TITLE: Lust For Life
AUTHOR: Irving Stone
PUBLISHER: Plume Books (NAL Penguin Inc.)
One of the advantages of an education in literature is that I know just what books to turn to for solace in times of trouble. I look for authors who have written their way out of great pain. During my recent heart-crash I found great comfort and insight in Tennessee William's "Night of the Iguana" and an amazing story by James Joyce titled "A Painful Case." I then purchased and devoured a book that had been on my "must read" list for many years: Irving Stone's "Lust For Life."
Lust for Life is a fictionalized account of the life of Vincent Van Gogh. The book was first called to my attention by a student in one of my composition classes who wrote an excellent essay about it. Although told in novel form, the book sticks closely to the actual details of Van Gogh's life, as revealed by the hundreds of detailed letters he wrote to his brother Theo.
Before reading this book all I knew about Van Gogh was that he once held his hand over a flame to prove his love for a woman, that he cut off his ear, that he spent some time in an asylum, and that he eventually killed himself. But there was clearly more to the story than that; those familiar with his life were invariably moved. There is, for example, a beautiful song by Don McLean called "Vincent" which begins with the refrain "starry starry night." I have listened to it many times and wondered about the man who inspired it.
Van Gogh, it turns out, was the quintessential struggling artist, and I suspect that his life (and Irving Stone's book) is the primary source for the relatively modern idea that the artist must suffer. Vincent was a man who gave his heart too freely and suffered horribly for it. Although misunderstood by most people he met, he was loved by children and by the downtrodden peasants he lived with and painted.
Vincent's life raises disturbing questions about the choices we are all forced to make. Should we try to get through life as comfortably and quietly as possible? Or should we struggle and suffer in order to achieve some meaningful end? Vincent, obviously, choose the later path, and although his end was tragic, it was also triumphant. He achieved a mastery of his art and created works of incredible beauty.
His life makes for a dramatic novel. It is a quest-story which builds to a frenzied climax. After reading the novel I sought out a picture book of his paintings, and I am now eager to learn more about visual art. Painters have much to teach writers, and much to teach Ponarvians of any stripe. Vincent's story was a great comfort to me during a dark time and I will be digesting the lessons of his life for many months to come.