Vincent and Theo

I recently read the wonderful Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman and while I really did like the book, it left me wondering how much further this idea could have gone. It’s a wonderful book, but as an adult, I feel like you’d get more out of just reading Van Gogh’s letters. And as a teenager, I think you might find this dry. But YA history is hard that way. There’s the “Crash Course” humor version of telling non-fiction stories, and then there’s…well…nothing that I can think of having been particularly successful since A Little History. Graphic novels maybe?

Anyway, basically, the book is set up in galleries, with a series of small “works” in each. So, you get sketches of Vincent and of Theo, of their lives bound together. That, I thought, was a super interesting idea. But then Heiligman doesn’t seem to take this to its logical conclusion. Van Gogh is always striving, experimenting, and struggling. Many of these “sketches” in the book are so conventional. Perhaps the only reason I noticed this, though, is because for one sketch she “swirls” the text, making it look a bit like Starry Night. And that made me wonder if she might have capitalized more on the visual play of text. Or even, perhaps, an analogous development of prose style as Vincent develops.

I do think that this might have been the author’s intention, but that it didn’t come through clearly enough. For example: Van Gogh liked to “zoom in” on things in an imitation of Japanese woodblock prints. In a sense, she does this too. And I’m sure there are lots of other intentional literary devices pulled from his work and translated into prose. I just had trouble identifying them. My favorite visual description, I think, was the shoes for the brothers. I like the speculative aspect of reading the brothers’ relationship into the work.

I’ve read lots of complaints about this book that claimed it didn’t have enough pictures. I would argue that it actually had too many for what it was trying to do. The temptation to illustrate with pictures here is insane because Van Gogh’s work is beautiful and powerful. But this is a book about Van Gogh, not a gallery. The gallery is and should remain the structuring metaphor, and turning it into a paper museum would weaken that. The strength of the book should be in telling us how Vincent and Theo and their contemporaries see these works. There’s a whole section where Vincent doesn’t “get” what Theo is trying to get him to imitate in terms of colors because he’s never seen it. There’s the opportunity in telling this story to focus not on the works themselves as we see and know them, but on how they felt about them. Actually illustrating the book would detract from that. We should embrace the hard work of visualization here, in my opinion.

In any case, many thoughts.