Thursday, May 10, 2012

Moore Is A Muse With Sacre Bleu

Christopher Moore's fascination over the odd circumstances surrounding Vincent van Gogh's suicide was going to evolve into something eventually. And that something, it turns out, is a mildly funny, often witty, frequently raucous semi-historical comedy.

But Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art is not really about nor does it end with van Gogh. The suicide, which Moore makes more believable as a murder, is only the beginning. It sets the stage for a delightfully debaucherous romp back to a gang of French Impressionists (1863-1891, Paris).

Although Moore invents baker and aspiring painter Lucien Lessard to tell the story, Sacré Bleu is also about the color, a blue associated with the Virgin Mary. As soon as it became scared, the demand and cost of it was inflated for Lessard and fellow painters, mentors, and friends like Monet, Renoir, Whistler, Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Sacré Bleu is a twisted fairytale like only Moore can tell. 

After the vivd suicide (er, murder) of van Gogh, the story introduces a modest family bakery where 27-year-old Lessard is busy making baguettes. When he hears the news, he loses his breath and puts his duties on hold. He knew van Gogh well, having studied with him a few years prior.

So Lessard sets out to tell his friend and fellow painter Henri du Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec is the perfect companion and alter ego for Lessard, well-known for his enjoyment of bawdy behavior. (In real life, he is credited with creating the Earthquake, three parts Absinthe and three parts Cognac.)

Drink isn't the only vice of this short-legged man. Lautrec also has a fondness for opium, clowns, and prostitutes (but not necessarily in that combination or that order), which is why Lessard tracks him back to a brothel to share the news. Vincent van Gogh, their friend, is dead. Both are convinced there's a culprit.

The most obvious reason, Lautrec speculates, is that van Gogh shot himself over a woman. Women can ruin men, much like the love of his life nearly ruined him and much like Lessard might be ruined when the love of his life returns. She has plans for him to paint her nude, heavy on the Sacré Bleu.

"Blue is sly, slick, it slides into the room sideways, a slippery trickster." — Moore

As much as Juliet conveys an apparent affection for Lessard when they reunite, she also exhibits an overriding obsession that he paint her. And she insists that everything needs to be perfect.

It is not good enough for Lessard paint her at Lautrec's dark and dingy studio. She wants natural light. She wants a Sacré Bleu undercoat. And she wants to heave her sexuality upon him — a tease that Lessard struggles to rebuff as he focuses on light, shadow, shape, and line.

Her motives are simple. She intends to play him for the benefit of a co-conspirator, the Colorman.

The Colorman is many things. He is a purveyor of fine arts. He is the dubious little villain who knows exactly what happened to van Gogh. And he is a color salesman, best known for the purity of his color, best known as Sacré Bleu.

He even peddles it like a drug, sometimes teasing his marks with the smallest of tastes. At first there is the sense that everything he does is for fun and profit. Then it becomes clear there is something much more deliciously sinister and supernatural in the oddest sense of a historical fable.

Christopher Moore and his sophomoric talent for capturing artists. 

If you have never read Christopher Moore before, Sacré Bleu probably isn't the best book to start with unless you have an interest in fine arts. Even then, it often pays to warn people away if they are taken aback by the buzz of drunken lewdness contained within the pages of every Moore book.

Ironically, in this case, Moore doesn't need to make it up. Many of the French Impressionists were sexually liberated partygoers, especially fitting for a city like Paris. Haze, paint, drink, and sex were well-known occupational hazards. You don't have to take Moore's word for it. Gauguin says it too.

This is also why Moore's comedic absurdity was such a delight to read. As one of my friends might say: he has an uncanny ability to wrap up nutritious bits of history in a bed of cotton candy nonsense.

There are plenty of bits too. Monet did paint his wife on her death bed. Many famous artists did die of syphilis. And the suicide of van Gogh is rather suspicious. Moore ties them all together to make this a tale with an overarching conspiracy that spans centuries.

Christopher Moore's Sacré Bleu Tickles 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While Lamb and other books might be considered better because Sacré Bleu is less coherent and cohesive, Moore is still masterful in his blending of art history, color theory, and detailed technique into a sultry, saucy, and salty backdrop. Sure, he often twists some of it around, but he always leaves enough intact that Sacré Bleu does a fine job fictionalizing these early counterculturists.

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art is available on Amazon. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble or download it from iBooks. The audiobook at iTunes is read by Euan Morton. His read is solid and enjoyable, but perhaps not as funny as reading the oft humorous inflections on your own.
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