Irving Stone’s Lust for Life is a biographical novelization of the life of Vincent van Gogh. The novel is based on the many letters (approximately 700) written between Vincent van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo. Stone takes author’s creative license and invents dialogue, situations, etc. but many of the characters, places, and events are based on events which really happened and which were described in the brothers’ letters. The novel spans approximately ten years, from the time van Gogh leaves home to become a missionary, to his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. Stone appropriately captures van Gogh’s temperament, as well as his passion for art, though never quite having been accepted as an artist in his lifetime, by critics or peers.
Where to begin? Essentially, almost any and every aspect of this novel is “good.” The novel is written so well, so fluidly and vividly, that for much of the novel I truly felt like I was watching a movie. The characters – many of them historically familiar- came to life for me, were distinguishable from one another and were eerily true to the impression I had of many of these people (at least the ones I had heard of prior to reading this book). I appreciated especially that Stone recreated such a believable, seamless biography from letters composed between the two van Gogh brothers. It would have been simple to present this in epistolary form, but I think the beauty and connection between the reader and the characters (aka historical figures) is greatly enhanced by being presented in the biographical novel form. Not only was the novel entertaining and beautifully written, but as someone not too familiar with art history and the “schools” or relationships between these artists (Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat, Degas, etc) I was pleased to have been able to learn so much and to appreciate the life and works of these men (and women) without necessarily feeling overwhelmed by all of the new information. I was impressed by the attention paid to each of the major artists and their particular artistic style: Seurat’s scientific/intellectual approach; Gauguin’s love of color; Rousseau’s imagination. I found myself running to my cell phone or laptop many, many times so I could look up examples of the artists’ paintings (sometimes specifically referenced, sometimes particularly styles – like pointillism – mentioned in dialogue) and this greatly enhanced the novel for me, in terms of connectivity and imagery. The minor characters, too, such as the miners, the weavers, the peasants, and van Gogh’s many “women” were also well established – something I found particularly endearing as van Gogh himself spent his greatest energies on representing beauty in the “real” people, and not the typical interpretations of the beautiful. I felt this was one of many ways in which Stone paid homage to the work and character of van Gogh, while telling his life story. I was quite impressed by the author’s desire to remain honest and respectful – Stone presents the reader with the good and bad, the instability and the romance – and he lets the reader make his own judgments (as van Gogh would strive to represent the spirit of the painting, without putting his own moral judgment on the model).
The one singular fault I could find with this novel is that, though I came to understand van Gogh’s life and time quite well, I don’t know that I particularly understand van Gogh much better. I certainly know more about his painting style, his relationships, his general character and family life. I learned much about his devotion to his brother and his respect for his parents. Yet, for instance, when van Gogh begins to go a bit mad (we get the impression this is induced by sun stroke) and that madness ultimately leads to his suicide, I don’t get a clear understanding of the “why?” What was really going on with van Gogh? He would have his episodes every three months, like clockwork, but does any real ailment actually happen like that? It seems, almost, that these episodes/fits were self-induced, but this is something the author does not hypothesize about – possibly because he means to speak strictly from the van Gogh letters and not put any of his own interpretations of the situation into the work. Still, I would have appreciated a better understanding of why, for instance, van Gogh was so disturbing to women – he had no wealth, no real income, and a boisterous character, certainly, but that the only woman he could claim as a wife (in name, not legality) was a prostitute, and even she left him – this seems, too, to say something about van Gogh’s personality that is conspicuously absent from the novel. Vincent van Gogh also had no real friends – many people are said to be frightened of him, even. I am left with the impression that van Gogh’s temperament may have been unstable for much of his life, but only became more pronounced in his later years – the inability to stay in one place, to go into passions over an idea (such as the artist’s commune) and then suddenly, without warning or reason, drop and dismiss the passions entirely. The sun stroke and the isolation in Arles perhaps further subjected van Gogh to his own mental instability. It is interesting that in Arles and St. Remy, where he begins to lose his wits (and is committed to an insane asylum), is also where he paints his acclaimed masterpieces: “The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum”, the “Sunflowers” series, and “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” It’s almost as if van Gogh needed to work himself to mental exhaustion, to starve his body and rack his mind to its limits in order to create his very best work. While some of these episodes are well written, and the decline is indicated clearly and orderly, I still found the reasoning, the underlying cause, missing.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5.0
Upon reflection and review, I find Lust for Life to be an almost perfect novel. It is well-written. It is, as far as I can tell, honest to history and the historical figures it represents. Stone does a masterful and delicate job of re-telling the life story of one of history’s greatest and most well-known artists. Though I would have appreciated more time having been spent on van Gogh’s mental decline, I did find the decline easy to follow and to witness. Some other elements, like van Gogh’s infamous alcoholism and “smoker’s cough” were left out (there was plenty of drinking – but a “problem” was not implied) which, perhaps, Stone did not find necessary, but I believe it detracts from some of the underlying problems (does a sober man really cut off his ear?). Still, though, the language, the relevance, the relationships, the characterization and emotion are all brilliant. Stone even makes an effort to present his characters in the manner which van Gogh would paint his own models and landscapes, an ingenious and, I’m sure, incredibly difficult task to accomplish. This has been one of the best pieces of biographical fiction I’ve ever read, and even one of the best novels I’ve enjoyed in my rather large reading history. I eagerly await the chance to read Stone’s “masterpiece,” The Agony and the Ecstasy which is another biographical novel, this one about Michelangelo.