Friday, April 30, 2010

Further thought on letters

Just an extra little thought for today, one that occurred to me after I finished my last post, about using real life letters in a historical fiction. First, I should clarify that while Van Gogh was a voluminous letter writer, at least from the viewpoint of the 20th and 21st centuries, and while his letters provide crucial insight into what he did, thought, and believed over a span of decades (and, I think, is a big reason why he is and has been such a fascinating figure to literary people), letters occupy only a small fraction of my novel. If someone is a nearly unstoppable letter writer, it's just not possible to cancel out that aspect of his character when you fictionalize him. Or I didn't think so. Even so, dramatizing Van Gogh's life is my point and my method in the novel; I never really wanted to do else.

But the dilemma that I discusssed in my last post, whether or not to present the Antwerp period of Van Gogh's life as simply a series of letters between he and Theo, made me wonder if one couldn't simply create a different sort of Van Gogh novel, one that is purely epistolary. After all, the epistolary novel is hardly a new or rare phenomenon. Couldn't someone simply do something like that with Van Gogh? And then, simultaneous with this idea, I had two countering thoughts: 1) What do we need an Van Gogh epistolary novel for when his Collected Letters already exists and is such a profound resource? and 2) There already is a Van Gogh episotlary "novel." Sort of. Irving Stone--one of the first literary figures to discover Van Gogh as a subject--published a book called Dear Theo way back in the 1930s. (And it's still in print.) Dear Theo is a volume of selected letters--a very carefully culled and arranged volume. What Stone tries to do in Dear Theo is select pieces from, and edit, Van Gogh's letters so that they make a consistent narrative with a palpable dramatic arc. Therefore the book, while purely Van Gogh's writing, reads less like a straightforward selection of letters than like a novel. (By the way, there are a variety of other Van Gogh Selected Letters available, each chosen by different editorial eyes with different aims in mind.) So, in short, if an epistolary Van Gogh novel sounds like your cup of tea, I suggest you go out and buy Dear Theo!


Post a Comment