Lust for Life
Irving Stone’s Lust for Life is a biographical novel of the life of Vincent van Gogh. The novel is based on the letters (approximately 700) written between Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Stone takes creative license and invents some dialogue, situations, etc. , but many of the characters, places, and events are based on events that actually happened, and that were described in the letters written between the brothers. The novel spans approximately ten years, from the time when van Gogh leaves home to become a missionary, until his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. Stone adequately captures Van Gogh’s temperament, as well as his passion for art, although he is never accepted as an artist, by critics or peers.
The novel is written smoothly and vividly. The characters, were distinguishable from one another and they are enhanced by the fact that the story is narrated in the form of a biographical novel. Not only was the novel entertaining and beautifully written, but it shines light on the history of art, the different “schools”, and the relationships between the artists of these schools, without necessarily overwhelming the reader with all the information. The minor characters, also, such as the miners, the weavers, the peasants I found particularly lovely. Van Gogh spent his energy representing beauty in “real” people. I felt that this was one of many ways in which Stone paid tribute to the work and the character of van Gogh.
Although I came to understand the life of van Gogh. Lust for Life is more about his style of painting, his relationships, and the general nature of his family life. I learned a lot about his devotion to his brother and his respect for their parents. But when van Gogh starts going a little bit crazy, and this madness ultimately leads to suicide, I did not come away with a clear understanding of the why? What was happening with van Gogh? He seemed to have episodes every three months, but is that indicative of the Bipolar diagnosis that some (outside of this book) argue? In the book it seems almost as if these episodes/settings were self-inflicted, but this is something that the author does not dwell on, possibly because he wants to stay strictly faithful to Van Gogh’s letters and not give any of his own interpretation of the situation at work. Van Gogh had no wealth, no real income and an impetuous nature. The only woman he could claim a relationship with was a prostitute, and even she left him – this seems to, also, say something about Van Gogh’s personality, as he seems to have had no real friends. We are left with the impression that Van Gogh’s temperament could have been unstable during much of his life, but that it became more pronounced in his last years, as exemplified by his inability to stay in one place. The book hints that isolation and insulation in Arles are what perhaps affected Van Gogh’s mental stability. It is interesting that when he is committed to a lunatic asylum, is also where paints his most acclaimed masterpieces. It is as if Van Gogh needed to go to the extremes of mental exhaustion, to let the body and mind go hungry, in order to create his best work. Lust for Life is a marvelously well written novel. It is honest to the story and the historical characters it represents. Stone does a masterful job of telling the story of one of History’s greatest, most passionate and enigmatic artists.