Recently, a good friend gave me the gift of an unknown, for me, biography of Van Gogh, “Vincent Van Gogh – A Life” by Philip Callow, 1990, at Elephant Paperback, Chicago.
Since TIME is of a very sensitive nature for me (as, maybe, it should be for everyone since it’s impossible to buy it or re-generate it…) I have to come with new ways of choosing my readings. Van Gogh being, still, after cancer healing and nutrition and meditation books, a preferred and important reading subject for me.
It took me cca 5 minutes to decide that Callow’s bio of Van Gogh wasn’t worth reading, at least, not by me. Maybe if you don’t know anything about Van Gogh (or just the media gossip, here and there) this book will be readable. But for me, or someone who read most of Van Gogh biographies, or at least, the important ones, this is an amateur, dilettant, bio. How did I arrive at this conclusion?
Well, first of all, I’ve browsed the bibliography. Aside from Vincent Letters (which, of course, are a sine qua non of ANY biography of Van Gogh) only very few of the important, interesting biographers of Vincent were there: Marc Edo Tralbaut. Only 2 other big names, but with general works, Herbert Read, with “The Meaning Of Art” and Rainer Maria Rilke with “Letters to Cézanne” (as I’ve mentioned, works not directly related to Vincent).
So, this was a good hint this was only a commercial, conventional biography of Van Gogh, one written without the preparation or the special skills needed (the author “studied engineering and the teaching of English before turning to writing” ). Well, I’m not a stickler against engineers or English Teachers turned to writing. I think everybody deserves a chance.
But then I came to the supreme test, for me, of a good biography of Vincent. I’ve read the last chapter, the one about the death of Vincent and, eventually, his immediate post-mortem events. And there, without any doubt, I concluded that Philip Callow’s bio was, for me, worthless. No need to read, again and again, the conventional ( and false) legend of the death of Vincent. The “suicide” (taken as a given, no doubt, no inquiry of the question; of course, one cannot judge a 1990 bio of Vincent with the StevenNaifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 2011 bio in mind, even if, for me, it’s not feasible any more; it’s kind of branded in my mind!) the good “friend” Paul Gachet doing his thing as a “family” doctor, etc. (Gachet wasn’t really a friend of Vincent, not at the end of his life; after some authors, who did extensive research on the matter, he was even a shameless profiteer not only of Van Gogh – who was his “profiteer masterpiece” though – but of all the Impressionists and post-impressionists who crossed his path: Pissarro, Monet (the “good” doctor even had the main responsibility in Monet’s wife untimely death) etc.; but that’s an entirely different subject…) Anyway, reading the chapter I was kind of bored and kind of disgusted of the conventionality and dulness of it. Not to mention the conventional “Theo” dying after 6 months thing. Lets say the truth, Theo’s death was, of course, precipitated, by Vincent’s. But he died of 3rd state syphilis. And their relations where a lot more complex and interesting than the conventional “loving” brother thing. (Let’s say that Vincent could be, really, sometimes, a pain in the arse for his family…) Some pretty good dual biographies are out there that really deserves to be read…
When I thought my time was quasi-infinite I’ve come across a lot of quirky , poetical, far-fetched biographies or writings about Vincent. But, at least, they were not boring and dull. So, if you came across this particular biography, do not read it. You’ll waste precious time. Even the 60-70 years old “Lust for Life” by Irving Stone (a serious biographer and writer) is better as a biography of Vincent. In fact, that’s a a classic. And if you have the time to read only ONE biography of Vincent Van Gogh, go with Naifeh and White Smith’s bio. It’s the best to date (and I assume it will be for the next 25 years at least…)
I hope my little tips of how to decide if a book about Vincent deserves reading would help you to gain time. Because, I know it now, time is the most precious thing you have. Don’t waste it.