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BOOK REVIEW: “Sacré Bleu, a Comedy D’Art” by Christopher Moore

For all those who dread death by ennui in an art history course, there is now hope: Best-selling author Christopher Moore has created a rip-roaring romp through the fin-de-siècle art world in his new illustrated novel, “Sacré Bleu, a Comedy D’Art.”

If this magical mystery tour doesn’t turn you on to the finer points of turn-of-the-century Parisian aesthetes, the feuding factions of color theory, Georges Seurat’s pointillism — who cares. Moore’s latest addition to libraries of the absurd, profane and fantastically funny contains all that AND a wonderfully entertaining, partially true introduction to the painters who defined Europe’s turn-of-the-century Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art movements.

Moore will be discussing the book at Mysterious Galaxy Books in Clairemont Mesa at 7 pm Monday, April 9.

“Sacré Bleu” is also a delightful example of Moore’s unpredictable creative emanations. The only sure thing is that whatever impressions he spews will be unique. In his Vampire Trilogy, Moore took the urban fantasy genre and turned it on its – hmm, some interesting body part you wouldn’t expect.

In his new exploration of art’s muses, Moore’s eye is once again astigmatic, tweaking the lens’ curve to reflect surprising background stories to his characters’ paintings. Moore has filled in the voids between now revered artists (think van Gogh, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Whistler, Renoir, Pissarro) and their recorded exploits, with fanciful communications, couplings and adventures that connect their works to two outlandish characters who turn their canvasses blue, literally and figuratively.

Blue, as in “sacré bleu,” the color, Moore explains, of the Virgin Mary’s cloak, as dictated by the Roman Catholic Church, circa 13th century forward. In its persistent elitism, the early Church made the fickle call that what was once sacred blood red should forever more be blue, “and not any blue, but ultramarine blue, the rarest and most expensive color in the medieval painter’s palette.”

The mystery shrouded in blue becomes increasingly evident to the artists as they step back from their easels and look over at what the other guy has been doing and with whom — just as Monet’s famous “Water Lilies” gain definition with distance. What the painters discover is an outlandish pair of creatures, as inclined to inspire as to kill, if not both. And the quest to figure them out is on, before another artist is done in.

As good as the mystery is, one of the joys of Moore’s books is his artful and sometimes bawdy use of language, and the twists and turns of his plot provide him plentiful opportunity to have fun with words:

Vincent van Gogh, painting in a cornfield, hears “rustling behind him, and not just the soft applause of the cornstalks in the breeze.”

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, postcoitally naked but for his pince-nez and bowler hat, is expounding on the loveliness of his conquest to his newly arrived friend and painter, Lucien, when Lucien interrupts to report that, “Vincent van Gogh is dead.” Toulouse-Lautrec responds, “Oh, I had better put on some trousers, then.”

Lucien, as a child, loves artist Camille Pissarro’s daughter, Minette. Moore writes, “She inspired a love in Lucien so profound that it made him nearly breathless with the need to pull her hair and profess her passionate cooties to the world.”

The novel’s antagonist has a “voice like the crunch of gravel under a scoundrel’s shoes.”

A mysterious woman in Spanish lace quips that, “The Louvre’s a little pious, isn’t it? Can’t throw a round of darts in there without scoring three Madonnas and a baby Jesus. And Raphael was a lazy little fop.”

American expatriate artist James Whistler, whose portrait of his puritanical mother, “Arrangement in Gray and Black,” is now renowned, responds to a query about her health with, “Ah, Mother, she’s an arrangement in gray and black; her disapproval falls like a shadow across the ocean.”

The book is as rich with such wordplay as it is a wealth of tidbits of information about real paintings and their makers. And Moore has launched an online guide to the facts behind his book that serves as a nice companion to the work: guide.sacrebleu.info. If you have an eye for aesthetics, you will also appreciate the special features unique to the first edition of “Sacré Bleu”: full color reproductions of many paintings mentioned in the novel and the text’s blue ink, features that will be missing from subsequent editions.

Lover of art or not, “Sacré Bleu” is great fun fiction.

The details

Tonight: Christopher Moore discusses and signs Sacré Bleu, 7 pm at Mysterious Galaxy Books, 7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., San Diego.

Info: (858) 268-4747 or HERE.

Author’s website: HERE.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.