Biographies rarely do justice to their protagonists’ stories–glamorising their flaws, meddling with their perspectives, adding unnecessary depth to their personalities–biased as they can be towards their prized main character. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life doesn’t do that.
I picked up the book as somebody whose knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh was limited to keywords like ‘genius painter’, ‘cut off his own ear’, ‘paintings cost millions’ ‘the artist who ushered in Expressionism’–too ignorant to have known genius isn’t a word but an earned title. It’s easy to assume great artistes are naturally gifted or that the talented don’t lead average lives. Assumptions such as these ruthlessly render meaningless the pains and struggles of famous men. Lust for Life is a stunning revelation of this.
It does what it is supposed to do–tell the story of Vincent Van Gogh. And then it goes on to do more.
Stone’s Lust for Life reads like a painting. The description of every mountain, every river, every gorge, every tree, every colour, every shade, is so exact, so clear and so precise that it probably induces the same picture in every reader’s mind. It takes you back to the 19th century, a powerful time of transition in art–from realism to impressionism to post-impressionism. As you turn the pages, you find yourself on the streets of Paris, in the coal mines of Borinage, in the landscapes of Nuenen, in the cottage of the Potato Eaters, under the Starry Night over the Rhone, in the Wheat field with Cypresses.
What makes you fall in love with this book is Gogh, the man who craves to be loved, who like every human being craves for a family, children and a home. Rarely does he find any of it as he struggles with denials and rejections every step of the way.
Anybody who has ever been loathed by society because of their eccentricities will see themselves in Gogh. His pain becomes your own as you feel his sorrow through every rejection, every insult, and every denial. To add to it, the powerful realisation that it isn’t just a story you are reading but a wonderful mesh of facts and fiction weaving the life of a real man who existed on the planet same as you are on now–Lust for Life engulfs you, to say the least.
Reading about his descent into madness and how he struggles with it, refusing to let go of his paintings, guarding every last shred of sanity with all his might–elicits not sympathy but a strange form of pride reserved only for those who dare to be passionate even at the risk of going insane.
Even though you are likely to close the book with a heavy heart, reading it is an experience like no other. To be accepted, to be understood, to be acknowledged by at least one person, and to have it all and more, after death, is the irony that was the life of Gogh. His life, in some ways, did mirror the city of Arles. Like Stone puts it aptly “forever reaching a climax and never having one.”