Thursday 30 April 2020

Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Vincent van Gogh is today one of the world’s most beloved artists. His distinctive style is instantly recognizable and the legend that has built up around his life and death promote the idea of him as a tortured genius. This epic biography paints a more balanced picture, focusing not just on the final few dramatic years of his life in which he painted many of his most iconic pictures. Instead, the reader is taken through a detailed account of his whole life – his struggles and failures, obsessions and hopes. At times it is difficult to read the harsh realities of a troubled life.

From his early years he longed for close familial relations, something that remained largely absent throughout his life. His strained relationship with his parents and the circumstances around his father’s death meant an icy reception for their wayward son. His brother Theo often took the role of peacemaker. His relationship with Theo was arguably the most significant of his life but was also fraught with difficulty. Theo financially supported his brother for most of his adult life and suffered social exclusion when he came to live with him in Paris. Vincent seems to have swung between a sense of entitlement and deep feelings of guilt for the burden he knew he was to his brother. The passages describing some of their interactions show behaviour that is nothing short of abusive and is incredibly hard to read. Despite their difficulties, Theo continued to champion Vincent and hope for success in his endeavours.

Vincent emerges as unlikable at times but often as childishly innocent, longing for acceptance and a family home. He travelled around a fair amount and would dream of Theo joining him. His preparations of the Yellow House for Gauguin’s arrival are endearing but the reader is left with a sense of dread knowing his hopes will once more be dashed with disappointment.

He was an outcast wherever he went, people finding his intense painting style alarming and his disheveled appearance a point of mockery. It is this rejection by society that defined his life. He enrolled in art school on a number of occasions but inevitably dropped out due to his unwillingness or inability to follow instruction. His first taste of potential success appeared mere months before his death thanks to the championing of Albert Aurier, a young art critic, but he was sadly not well enough to enjoy it.

Naifeh and Smith rarely speculate throughout, relying on documentary evidence to trace the tumultuous life of Van Gogh. They do not attempt to diagnosis his ailments but merely report on his medical record, explaining the context and medical developments that were happening at the time of his treatment. One point on which they do object however, is the myth of his untimely death. In an appendix that details the evidence that led to their conclusion and the flaws in sources for the alternative, they offer a reasoned debate. This part of the book did not go down well with many in the art world however, and they were accused of having included it purely for the publicity it inevitably created around publication.

A comprehensive, well researched biography that is easy to read thanks to its lively and smooth prose. The wider artistic and cultural conditions of the day are brought to life, situating Van Gogh very much in his time. If you want to know more about the man behind the legend then this is a great place to start.

Further resources can be found at and scans and transcripts of Van Gogh’s letters can be viewed on

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Novel Houses: Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings, Christina Hardyment

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In this journey through literature from Horace Walpole to J. K. Rowling, Hardyment attempts to demonstrate the central importance of houses in literature. She explores the influences and inspiration of some of the best loved fictional dwellings and considers how these buildings sometimes become characters in their own right. The twenty chosen novels are dealt with chronologically, allowing the reader to understand the progression of ideas and how the authors could be influenced by each other. Each chapter lasts on average only ten pages but there feels a great difference in the depth of analysis between them.

The likes of Walter Scott and Horace Walpole were interested in the medieval period and this is reflected not just in their writing (in which Hardyment points out their aims and preoccupations relevant to their contemporary political and social situations) but also in their own homes. Later authors are attributed to having particular obsessions with the idea of home or of one particular house that they mentally held on to throughout their lives. These claims occasionally feel a bit loosely evidenced with only a couple of quotes thrown in to add seeming authenticity.

Some chapters offer interesting analysis of the text, explaining how buildings were personified or used to explore certain character traits, reversing expectations. Others seem to be largely padded out with a synopsis of the story, unnecessarily revealing plot points with little relevance to Hardyment’s arguments. I’d previously read about half the books discussed and this allowed for a good mix in enjoyment. If familiar with all twenty I’m not sure you’d get much from this book.

A beautiful book with moments of insight but not overall adding much to the conversation. It did, however, pique my interest in a number of the books I’ve yet to read and is a gentle, bookish read.

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Wednesday 15 April 2020

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

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James’s most famous ghost story is set in a remote house with a small cast of characters. A young governess has recently joined the household and although at first believes it to be an idyllic post, she soon finds herself entangled in a terrible tale. She begins to see ghostly figures around the estate that resemble previous employees who are recently deceased. The two children in her care are well behaved and beautiful but she soon comes to believe they are in league with the ghosts, leading to a tragic attempt to protect them.

The novel is told in first person narrative by the governess (except for the opening which merely introduces the account that follows). We see in her a woman who takes on far more than she can manage in a futile attempt to please her employer, who remains absent throughout. Seeing events unfold through her eyes we are led to understand how she came to her conclusions yet critics have been divided over whether or not the ghosts are real or if she is descending into madness. James’s careful ambiguity has allowed this debate to rage for decades and it is ultimately a question that will remain forever unanswered. Whichever way you read it, it is clear that you cannot take the narrative as absolute truth.

The first appearance of the ghost peering in through the window is truly unsettling and as the story progresses the governess fabricates an internal life for them, imagining their purpose and beliefs despite them never speaking a word or indicating any intention to do harm. Is she allowing her paranoia and imagination to run away from her? Rumours of the actions of both the previous employees hang over the governess and contribute to her belief that their presence will end in harm.

The children have moments of playing up which she believes is a result of ghostly interference, causing a strong reaction in her. The children are unsurprisingly unnerved by the seemingly erratic, extreme responses of their governess. Is she acting in selfless defence of her charges, wishing to be the hero of their story, or are her own delusions causing their strange behaviour?

An atmospheric read that will send shivers down your spine. Whether character study or ghost story, it is an intriguing tale and a sinister one at that. A book that stands up well to a re-read, especially when considering the opposing interpretations.

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Wednesday 8 April 2020

The Moth: Occasional Magic, ed. Catherine Burns

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Founded by George Dawes Green, The Moth had its first event in 1997. The venues and audiences may have grown but the essence is the same – a microphone and a selection of speakers sharing their stories with a room of strangers. The Moth now has a large following with millions of podcast subscribers, regular radio slots, and sell-out shows across the world, it reminds us of the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Occasional Magic is the latest book to come out of the project and it makes for emotional reading. You’ll find yourself completely immersed and invested in the fifty tales within its pages. The stories are varied - from finding out a parent isn’t quite what you thought to losing a loved one, trekking across Antarctica, or confronting an inappropriate street performer. The storytellers come from all walks of life, offering an insight into experiences so different from our own and yet reminding us of our shared humanity.

The stories are all fairly short but you’ll struggle to put the book down as you alternate between laughing and crying, with moments where you need to sit with what you’ve just read. This is a brilliant read that reminds you there is hope in even the darkest of times and that every life has some occasional magic in it.

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Wednesday 1 April 2020

Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser

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De Kretser’s sweeping novel gives us glimpses into the lives of Ravi and Laura from the 1970s through to 2004. The early decades fly by while the later chapters take more time, reveal more of their lives. Laura, a young woman from Sydney, follows in the footsteps of many who have felt the tug of wanderlust, travelling around Europe, never really settling. She’s aware of the futility of her endeavours, of the predictable and shallow experiences, yet feels at a loss when she finds herself outside the guidance of her travel book. Ravi, growing up in war-torn Sri Lanka, finds himself travelling for entirely different reasons, not ones of indulgence but necessity.

There are rich, evocative descriptions of the countries and cities that the characters visit. Laura seems to always be yearning for more, for a deeper encounter with other cultures while realising how superficial most travel is.

It was simply wonderful how away confirmed that home was best. Photographs were produced as evidence that travel had occurred, for the travellers themselves were unchanged. Souvenirs, strategically displayed around the house, proclaimed the sophistication and broadness of outlook that familiarity with foreign cultures conferred. And that was all of overseas that anyone needed.

Ravi intuitively approaches Australia openly, absorbing the mundane, enjoying the fast food and freedom of sitting and watching the world go by. When working for a travel guide publisher the suggestions he makes for places to be included in the Sydney guide are places where visitors would be able to see the breadth of cultures that the city nurtures, the normal lives of its inhabitants. He is gently told that people don’t want to see the ordinary, they want the landmarks and the iconic sights while still feeling that they’re having a unique experience. Most people join the company because of a love of travel but soon accept the cynical truth.

The sense of belonging is also a recurring theme. Laura finds herself moving around, trying to find somewhere that she feels she belongs without allowing herself time to lay down roots. She acknowledges that when she dreams of places she’s been it’s always the same – a warm evening in Sydney, a rainy afternoon in London. In reminiscence and longing the variety and drudgery of reality are lost. Ravi, having been forced away from his once stable life has mixed feelings about both his new home and his old. He realises he is afraid of staying but also afraid of going back.

Their relationships also play a role in their sense of self. There are the fleeting encounters and the unkept promises, friendships full of love that turn into people you want to avoid, and those you’ve never liked but find yourself reliant on. The nature of friendship and familiar love follows them through their lives, shaping them and sometimes arising in them. There is a sense for both that they are ultimately alone.

Politics plays its part too, not just in its displacement of people but in the reactions of those they encounter. Ravi is a refugee in Australia and although he is considered the ‘right kind’ on account of having arrived by plane rather than on a boat, he experiences the negative attitudes, the expectations. His colleagues are disappointed that his grief and trauma aren’t performative enough. They do not truly try to get to know him, and their unthinking remarks show a lack of compassion. He is not quite what they want him to be.

This is a vast book spanning continents and decades, the writing is indulgent and evocative. What at first seems a wandering tale of ordinary life has moments of potency. De Kretser is a sharp commentator on the state of the world and draws believable characters, resisting the temptation for neat coincidences and a tidy ending. A book that will absorb you and throw off your expectations.

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