O C T O B E R 1 9 9 6
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
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The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
selected and edited by Ronald de Leeuw,
translated by Arnold
Penguin/Allen Lane, 560 pages, $32.95.
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
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
Bound Feet and Western Dress
by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang.
Doubleday, 215 pages, $22.95.
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.
by John T. Spike.
Abbeville, 245 pages, $95.00.
The Florentine painter Maso di ser Giovanni, called
Masaccio, was born in 1401
and died in 1428. During his short career he produced a large body of work and
introduced such novelties as feet set solidly on the ground and faces
individualized to the verge of caricature. He wasted no time on writing
artistic manifestos, and if he ever talked about his painting, nobody recorded
what he said. Mr. Spike therefore has nothing to go on concerning Masaccio's
ideas beyond intelligent conjecture, which he exercises with restraint. What
this beautifully illustrated book does provide is sound description and
analysis of the frescoes with which Masaccio moved painting from medieval,
iconic formality to the action and realism of the Renaissance.
The Handmaid of Desire
by John L'Heureux.
Soho, 264 pages, $23.00.
Mr. L'Heureux writes with amusing liveliness and a
sharp eye for human folly,
but this latest novel is lopsided, because it contains not a single Houyhnhnm
to contrast with a population of academic Yahoos. These range from the merely
boring to the despicable. Olga, the handmaid of the title, is an exotic
literary type imported to enliven a semi-stagnant, intrigue-ridden English
department at a California university that, one gathers, it would be
inadvisable to attend. Once installed, Olga slyly encourages the resident
faculty members to do what they really want to do, either sexually or
professionally. There is no reason to expect improvement from the ensuing
upheavals. Perhaps the best way to view this coldly savage work is to see Olga
as an illustration of the fiction writer's mind in action, reordering reality
to an imagined pattern by a merciless conversion of people into puppets.
by Eric Darton.
Norton, 176 pages, $18.00.
The free city of Mr. Darton's satirical fantasy
appears to lie somewhere in the
Low Countries in the late seventeenth century, and his narrator is a somewhat
rattle-witted scientist who has just "foundered on the unforgiving shoals of
chemistry." (Translation -- he blew off the tip of his finger.) His rich friend
and patron, Roberto, has taught a duck to speak. Roberto has political
ambitions, which he pursues by means of both duck and scientist. Roberto
represents capitalism; the narrator represents technology; the duck appears to
represent both ethical responsibility and disinterested scholarship. Although
the narrator's pseudo-archaic prose is sometimes a bit exasperating, the
parable of embattled humanism versus amoral financial greed has both bite and
humor. The defective mechanical dragon is particularly effective.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 4;