Monday, October 20, 2014

New Van Gogh collection!

When I was working on my Van Gogh novel, Days on Fire, the one source I found myself coming back to constantly was the mammoth, three volume, hardbound Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, published originally by Bulfinch back in the 1950s.  It's an incredible resource: a better, fairer, clearer view into the mind and world of Van Gogh than any biography or novel (shhhh) or recollection "by those who knew him" (which are often marred by how little they really knew him).  Exacting descriptions of place he has visited; despair about his artwork and exultation about the same; resentment toward his brother and exhortations to him; disputes with his father; chatty discussions about (now long forgotten) artists or art dealers or paint supply store owners; opinions about the (countless) books he read; revelations about the women he loves and about love itself; depictions of the depressingly, growingly hopeless life at St. Paul's asylum in Saint Rémy--it's all there, along with so much more.  A whole adult life documented with a fantaticism of detail that is just about one of a kind, really.  As I say so often, I think surely it must be these letters--and Van Gogh's roadside eloquence--that accounts for our continued fascination with the man, just as much as his beautiful paintings and a life that was marked with so much tragedy, idealism, and stubbornness.   The one drawback to such a thorough recored, of course, is its necessary length.  The Complete Letters runs to something like 1800 pages.   Not a weekend read!  And while it's useful to watch the arc of the man's life play out over these hundreds of missives, long and short, profound and mundane, energized and bored and despairing, it's also true that not every letter is crucial to understanding Van Gogh, his time, and his milieau.  Or not crucial in the same way.  

So it's welcome news that in December a new selected edition of Van Gogh's letters will be published by Yale University Press, one with the beguiling title Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.  You might have read Dan Piepenbring's early glimpse into the volume, published recently in Paris Review.  It certainly does sound like a promising new book: almost 800 pages in length, with 265 out of the extant 820 letters included, along with family photographs and 87 pages worth of reproductions from the actual handwritten letters.  At $50 it doesn't come cheap, but for a Van Gogh lover--or anyone simply curious about learning more about this fascinating person--it looks to me like money well spent. Of course, which letters you finally deem "essential" will depend on who you are and what you are trying to learn about the painter, but without yet having had the chance to review the collection I can take a pretty fair guess at some of the letters regarded as "musts": the letters written to Theo in the period of abject despair and loss of identity after being removed from his position as lay minister to miners in the Borinage region of Belgium; the letters to Theo explaining why the "no" delivered to Vincent by his cousin K was not really a "no," and why even in the turbulent state of his emotions it was better by far to feel such a powerful love than none at all; the letters to Theo glorifying the peaceful home life he enjoyed with his new life partner Sien and why, despite her being a former prostitute, Vincent regarded her as his wife and insisted the family do as well; letters describing his almost manic level of energy and the resulting "high yellow note" that marked his painting in that fitful, historic, crucial summer in Arles in 1888; the heartbreaking letter from St. Paul's in which he describes the painting he has just made in honor of the birth of his nephew (named after him) and his desire to bring it to the boy in person.  Interesting man, yes?  And let's face it, 800 pages--while hardly an inconsequential entry into Van Gogh's life and writing--is a much quicker read than 1800 pages.  This sounds like the perfect introduction to the other Van Gogh: the riveting literary artist.

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Not to blow my own horn, but I am amazed and humbled by the fine reception my story collection Island Fog is receiving from book bloggers and other reviewers.  Here are two I found out about just yesterday: one comes from the book blog Books Are Love; the other from the Australian book blog The Bookshelft Garogyle.  (Great title, huh?)  Then there's the really positive one I got from Kirkus.You just write the stories and try to make them the best you can; then they go out there and you can't ever really (really) know if they are as good as you hope, not until such kind words come back to you.  I can't say how grateful I am.   And a little amazed.



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