The biographical novelist

Irving Stone meticulously researched his topics and recreated the precise atmosphere and surroundings of his subjects, writes Giridhar Khasnis

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Irving Stone (1903-1989), whose fictionalised life stories including those of Vincent van Gogh (Lust for Life/1934) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (The Agony and the Ecstasy/1961). The deeply explored and skilfully written books sold in millions of copies and made him a household name across the art and literary world.

Five of his novels were rendered in the cinematic form as well. Among them was Lust for Life (1956), directed by Vincente Minnelli with Kirk Douglas playing the role of Van Gogh. Premiered at the Plaza Theatre in New York City, it played there for a record 37 weeks. Nine years later, The Agony and The Ecstasy, produced and directed by Carol Reed, had Hollywood star Charlton Heston essaying the role of Michelangelo; the film was nominated for five academy awards. Stone’s final book, Depths of Glory, published in 1985, described the life and times of 19th century French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.

Stone was among those few writers who popularised the genre of biographical novels. He was known for his meticulous research and exhaustive investigating which helped recreate the atmosphere and surroundings of his subjects.

“No biographical novel can be better than its research. If the research is deep and honest, the novel will be deep and honest; if the research is sleazy, shallow, evasive or sensation-seeking, the novel will be sleazy, shallow, evasive, sensation-mongering.”

Chance introduction

A native and budding playwright of San Francisco, Stone went to France in 1926. Still in his early 20s, he intended to spend a year writing plays. By sheer happenstance, he got introduced to the work of Van Gogh.

“I first stumbled across the paintings of Van Gogh when taken to an exhibition by insistent Parisian friends. Seeing a whole room of Vincent’s blazing canvases was an emotional experience that I can liken only to my first reading of (Fyodor Dostoevsky’s) The Brothers Karamazov. I left the exhibition hall determined to find out who this man was who could move me to such depths.” On his return to New York, Stone plunged himself and explored the life and work of the Dutch post-impressionist artist.

“I had no intention of writing about Vincent; I was only trying to understand him,” he later recalled. “But slowly over the months the Van Gogh story took possession of me; I found myself waking at three in the morning, writing dialogue passages between Vincent and (his brother) Theo, or describing Vincent’s death scene at Auvers sur Oise. Vincent’s ordeal became for me one of the world’s most meaningful stories. At the end of a year, when I found myself unable to think of anything else, I decided that I would have to write Vincent’s story if for no other reason than to clear it from my mind.”

By 1931, the 28-year-old author had finished his manuscript. The next three years were, however, torturous when, one after another, 17 publishers rejected his work. Finally, Longmans, Green & Company published the book in September 1934. It became an instant hit, and appeared on the New York Sunday Mirror’s bestseller list in just four days of hitting the stands. Much of the credit actually was due to his fiancée, Jean Factor, who edited the rather long and unwieldy manuscript; and helped him sell the book to Longmans. Interestingly, the two got married; and the advance provided by the publishers financed their honeymoon. Jean was to serve as co-researcher and editor of all Stone’s future books as well. Their marriage lasted until Stone’s death in 1989. Jean died 15 years later, in 2004, aged 93.

Profiling Michelangelo

Stone’s The Agony and The Ecstasy, once again was based on intense research. He is supposed to have commissioned an Italian professor at the University of California to translate all 495 surviving Michelangelo letters as well as the records and art contracts that the artist kept. Stone himself lived in Italy for several years, spending much of that time in Italian archives. The result was striking. “Irving Stone casts his spells and puts flesh on the bones of a long dead artist and made me feel like I was walking the streets of Bologna, Florence, and Rome, with my hand on the shoulder of a genius,” wrote a critic about the reading experience of the novel. “So much so that at one point I blew my nose and found only marble dust in the tissue.” Doubleday, the publisher, sold 4,00,000 copies of the 664-page book in hardcover within two years of its publication; the paperback edition reported another 2 million sales.

Old story, new focus

Stone supposedly learnt the craft of careful plotting and tight narration in his novels by working on detective stories. Almost poetically, he explained that to the biographical novelist, history was not a mountain, but a river.

“Even when there are no new facts to be found, there are fresh insights, modern interpretations which can give an old story new focus and meaning.”

Although many of his works became bestsellers and were admired worldwide, Stone had his share of distractors who felt that his novels were needlessly long, showed a tendency to go overboard with details, often tedious to read; and therefore, simply overrated.

“Stone is the taxidermist of biography,” wrote one reader. “He peels the surface off his famous subjects (Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Mary Todd Lincoln) and stuffs them with gobs of unsorted data, pulpy dialogue and icky emotionalism. Not all fact yet hardly worth calling fiction, Stone’s books have the intellectual value of slightly organised debris, but they sell.”

When he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, LA 30 years ago on August 26, 1989 of a heart attack, Stone was 86. He wrote prolifically and published many works, but if he is remembered today it is primarily for his two novels of artists’ lives: Lust for Life and The Agony and The Ecstasy.

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