Friday, May 4, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art by Christopher Moore

This was my first experience with a Christopher Moore book. There is no real reason for why I avoided him in the past, but I picked this one up because, well, for one, the library had it available. And two, look how pretty it is! Sure, if you remove the book jacket the woman on the cover is quite naked, but besides that it is a really neat cover. And sometimes, that is in fact how I judge books.

The Situation: It is 1890 in France and the news of the death of Vincent van Gogh has just reached two of his fellow French Impressionist painters, Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The official verdict seems to be that he has shot himself, but Lucien and Henri are not entirely convinced. Lucien, a baker's son turned painter, cannot help but question the fact that after the emotionally troubled painter supposedly shot himself, he walked to the nearby house of a physician and sought medical treatment. Also, van Gogh's friends and family recall him having been haunted by a certain "colorman" whom he believed to be stalking him. Armed with this limited amount of information, Lucien and Henri set out to discover the real cause of van Gogh's death, while attempting to become painters in their own right, as well as find love with their muses that often become subjects of their own paintings.

The Problem: Turns out (and I promise I am not giving anything away here because it is revealed in the first few pages of the book), van Gogh was murdered and this mysterious colorman is to blame. And while van Gogh's death by shooting was somewhat accidental, the colorman was looking to "use him up," and intends to do the same to many other painters, including Lucien and Henri. And as if attempting to solve the murder of a fellow painter while preventing your own demise was not enough, turns out something weird is going on with the women that "inspire" these painters to paint. It appears that the female subjects of many famous paintings, including Renoir's "The Swing" and Toulouse-Lautrec's "The Laundress," have managed to literally drive many of these painters out their minds with some of them being left dead in the end. Even Lucien and Henri admit to having lost vast amounts of time and even a few paintings they half remember painting when they were with the women they love. After realizing the same has happened to many other painters, including Monet, Whistler, Seurat, Manet, and Gauguin, just to name a few, the painters can't help but wonder if these events, along with the part the colorman has played in all of their lives, aren't somehow related. One thing is for certain, the blue paint that the colorman is always trying to push on the various painters is part of the puzzle.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is all at once a comedy, a murder mystery, a surreal odyssey, and a fun history lesson (although the parts that Moore made up or changed to fit his story are explained at the end of the book). There is obviously a constant theme of art, but there is also the theme of creation and the kind of energy, both emotional and physical, it can take for someone to produce a work that is truly inspiring. And while art is the main focus, there is also some science involved as well as history, archeology, religion, and folklore.

What I received a crash course in was the French Impressionism of the late 19th century. This is an area I have never known much about (or really have been all that interested in), and while a lot fo what is presented in Moore's book has been fictionalized, I feel I learned a lot, and anyone else who knows little about art history may feel the same. Because of how Moore depicted certain painters such as Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec, I know get references from books and TV shows that have previously been over my head (the Daria movie "Is It Fall Yet?" where Jane goes to an artist colony comes to mind). And the best part about it is that I learned these lessons while being able to laugh at the same time. Learning is fun!

My Verdict: I typically have an aversion to novels that make up stories about real people or events from history, but not only was this story entirely entertaining, but it was educational too. I felt the novel moved a little slowly at the beginning, but it quickly picked up speed in the second part and held my attention for the remainder of the novel. The plot is incredibly interesting, and while Moore doesn't reveal the entire mystery right away, his method of slowly drawing it out over the course of the novel is effective without trying the reader's patience. None of the characters are exactly model citizens, but I did have a good deal of trouble with the main female in the book. And because of her, and her part in everything, the book's ending was pretty disappointing to me. I will say this: it lends proof to the theory that most any man can be lead to his downfall with the help of a pretty woman.

Favorite Moment: When Lucien's mother hits Juliette, his love interest, over the head with a crepe pan and knocks her out cold. Yeah, I really didn't like Juliette.

Favorite Character: Even though he spends a large amount of the novel in a drunken and debauched state (which apparently is historically accurate), I do like Henri a great deal. Moore gave him great comedic timing and made him the perfect sidekick in this humorous murder mystery.

Recommended Reading: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. At one point in Sacre Bleu, Wilde even makes an appearance and has a conversation with Henri. And the subject of Wilde's story, which is a handsome young man who is kept youthful with the help of a portrait of him painted by a good friend, is incredibly appropriate and relatable to Moore's novel.

No comments: