Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Gold of Their Bodies: A Novel about Gauguin by Charles Gorham

Naturalistic portrait of the uncompromising artist
Published in 1955, The Gold of Their Bodies is a biographical novel on the life of French painter Paul Gauguin. It was written by Charles Gorham (1911-1975), an author I know almost nothing about. According to the Library of Congress, Gorham authored ten books, including biographical novels on French author Honoré de Balzac (Wine of Life, 1958) and the Emperor of Ethiopia Hailie Selassie I (Lion of Judah, 1966). The Gold of Their Bodies includes a colophon that indicates the novel was written in New York—apparently Gorham’s home—as well as Paris, Pont Aven, and Arles, three locations in France that figured prominently in Gauguin’s life.

Only about half of the novel takes place in France, however. Gauguin possessed an adventurous soul that could not be confined by his native land, a quality that makes his life tasty fruit for a novelistic treatment. Gauguin’s travels took him all over the world—Denmark, Panama, Martinique, Tahiti, the Marquesas—for a life that was epic in scope, and he bore a larger-than-life personality that lived up to his exotic itinerary. Gauguin was an uncompromising individual who lived life on his own terms, scorning societal conventions at every turn and sticking to an unwavering belief in the superiority of his own art, even when no one else seemed to agree with him.

Gorham may not have traveled to Tahiti or the Marquesas, but he has certainly done enough research to bring the artist’s tropical experiences to life. Other than his period of “going native” in the islands, where most of his best-known paintings were produced, the other well-known episode of Gauguin’s life is his stint as Vincent Van Gogh’s roommate and mentor in Provence. Gorham sensitively portrays the interaction between the two painters without over-glorifying Van Gogh’s genius or insanity. Unlike Van Gogh, Gauguin enjoyed some level of artistic recognition and respect during his lifetime, but it never equated to enough financial success to keep him very far from starvation. Gorham vividly sketches a naturalistic depiction of Gauguin’s often squalid mode of existence while providing thoughtful insight into his art.

Every biographical novel exhibits a certain amount of hero worship towards its subject, but Gorham’s narrative is not an entirely favorable portrait. While admirable as an artist, Gauguin was far from a model human being. He was a terrible husband, a dead-beat dad, a philanderer, an alcoholic, a megalomaniac, and his love affairs in Tahiti qualified him as a pedophile by European standards. To his credit, Gauguin seems to have been less of a racist than many of his colonial contemporaries and even a proponent of Indigenous rights in the South Pacific, though today he would be condemned for cultural appropriation. While Gorham clearly admires his protagonist, he does not let Gauguin off the hook for his shortcomings, character defects, and crimes. Gorham’s aim is not to make the reader like Gauguin, but rather to understand him. This novel’s balanced depiction of Gauguin allows the reader to admire his artistic genius without condoning his reprehensible qualities.

Gorham succeeds in translating the legendary Gauguin into a fully dimensional human character with whom the reader can relate and sympathize or even choose to dislike. As an indication of its success as a biographical novel, this book makes me want to delve deeper into Gauguin’s art and conduct further research into the true history behind this compelling interpretation of his life.

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