Monday, May 15, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 121 ( My love affair with a writer)

Jottings - Slice of life - 121 ( My love affair with a writer)
The most difficult choice I have to make while preparing for travel is the book I must carry to read on flight and hotel stay thereafter. Its a decision I postpone to the very last moment, and just before my cab arrives to pick me up, out of sheer educated instinct, I walk to my book shelves and draw out few books and drop it into my back pack. if I were to consciously think and make a choice, it would be a maddening exercise. Literally hundreds of books neatly shelved ( as much as possible) and many more stacked all-round my home - near the sofa, on the stair case, near the bed - on different topics, and all of them equally craving for my attention. I have read almost all of them, but books like good friends needs constant re-acquaintance and nourishing. And flight time is ideal to revisit books which have lingered in my mind and heart long after I have initially read them. The choice I made for last week’s travel made me go back in time thirty years to revisit an author whose books were formative in awakening my love affair with ideas, words and written medium. He still remains my love.
Irving Stone (1903 - 1989) belongs to that select band of authors who have transformed the way I read fiction, and to be honest, look at writing in general. It is not that he was exceptionally gifted craftsmen of words and language, or possessed a rare gift of imaginative story telling; but the choice of his subjects , the research he bought to it , the passion he imbued his characters with - is at once contagious, elevating and entertaining. His works spread over half a century bought to light an entire new genre of writing into vogue, and through it educated millions, on lives of geniuses who otherwise would have remained just dry names in History books and encyclopedias as men and women of achievement, but without any sense of personal life or emotion in them. Stone more than anybody else resurrected the need to know our heroes more intimately than just dates and Honors.
It is strange how a writer finds his Genre. It is highly improbable you will find an author who knows from the very beginning what they will end up writing. The formative years are always one of experimentation, rejection and frustration. Stone was precocious, and his mother ensured his love for books and education remained nourished throughout his childhood. But like any other reader who fancies he can write , Stone believed he was a short story and Play writer. At school, he would churn out stories by the dozen and produce them to his Teacher. All of them were bad. Fortunately, one perceptive English teacher in middle school noticed his persistence in writing despite its poor quality, and allowed him a back seat in class with the promise he should produce at least one story a day. Stone took that to be a confirmation of his talent; little knowing that his Teacher was only ensuring that Stone would not abandon his raw talent, and would continue his effort polishing his narrative style. However, It was clear, he did not have the talent to write short-stories, but it even clearer to his teacher who saw something in the boy which convinced him he had talent and commitment to be writer. Its just that he hadn't found that sweet spot yet.
As an autodidactic, Stone devoured books; and each book he read only intensified his urge to write. During college in California, his interest turned to Drama. He started pouring his energy into producing plays; some of which were staged as well. But again, it was clear - to him and his audience alike - that his plays weren't good enough as he imagined them to be. In one frenzied year, he wrote 30 odd plays hoping at least one would strike the right chord, but all of them disappeared without a trace. But fortunately, by now, the creative metal within him was ready in the Maker’s hands, and the time was ripe for Stone to stumble upon the direction his art would be channelized and find consummation.
It was in Paris, the land of art and creativity, at the age of 25 in 1927 , that stone would find that path, almost by accident. During a sabbatical there, on a cold rainy night, he was dragged by a persuasive friend to Rosenberg galleries to see Paintings by an obscure Dutch painter. Reluctantly, he went along not having anything better to do. In that dim lit gallery studded with canvases of Van Gogh sparkling in their vivid colors and striking vibrancy, something deep stirred within Stone. He felt an emotional resonance, an uncharacteristic calling from the deep to tell the story of this painter who had poured his torment and agony into colors and canvases so soul stirring. He did not know anything about Van Gogh, but his instincts told him that here was a painter, a genius - whose work could not have been a product of sun-filled brightness and luxury, but of a man who lived his life with the intensity of death each day. Stone could see deep pain in those paintings, and felt an overwhelming creative need to unravel the life of Gogh - the man and his paintings. That was the tipping point ( as Malcolm Gladwell would call it). For next four years, Stone researched in Paris, studied Gogh’s emotional, hurried and often incoherent letters to his brother Theo, immersed himself into the atmosphere of art during that period, wrote and re wrote his “Biographical Novel” four times, before he submitted it to a publisher in America. It was rejected. Not once, but seventeen times in three years. No publisher would want to risk their money on an obscure life of a Dutch painter, told in story form. They believed it wouldn't sell. They urged Stone to write a plain biography with no fictional embellishments. Stone refused. He was convinced that creative lives like that of Gogh can only be understood in the context of the Human being he was. His work cannot be abstracted from his daily life. And the only way to visualize and present it in written form would be the form of a biographical Novel based on known facts with characters breathing, speaking, loving and hating each other. Publishers were unconvinced, and the manuscript languished in his desk for few years; until his wife and collaborator Jean dusted it back to life, helped him edit portions of it, and gave it the title by which it was to become a publishing sensation and a classic for all ages . She suggested “Lust for life”, and the name stuck. In 1934, a relatively unknown publisher accepted to publish Stone book. Rest is history.
For next forty years, Stone wrote magnificent biographical novels on some of the greatest minds in Human history. “Agony and the ecstasy” based on the life of Michelangelo and his commission to paint the roof of sistine chapel, “Origins” , life of Darwin aboard the ship “beagle” and the theological implications of his theory of evolution, “Love is eternal” - the underrated and often misrepresented love affair between and Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln; “Passions of the mind”, a fictional account of Sigmund freud and his astounding thesis of the subconscious mind; “Sailor on Horseback” - a life of writer Jack London, Stone’s favorite author - and many more. For a generation of readers. Stone’s books was the gateway to understanding the workings of genius. Few were adapted to become hugely successful movies. Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, and Charleston Heston as Michelangelo quintessentially captured what Stone had so lovingly characterized in his novels. Audience watched the movie ,then went back to read the book. Many found the book better than the film. A great tribute to any writer.
Coming back to where I started this post. The book I carried with me this week was “Lust for life”. I remember ( if my chronological memory serves me right) reading this for the first time out of the British Library in Hyderabad in mid eighties. A green hard bound volume with a self portrait of visibly tormented Van Gogh on front cover. It was heavy for me. I didn't understand much of Art or paintings or its aesthetic experience. But what captivated me then was the intensity of the Gogh’s life, depth of Stone’s research and his unobtrusive prose which narrated a biography with a flair of a novel. I quickly read all his available works from the library. They have remained with me ever since as works of scholarship and beauty. I remember also wishing for a time when I could own all of Stone’s books and neatly stack them on a book shelf. I guess, that wish now remains fulfilled.
As I write this piece, I turn around to see with sense of satisfaction and little smile an entire row filled with the all the published works of Irving stone. Many of them are out print, or difficult to get in a book store. It has taken me few years to buy, bid for, acquire many of his old works. Its worth the pain. The set is complete, and so is my gratitude to Irving stone.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


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