mad’. Stone does touch upon this, but not much, which again was a let down.

Having said all that, I must say that the fact that Stone decided to research and work on Vincent’s story is in itself quite exemplary and a marvelous artistic achievement in itself. What is also quite brilliant about the book is the fact that Stone is completely unjudgemental and simply relates the story of Vincent which I think is also quite a contradiction to what I said earlier, maybe because he is deliberately so dispassionate in his writing as he realizes he is writing about a real person and not a fictitious character and yes capturing the essence of someone like Vincent must be more than an uphill task. Writing fiction is by no way easy but then writing someone’s biography of someone so loved and celebrated all over the world must be difficult as well and I must congratulate Stone on that account. If nothing else, at least the story of a genius so misunderstood and unloved in his lifetime can finally be loved and read by millions around the world, thanks to this book.

Vincent is embodied for me in this poem of Wordsworth –
‘My Heart Leaps up When I Behold’


My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began.
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Thank you for all the passion and love of colour and the ability to live on your dreams and to live only for your dreams. Thank you!
My heart leaps up Vincent when I behold your ‘Starry Night’


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