Sunday, July 24, 2011

Irving Stone's 'Lust for Life' a Vincent van Gogh story, chronicled by Giridhar Khasnis

I have yet to see anyone play Vincent on screen better than Kirk Douglas in the 1950's adaptation of Irving Stone's biographical novel, Lust for Life. Douglas embraced the feverish and chaotic aspects of Vincent to the nth degree, to the point where the actor's wife at the time got a bit spooked. That he was passed up for the Oscar while Anthony Quinn was awarded Best Supporting for his eight minute role as Gauguin is criminal. Such is life.

Giridhar Khasnis has an excellent write-up at the Deccan Herald of Stone's labors, including the rejections of the book by major publishers and it's eventual wild success in print and film adaptation.

Writes Khasnis:

It was quite by chance that Irwing Stone (1903 - 89) — then a young, prolific, but struggling playwright — visited the Rosenberg Galleries in Paris and ‘discovered’ the blazing canvases of Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890).

The visit, he confessed, turned out to be ‘the single most compelling emotional experience’ of his life. He also at once felt compelled to find out more about the Dutch impressionist. “Even though I was far too young and felt I did not have sufficient technique to write a book about Vincent van Gogh, I knew I had to try. If I didn’t, I would never write anything else.”

His elaborate and intense research — based primarily on van Gogh’s prolific and eloquent letters to his brother Theo — spanned six long months, followed by another six months of writing. By early 1931, the manuscript of Lust for Life was ready. Then began the frustrating ordeal of finding a publisher. Over the next three years — one after another — more than 15 publishers rejected Stone’s manuscript.

When he took it to Alfred Knopf, ‘they never opened it — the package with the manuscript got home before I did.’ When he approached Doubleday, they seemed impressed, but the sales department put its foot down and said there was ‘no way to sell a book about an unknown Dutch painter.’

Finally, in 1934, the manuscript was accepted and published by Longmans, Green & Company. Stone received a $250 advance which, according to the author, was “a tremendous amount of money”, especially during the Depression.

Lust for Life became an immediate bestseller. The book (which was dedicated to the author’s mother) sold in millions of copies. It also set in motion Stone’s brilliant writing career. He was hailed as a pioneer of biographical novel in its contemporary form and indisputably the most successful master of the genre.

Stone described the biographical novel as “a true and documented story of one human being’s journey across the face of the years, transmuted from the raw material of life into the delight and purity of an authentic art form.”

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