William Michaelian

Poems, Notes, and Drawings

Dostoevsky and Van Gogh

Having fortunately lived long enough to finish reading all three volumes of Vincent’s letters, I have moved on to Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer, in Boris Brasol’s English translation, published in two volumes by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1949. After years of being away from Dostoevsky’s great novels and stories, coming upon him in the somewhat more casual, conversational mode of his periodical writings is much like having coffee with a wisely perceptive, eccentric old friend. And here, almost parenthetically, I ask myself if I will ever again read my way out of the nineteenth century, I regard it as such sacred literary ground. As it stands, I am far more likely to read myself backwards, digging, to give just one example, into the various English translations of Montaigne that I’ve brought home over the years — one of my pipe dreams being to read his essays in all of the English translations — a pipe dream, because I would probably need to take up pipe-smoking to do it; and then, finishing with the crowning glory of reading them in their original tongue, while scarcely understanding a word. But there is no need to worry about that for the present, since I don’t have a French edition. Or do I? I have Rabelais, Molière, and Madame de Sévigné; surely I must have Montaigne. I will have to look sometime. Among three thousand books, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Vincent, now — what can I say about him, other than that the five months I spent with him were richly and painfully rewarding, and every bit as revealing of art as the man? To read all of his letters — that is what I would heartily recommend; this is better than coming to him through the filter of a particular editor’s purpose and perception, although that is certainly better than reading none, for a proper taste is likely to whet the appetite for more. At the same time, I understand that, even as it was when he was living, Vincent is not for everyone, his personality being a somewhat harrowing one. That the man was brilliant cannot be denied, though I am hardly qualified to judge. That his letters, as he matured, took on more and more a literary quality and reflected a vast amount of thought and reading, is, to me, reason enough for studying them. They are, in effect, his autobiography; for that, one should be grateful, because in writing of this kind, as with all good writing, in addition to the subject itself we find illumined there within awkward and precious bits of ourselves. And I might also say that although the man who wrote them is dead, he still deserves our time, our attention, and our willingness to suffer with him for the profoundly beautiful gift he gave — to which I will only add, this is the same debt we owe each other.


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Categories: Everything and Nothing

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