Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Wm. Morrow, 2012
"What is the standard when you are doing something that's never been done? What kind of muse inspires that? Exactly."
You might recognize the title of this book as one of those mild French oaths that is up there on par with such others as Mon Dieu! or Zut alors!, but in this book, Sacré Bleu is the name of a deep blue, ultramarine paint most closely associated with the Virgin Mary. But after you've finished the novel, "Sacré Bleu!" as an expression for describing how you feel after what you've just read isn't so far off the mark. While Sacré Bleu (the novel) has its own quirkiness and its own original feel, if you didn't know who wrote it, it wouldn't be long before you realize that this twisty-odd writing style could only belong to Christopher Moore. There were three reasons I bought this book: 1) it's another novel by Christopher Moore; 2) it takes place within the Paris/Montmartre art world of the 1890s; and 3) one of the main characters is Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. For those three reasons, I reasoned that it had to be a book of witty craziness, and I wasn't wrong. What I didn't expect is an upended and off-kilter history of Impressionist art to go along with all of the rest of Moore's whimsical zaniness. If you don't have a sense of humor, pass this one by; if you do, and you also happen to enjoy art, you might want to give it a go.
The book begins with the murder of Vincent van Gogh. Okay, we all know that in real life he killed himself, but remember, this is Christopher Moore's version of events. His murderer is known only as the Colorman, who threatens van Gogh with "no more blue," unless he reveals what he did with a picture he'd painted. The artist refuses to comply and he's shot. van Gogh makes his way to his doctor; the next day he begs brother Theo to hide a painting, "the blue one" from "the little man". From there, the story goes to Paris in 1890, to a baker's son named Lucien Lessard, a friend of artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The two soon begin to wonder how it is that a man who shoots himself trying to commit suicide would walk nearly a mile to get help, and think it's a matter worth looking into. Lucien, however, gets a little sidetracked. His father, who had fed the proverbial "starving artists" with bread from his bakery, had always hoped his son would be a painter, and Lucien, who studied painting under some of these Impressionist painters, becomes more inspired to greatness when he is reacquainted with a beautiful woman named Juliette who begs him to paint her. Both Juliette and finishing the painting become Lucien's obsession, much to Lucien's detriment. As he begins to regain his senses, he and Toulouse-Lautrec continue their quest to discover the truth behind van Gogh's death. Part of their search involves visiting several painters who all share a similar story involving the Colorman, a beautiful woman, and a most extraordinary shade of blue paint.
Surrounding the mystery of the Colorman and van Gogh's death are some delightful moments of oddity in a world that only Christopher Moore could produce. Among other delights that often range into the supernatural, there are a few "interludes" that make up part of Moore's tribute to the color blue, beautiful but humorously-captioned color reproductions of paintings by artists who are characters in this book; there's Paris, Montmartre and the art scene, the brothels and hangouts of the era; trips back and forth through time, and of course, humor that ranges from stupid penis jokes and a lot of bonking references to a professor who is trying to teach his rats to re-enact the chariot-race scene from Ben Hur. Crazily ambitious, and just crazy in general, Sacré Bleu is like a history of Impressionist art turned on its ear -- most of all it's a lot of fun. The characters inhabiting this novel include (of course) Impressionist painters like Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Degas, Manet and others; post-Impressionists also have their parts to play, and there's even a scene with Michelangelo as he's beginning his David. You don't have to know who these people are to appreciate the book, nor do you need to be familiar with their art. The characters don't always necessarily engage in the argot of the time. Instead, Moore has them using more modern parlance -- sometimes to the point where you think you're reading about little boys who haven't made it past the toilet humor and sex jokes stage. While that sort of humor isn't necessarily side-splittingly funny (and sometimes it gets really old), you really can't help but laugh.
It is a bit slow-going in a few places, and some scenes are repetitive (especially the sex-oriented and goofy penis jokes), but when all is said and done, it's a lot of just plain fun. The mystery at the novel's core will keep you turning pages, as will the characters and the action surrounding them. And in answer to Moore's "worry" expressed in the afterword about ruining art for everyone, no way -- reading this book might just lead to more of an interest in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art!
Definitely recommended, perhaps not for everyone, but people who enjoy Moore's books should not miss this one.