The man who found seven loves in the life of Vincent Van Gogh hopes that the printer will not call this cocktail a Lust for Wife, although even that is not without its virtues.
1/2 SLOE GIN 1/2 APRICOT BRANDY
JUICE OF 1/2 LIME
Fill with ice, shake and serve
– From So Red the Nose
Sloe is a gin infusion made in an attempt to sweeten the naturally-repulsive blackthorn drupes of England. It has a strong, syrupy flavor that isn’t bad per se, but which is best enjoyed when diluted by milder ingredients, such as in the sloe gin fizz.
Next, we have apricot brandy, which is actually a liqueur, although, confusingly enough, brandy made from apricots is a thing that exists, just not in common use either now or then. I bought what is apparently considered the “best” brand, even though most articles I read about apricot liqueur came with the disclaimer that it is one of those weird things people believed in in less enlightened times, like segregation or bloomers. I didn’t think it was all that bad, but it definitely needs a less pungent mixer than sloe gin. Oh, and don’t smell it before you taste, or it will bring back all kinds of suppressed memories of being force-fed cough syrup as a child.
BECAUSE A DRINK DEDICATED TO VINCENT VAN GOGH SHOULD HAVE ABSINTHE IN IT OMG IRVING STONE WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!? At first I thought the pretty orange color of the liqueur was meant to match Van Gogh’s vivid hair, but the sloe gin just cancels that out anyway. You have no excuse, Stone. This cocktail is a travesty.
Actually, if you’re looking for other Vincent Van Gogh-themed alcohol, there’s a Van Gogh Vodka company that produces 25 disgusting-sounding flavors (PB&J, anyone?). It’s fun to reuse works of genius for crass commercial purposes! I barely finished reading about Van Gogh’s heart-breaking mental decline and too-early death, so I don’t really have the stomach to link to it. You can google that shit yourself.
He could do without a wife, a home, and children; he could do without love and friendship and health; he could do without security, comfort, and food; he could even do without God. But he could not do without something which was greater than himself, which was his life — the power and ability to create.
– From Lust for Life
Irving Stone made a pretty good living out of writing semi-fictionalized works of history and disguising them under the covers of trashy pulp fiction. In addition to those of artists, he also wrote biographies of scientists, psychologists, pioneers, and a surprisingly numerous collection of love stories between Presidents and their First Ladies. Who knew that so many historical events were actually the backdrop to tragic romances, a la Titanic and Pearl Harbor? This guy would have fit right in in the 90’s.
But Stone’s abundant and highly-lauded career all began with his 1934 novel based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, a man he became fascinated with during a trip to Paris. Although technically a work of fiction, Lust for Life hews pretty closely to the true story, mined largely from the rich vein of Van Gogh’s some 700 letters to his brother Theo. Stone merely shapes the biographical facts into a narrative and fills in some of the finer details with his imagination.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint whether Lust for Life’s original and continued success is due to Stone’s skill as a writer or the natural appeal of his source material.
And Van Gogh’s life is indeed a fascinating one. First, you have the tension between genius and mental illness. Even today, historians and art scholars debate the riddle Stone posed in his novel:
…they wondered if he painted because he was crazy, or if he was crazy because he painted.
Stone would definitely answer with the latter, by the way. In this book, he portrays a man who sacrifices everything, cumulating with his sanity, for his art: Vincent goes without food or sleep while sustaining himself on tobacco and absinthe, spends long hours working in the wind or sun or pouring rain, and forgoes almost all human interaction or respect, just for the sake of being able to say the things he wants to say the way he wants to say them. It’s a kind of insanity the reader can admire.
On the other hand, Stone doesn’t sugar-coat the harm Van Gogh’s mental illness caused to himself and to those around him. There’s a particularly powerful example of this in the first half of the book. Vincent has become obsessed with a woman who has given him a firm “no, never” (neither the first nor last of Vincent’s issues with women). It will be another 115 years before Vincent can learn the phrase”no means no,” however, and he pursues Kay to the point that the her father is aggressively blocking him from seeing her. Vincent then proceeds to intentionally burn his hand with a candle while the father looks on with horror.
It’s a terrifying scene. Suddenly our protagonist switches from being bumbling and unlucky-in-love to dangerous and unpredictable. This is someone we the readers liked, still like, and will continue to like, but we also realize there is something sinister laying deep inside that brilliant mind. The scene also establishes Vincent’s self-destructive tendencies, foreshadowing the infamous ear incident and his eventual suicide. Scenes like that are the mark of a excellent creative writer.
Except this one. The candle incident actually happened in real life and was recounted word-for-word in Van Gogh’s letters. This is what I’m talking about when I say it’s hard to separate the writer from the material.
Besides the rule that everyone loves crazy, Van Gogh’s story also has the romantic appeal of the misunderstood genius. Every creative who has thought that one day, someday their brilliance will be recognized and their critics left eating their words has the story of Vincent Van Gogh buried in their subconscious. It’s satisfying to the reader to experience all of Vincent’s struggles from the comfortable position of hindsight, knowing that this unemployed outcast will become one of the most celebrated artists of all time.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
It does have parts that drag, especially at the beginning of Vincent’s career when he was, of all things, a missionary to coal miners. The book is bloated in a way that’s not surprising in a first novel regarding a subject the author is blindly passionate about. But the payoff is definitely worth it. My heart broke for Vincent a hundred times, especially at the end when…well, you probably know how it ends.
On the other hand, if you’re a Van Gogh buff — you’ve probably already heard about this book for one — but I’m not sure how much you’ll enjoy it precisely because of how closely it sticks to the true story, without offering too many new insights. It does have the advantage of being one of the earlier Van Gogh “biographies,” though, and Stone claims to have interviewed a few of the then remaining people who knew Van Gogh in the flesh. So that’s cool.
Even though I’m glad I didn’t know much about Van Gogh the person, I wish I had gone into this book more familiar with his art. You just get a little thrill every time Stone starts describing a piece that you recognize (whether from Van Gogh or the plethora of other other big names he interacts with). It’s like vicariously seeing these masterpieces for the first time.
So in conclusion: paintings: life-changing, book: worthwhile, absinthe: dangerous to the mentally-ill but still way better than syrupy schlock.
Lust for Life is still in print and available in paperback, hardcover, and audio versions on Amazon.
Next Time: Weighing in at 1224 pages, the longest work in the So Red the Nose canon. And perhaps my whole lifetime of reading. See you on the other side.