12/04/2014 08:23 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2014

Van Gogh's Letter To A Friend Includes A Pretty Harsh Literary Review


The following is an excerpt from Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, a collection of correspondences between Vincent van Gogh and his friends and contemporaries. In this particular letter, he discusses the writer Emile Zola, who is often considered a father of naturalism. According to van Gogh, Zola didn't have a sufficient understanding of art, but this lack of knowledge didn't negatively impact his writing.

Tuesday, 3 July 1883 | To Anthon van Rappard
My dear friend Rappard,

I still wanted to write again while you’re travelling. Thanks for the consignment of books. I would like to apply to Zola’s Mes haines Zola’s own words about Hugo, "I should like to demonstrate that, given such a man on such a subject, the result could not be another book than the one it is," also Zola’s own words on the same occasion: "I shall not cease to repeat, the criticism of this book, as it has been made, seems to me a monstrous injustice."

I would truly like to begin by saying that I’m not one of those who blame Zola for this book. Through it I’m getting to know Zola, I’m getting to know Zola’s weak side -- insufficient understanding of painting -- prejudices instead of correct judgement in this special case. But, my dear friend, should I get irritated with a friend on account of a fault in him? -- far from it. On the contrary, he is all the dearer to me because of his fault. So I read the articles about the Salon with a most curious feeling. I think it utterly wrong, entirely mistaken, except in part the appreciation of Manet -- I too think Manet is clever -- but very interesting, Zola on art, interesting in the same way as, for instance, a landscape by a figure painter: it isn’t his genre, it’s superficial, incorrect, but what an approach -- not carried through -- so be it -- not quite clear -- so be it -- but at any rate it makes one think and is original and tingling with life. But it’s mistaken and most incorrect, and rests on shifting sands.

Most interesting to hear him on Erckmann-Chatrian. Here he doesn’t lash out so wildly as when he talks about paintings, and his criticism is sometimes deuced telling. I permit him with pleasure to accuse Erckm.-C. of mixing a measure of egotism into his morality. Furthermore, he’s right to say that Erckm. becomes a simpleton when he starts describing Parisian life and that he isn’t familiar with it. A question, however, inevitably raised by this criticism: is Zola familiar with the Alsace, and if he were, wouldn’t he take more interest in Erckmann’s characters, who are as fine as Knaus and Vautier?

As for the grain of egotism in most of the characters whose side Erckm. appears to choose, in the old Rabbi David and in Wagner and in Thérèse, I believe the somewhat egotistical Erckmann-Chatrian becomes sublime, and so for me he is extraordinary.

What Zola has in common with Balzac is that he knows little about painting. I think two artist types in Zola’s works, Claude Lantier in Le ventre de Paris and one in Thérèse Raquin, are just like pale ghosts of Manet, Impressionists of a sort. Anyway. Well, Balzac’s painters are awfully heavy going, very tiresome.

Now I’d like to carry on talking about this but I’m no critic. But I’m glad, I just wanted to add, that he scores a hit on Taine, who deserves it because he’s sometimes irritating with his mathematical analysis. Still, through that he (Taine) arrives at curi- ously deep pronouncements. For example, I read a remark of his -- about Dickens and Carlyle: "the essence of the English character is the absence of happiness." Now I don’t want to insist on the greater or lesser accuracy, but just say that such words are evidence of very deep reflection, looking into the darkness with one’s eyes until one sees something more in it where others no longer see anything. I find that remark beautiful, extraordinarily beautiful, and it says more to me than a thousand other remarks on the subject, and in this case Taine deserves our respect.

Well, am glad to be able to look at the Boughtons -- Abbeys at my leisure for once. I think In the potato field is the finest of all, and the Bellringers by Abbey.

Text a little dry, a little too full of stories about hotels and antique dealers -- read it with pleasure. Why? For the same reason as the book by Zola. Because of the personality of the man who wrote it.



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