Ninus D. Andarnuswari
There is always something remarkable about biographical novels. Bringing an element of fiction to history, they allow readers to experience another era, to witness events and meet personalities who have made the world what it is today.
“Lust for Life,” a biographical novel about the illustrious Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), gives readers that chance to escape to another time and place. Originally written by American author Irving Stone in the 1930s, the novel has found new life in an Indonesian translation by Rahmani Astuti, released by publisher Serambi in July this year.
With the same English title as the original, “Lust for Life” brings to an Indonesian audience the story of the most famously misunderstood painter in modern history.
Stone studied the correspondence between van Gogh and his brother Theo to put together the gripping story of a man who took on the world to express his way of seeing things. Keeping extraordinary faith in times of great difficulties, van Gogh was able to help other artists pave the way for the emergence of new ideas and forms of expression.
Today van Gogh’s paintings are worth millions of dollars each. But in his lifetime he managed to sell only one canvas, and was only able to struggle ahead thanks to the support of his loyal and steadfast brother, Theo.
Each chapter of “Lust for Life” recounts van Gogh’s challenges in one of the different cities or regions he lived in throughout his life. As a prologue, Stone introduces readers to the 21-year-old van Gogh, when he started his career as a salesman at the art dealer Goupil & Cie.. With Stone’s empathetic rendering, readers are swayed in the artist’s favor from the beginning.
It all began with a broken heart. Turned down by a young lady by the name of Ursula Loyer, the young van Gogh believed his unbearable pain could only be eased by a higher calling: to contribute something to humanity. Deciding to become a priest, he left for Amsterdam to study under the supervision of his uncleJohannes Stricker, a theologian.
There he was also tutored in Latin and Ancient Greek by the Jewish teacher M.B. Mendes da Costa. Van Gogh was a diligent student but Da Costa quickly realized that his eyes only really lit up when they were discussing the works of great painters in the Christian tradition.
Da Costa then imparted a very important lesson to his pupil: The drive to dedicate oneself to humanity can be channeled through every kind of honest and faithful work one can do.
Motivated by Da Costa’s words, van Gogh departed for Brussels, where he attended a school for evangelists. Soon afterward, the young idealist was posted to Petit-Wasmes in the Borinage — a small, poor and destitute coal mining town in southern Belgium.
In the Borinage, Van Gogh organized masses, preached, cared for the sick and provided solace to the people. He gave all his belongings to those who were in need, and advocated on the poor workers’ behalf with the mining company.
But the people’s extreme poverty and vulnerability under a dehumanizing labor system deeply affected van Gogh. At first believing that he had to elevate the people in God’s name, he later saw that their hard work, honesty and spiritual dedication did not match their blessings. It was in the Borinage that van Gogh lost his faith in God.
Spending months in limbo, the disillusioned young man eventually found solace in sketching. It was then that he finally had the revelation that he should aspire to deliver the essence of humanity through painting. With his brother Theo’s help, van Gogh recovered his path in life, and started out on the journey of becoming a painter who never once compromised the genuine strokes of his brush.
Van Gogh’s pursuit of perfection in his work often put him in contention with his family members and others. His painting style and themes were deemed unfit for galleries, while the honor of his family name obliged him to excel. Evermore impoverished and inept at communicating his thoughts, van Gogh endured several heartaches, snubs and rejections. But throughout all these ordeals he remained focused, working from morning to night to master strokes, colors and the essences of things and beings.
Among the places he lived, Paris was one of the busiest. There he became involved in the lively art scene, befriended by daring painters like Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. With these artists, who formed a front against old paradigms in art, van Gogh felt for the first time that he wasn’t alone.
But a stronger urge drove him further south to Arles, an ancient Roman city by the Rhone where the sunlight was supposed to help him better his painting. This city was the place where he notoriously cut off his own earlobe while suffering from severe depression.
At the end of the book, a note from Irving Stone discloses the parts that were his own fabrications. Fact or fiction, “Lust for Life” is a fascinating window into another life in another time that will leave readers enriched.
An exceptional man with an exceptional life, van Gogh left behind a legacy that testifies for a faith both strong and fragile. Reading this book, and rediscovering those works of art, is a truly amazing insight into the meaning of struggle.