by Phoebe-Lou Adams
If Van Gogh had never become the painter that he was, he might well be remembered as one of the greatest of nineteenth-century letter writers. His letters were copious as well as brilliant, amounting in one edition to four volumes, and from this mass of material Mr. de Leeuw has selected a progression of those that chronicle the artist's zigzag path, of failed jobs, futile enterprises, and impractical schemes, to suicide and greatness. Most of the letters were to Theo, the brother who supported Van Gogh through years of poverty and unsold pictures. The letters cover a wide spectrum of ideas, literary references, experiences, and locations. They have engaging flashes of humor: on his arrival in Arles, Van Gogh observed "the priest in his surplice, who resembles a dangerous rhinoceros." The painter had long since recovered from a bout of religious fervor during which his sister described him as "groggy with piety." There are sharp accounts of his difficult relations with his parents. On one visit home, broke and shabby as usual, he wrote that the Reverend van Gogh and his wife "shrink from taking me into the house as they might from taking in a large shaggy dog who is sure to come into the room with wet paws" and "could easily bite -- he could easily become rabid -- and the village policeman would have to come round and shoot him." His descriptions of scenery are enchanting evocations of shape and color. The late letters from Arles, concerning his recurring bouts of irrational behavior, are impressive and saddening in their cool analysis of what he had come to recognize as an illness producing anguish and terror, but "now that it has all been abating for 5 months I have high hopes of getting over it."That was in May of 1889. By September he had "abandoned any hope that it won't come back." His last letter to Theo raised, once again, the idealistic dream of a painters' cooperative to thwart the machinations of dealers, and included an order for paint and a description of his latest canvas. It is dated July 24, 1890. He shot himself on July 27 and died two days later. Mr. de Leeuw's choice of letters and his editorial additions are admirable. He fills in the inevitable gaps, lifts pertinent quotations from omitted letters, and discreetly reminds the reader that Van Gogh's account of events is strictly his own, not necessarily shared by other participants. As a young apprentice to a London art dealer, Van Gogh had advised little brother Theo, "Keep up your love of nature, for that is the right way to understand art better & better. Painters understand nature & love her & teach us to see. "Vincent van Gogh has taught a lot of us to see. His letters, and Mr. de Leeuw's superb editing, permit us to see him.
Ms. Chang is an American of Chinese ancestry -- a combination that led her to feel as a young woman that she inhabited a cultural limbo. To combat that sense of rootlessness, she investigated her Chinese inheritance through the memories of her great-aunt, Chang Yu-i, whose story constitutes this book. It is a story of progress from the old China to Europe, to a prosperous teaching and business career in the new China of the 1920s, to Hong Kong to escape the Communist revolution, and finally to the United States, where Yu-i's son was well established. Through all these experiences, which included an unsuitable arranged marriage to a poet who left her stranded in England, Yu-i retained and practiced the traditional Chang values of family loyalty and service to senior relatives, including the parents of the husband she divorced. Her life is an impressive record of adaptability on the one hand and stubborn adherence to principle on the other. Her feet, by the way, were not bound, and she never felt comfortable in Western dress.