Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Irving Stone has without a doubt earned his place as a pillar of American literature through a number of genre and era-defining works, and Lust for Life, published all the way back in 1934, is one of them. Best-described as a semi-fictional biographical novel, it follows t he unusual life of the artist Vincent Van Gogh, who experienced both the greatest highs and the lowest depths of human existence.
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Irving Stone Recreates a Dramatic Life
Being considered a one-of-a-kind genius in any area of life often entails some sort of sacrifice; the brightest and most creative among us are often tortured by elements most of us will never understand. Few lives exemplify this as well as Vincent Van Gogh‘s, the famous Dutch painter and one of the most influential figures in the history of art. In Lust for Life by Irving Stone, we see his life recounted as a novel..
First of all, I do need to clarify, this is indeed a novel and it is fictional in its nature, despite much of it being based on what is known about Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Irving Stone doesn’t seek to change the facts of his existence to suit his story, rather approaching it the other way around. Where there are gaps, he fills them in with his imagination.
The book essentially tells the story of the man’s life, from his birth all the way to his tragic passing. We get to wade through his formative years, seeing how and where he cultivated the brilliance, passion and demons which marked his all-too-short life for evermore.
We are then taken further into his life as it takes on increasingly grandiose proportions, especially his years spent in Southern France in the company of many other artists of equal brilliance. We see the vortex into which his life eventually turns into, and the madness which begins to consume his inner world, ultimately driving him to the desperate acts many remember him for. More than just a recounting of the artist’s existence, Lust for Life attempts to reconstruct the most elaborate portrait possible of his mind, to understand its inner workings better than any history book could hope to.
Normal people do not create art.― Irving Stone, Lust for Life
The Study of a Soul in Lust for Life
Though it seems to me the world has fewer and fewer people who deserve to have their biographies written, we are nevertheless as enthralled with the literary genre as we’ve ever been, and for good reason. The true stories of the extraordinary feats other people were able to accomplish give us hope and inspiration for what we ourselves might one day do (but likely won’t anyhow).
Different biographies have their own appealing elements; some offer extremely accurate and perhaps even new information, while others make an attempt to get inside the mind of whoever they’re writing about. In my opinion, Lust for Life largely falls into the second category, although it also has characteristics from the first one.
A lot might be known about Vincent Van Gogh’s life, but I think it’s fair to say far less is known about his inner world, other than his propensity for being tortured by his personal demons. Nevertheless, Irving Stone went ahead and tried to paint as complete a portrait of it as possible, filling in the gaps with his imagination where he had to.
Naturally, nobody can really attest to the veracity of Stone‘s portrayal of the artist, but it feels to me like over the course of his innumerable hours of research the author built a certain connection with the subject of his book. I have no doubt he gained an understanding of the man few could boast of.
The fictional parts are nigh-impossible to distinguish from the real-world facts they’re sandwiched between, and both worlds come together to form an impressively compelling and detailed depiction of a psychology we are likely to never fully understand. Personally-speaking, this was the main aspect of the book which drew me in: the insightful exploration of a truly unique soul.
I do not know a better cure for mental illness than a book.― Irving Stone, Lust for Life
The Dissection of Suffering
If there was one particular element which marked Vincent Van Gogh‘s soul, it was without a doubt the concept of suffering. Whether physically or mentally (often times both), Vincent endured tremendous hardships time and time again which ended up defining his life on Earth as much as his paintings did, at least for those willing to familiarize themselves with his story.
Time and time again we see him submitted to different trials, from trying to help the poor coal miners of the Borinage to the point of driving himself to near-death, to the failures of his love life and his constant guilt at his inability to produce saleable paintings. Each and every time they not only give shape to his inner character, but also teach him valuable lessons on suffering.
The author’s eloquence, choice of words, and overall talents as a storyteller come to the forefront during such moments, accomplishing an extremely difficult task few writers are up to: to make us understand the reasoning of a mentally-ill person. It is no secret Van Gogh likely suffered from some form of chronic mental illness (many are naturally keen to diagnose him retroactively), but Irving Stone manages to make us understand the inner workings of his mind, and why his pain is so profound.
Numerous passages in the story are dedicated to the thoughts of other artists on the subject, though they all seem to agree on an enlightening principle: true suffering is the best fuel to create profound and meaningful art. Whether you agree with it or not on a personal level, Irving Stone does an absolutely fantastic job in Lust for Life at showing how this philosophy became part of Van Gogh‘s life and drove him further to greatness, even if it was only recognized posthumously.
Watching how Vincent put his accumulated pain to use as he frantically painted one canvas after the next is certainly an inspiring sight, and in my opinion, demonstrates that suffering isn’t just inevitable, but it’s integral to our lives, enriches us, and is necessary to push artists to uncharted frontiers. The way I see it, it’s a philosophy everyone should at least considering implementing in their existence.
The Artistic Whirlwind
Despite its strong biographical and non-fiction overtones, Lust for Life does remain a novel, and for the most part, Irving Stone treats it like on. There is a very coherent and rigidly-structured plot consistently carrying us from point A to point B without giving us many opportunities to be confused or get lost in a sea of characters.
As a matter of fact, I would say it was pleasantly straightforward, and I believe Van Gogh’s life gave Irving Stone enough materials to turn into entertaining segments, even being reminiscent of Michelangelo to some extent. He has plenty of meetings with famous contemporaries, with his lust and passion taking him from one escapade to the next with nary a moment to catch his breath.
Even the passages which are one hundred percent fictional (there is one in particular where the author outright states it) have their own appeal for two reasons. For one, they still contribute to the development of Van Gogh as a novel character, and two, in and of themselves they are quite well-written and carry either interesting, or at the very least, entertaining ideas.
Speaking of the writing, it is very representative of the time it was published in the mid-1930s. The sentences might feel a little different and more complex than what modern literature has accustomed us to, but once I got used to them things started to flow in a rather pleasant manner. Additionally, the lack of vulgar language was something I had forgotten was even possible in a book.
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Ultimately, I think the biographical as well as the fictional worlds come successfully together to form a compelling and complete portrait of the tortured artist… or at least, as complete as we can possibly hope it to be.
How difficult it is to be simple.― Irving Stone, Lust for Life
The Final Verdict
Lust for Life by Irving Stone is considered one of the greatest biographical novels of all time, and I certainly agree with such an appraisal, offering the best of all worlds. Using both fact and fiction to recount the life of an unquestionably unique man and dive deep into his psyche, the book also doesn’t fail to consider the reader’s entertainment.
If you’re looking to discover truly classic American literature worthy of its name, or perhaps want to learn about Vincent Van Gogh from a source other than a textbook, I strongly suggest you add Lust for Life to your collection; either way, it’s a pioneering and genre-defining work.
(July 14th, 1930 – August 16th, 1989)
Irving Stone was an American writer who was best-known for his collection of biographical novels revolving around famous figures, including artists and intellectuals.
Those include Lust for Life about Vincent van Gogh, as well as The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo. Stone was the recipient of the 1956 Spur Award for Men to Match My Mountains, the 1960 Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Berkeley, and the 1961 Commonwealth Club of California Books Award.