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When Simon met Vincent... oh, and Leo, Conan and the Meister as well
When Simon Parke was asked to produce some biographies of Van Gogh, Tolstoy, Conan Doyle and Meister Eckhart, he didn’t go down the traditional path.
LIKE SO MANY THINGS, it all started at Waterloo station. It's a mid-point between me and my publisher Jon, who is just breaking into the book business after a life in the music industry. He'd read my book, The Beautiful Life, and wondered if I'd do some biographies with a spiritual twist. I was interested, but hesitant. I didn't think the world needed another brief biography of these men, but was there perhaps another way to meet them?
I've always loved dialogue. I used to write satirical comedy for programmes like Spitting Image and Weekending. And then as a therapist, I know the power of dialogue to create something which didn't exist before; the power of two souls meeting. So the idea was born: why not speak with these people? They've each left much personal material. So how about imagining a conversation with them, but using only their actual words?
There are plenty of people out there having imaginary conversations with heroes from the past, but this usually involves imagining their words as well, and I didn't wish to go down that path. I feared the heroes would end up sounding suspiciously like me, as happens when people describe "my Jesus". Their Jesus tends to agree with them about everything. No, I wanted to meet the people, not mould the people; and I knew that using only their authentic words would both keep me honest and their integrity intact.
It's a long process, first assimilating the material from each character, and then engaging with it critically as one does in conversation. By the time I reached the stage of putting my questions to them, it was as if I was meeting them face to face, and the conversation felt entirely real. Sometimes I was angry at their dishonesty; at other times, delighted by their insight or struck by the pain of their circumstances. Yes, we even had awkward pauses.
Almost everyone I spoke to about the idea was initially sceptical, wondering how it could work. Strangely, it didn't seem to have been done before, and perhaps there was a good reason for that. "If it hasn't been done, there's probably a reason, Simon." But these same people have been kind enough to change their minds on reading the results, which are now published by White Crow Books as four separate, and very different, conversations.
TIME SPENT WITH someone's actual words is not the same as time spent with words about them. No one is elusive when you listen to them, and so although I came to each character largely "cold", I now know them well. I don't know everything about them, but I know what made them do the things they did and be the people they were. In many ways, and this is perhaps worrying, I know them better than I know myself.
I started with Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German mystic, who was condemned in his time, but has since proved a spiritual inspiration for Christians, Buddhists and atheists alike. If he asked us to take leave of God, it was only because we were missing the point; and that if we could dispense with our theological labels, we'd discover a far greater wonder in the nothingness beyond. I interviewed him in the monastic cloisters in Cologne, shortly before he travelled to Avignon to face heresy charges before the Pope.
What was it like? He's pretty intense, but the secret for me was not to think too much, but allow his words to wash over. He's one of those people whom I always felt good for having met, even if I didn't know why. I never came away from a session with the Meister without feeling strengthened in some way, and more at peace. An unusual experience; and I think my overwhelming thought after meeting was this: here is a free man.
This could not be said of my time with Leo Tolstoy. After great literary success in the first half of his life, he was tempted by suicide at 50, and began the spiritual quest that defined his later years, leading him into conflicts with both government and church. He had a remarkable mind, learned Hebrew to better understand the Old Testament, and could write like an angel. As with prophets throughout history, he always thought he was right, and such was his force of personality, it was hard not to be convinced by him whenever he spoke, and whatever he said.
He also proved an appalling husband, hated Shakespeare, never came to terms with his sexual appetite and yet had a profound influence on the non-violence of the young Gandhi. My time at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's country estate, was never dull; and sometimes, surprisingly comic. Soon after I left the great man, at the age of 82, he ran away from home.
I met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a fan of Sherlock Holmes, which he started writing when his life as a doctor wasn't going well. What I hadn't realised, though, was that he killed Holmes off as quickly as he could, because he felt the detective was holding him back from more important things, which in time came to be the Spiritualist cause, for which he became a leading advocate. Along the way, he had a love-hate relationship with Harry Houdini, turned on the church, discovered Oscar Wilde to be writing from beyond the grave, gave public support to the existence of fairies and became a leading expert on the paranormal and contact with the dead.
He certainly told me some incredible stories. He came in for intense ridicule towards the end of his life, but he was nothing if not stubborn in a life full of sadness as well as success. His father was an alcoholic and his first born son died in World War I. He could never quite tell me how angry he felt; but then I suspect he could never tell himself that either.
Vincent was the rawest of my conversations, for he was the least defended. He was unique among them in having clashed openly with his parents, seeing himself as a young plant caught too early by the "frost" of emotional distance. He told me one particularly telling story from his childhood, as well as leading me into a whole new understanding of light and colour. I was surprised to discover that one of my favourite paintings of his – "A starry night" – he was disappointed by; and I also hadn't realised he'd been a school teacher in England, which like all of his life, had both its funny and tragic aspects.
I found him fascinating on the topic of mental health, and what worked for him in the mental asylum at St Remy after the ear-cutting incident in Arles. He fell out with everyone, of course. He constantly contradicted himself, struggled with commercial failure and didn't use soap often enough; but he was both riveting and endearing company.
It all started at Waterloo station, but where it will end, who knows? I'm just back from Vienna where I've been speaking with Mozart.