Review of Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore

Posted: April 15, 2012

Sacre Bleu?A Comedy d’Art?By Christopher Moore?William Morrow. 403 pp. $26.99?

Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

In July 1890 in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, tormented by mental instability, shot himself “for the good of all.”

Or did he?

So begins another exceedingly bizarre, often raucous, and consistently delightful journey into the sweetly demented mind of novelist Christopher Moore.

A few globs of horror, a dollop of humor, a tincture of the supernatural, and a robust measure of Chaucerian bawdiness flavor his newest work, a “Comedy d’art” set in Paris at the end of the 19th century.

No question but that the writer of such comic horror classics as The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove (what would happen if a whole town were taken off antidepressants and threatened by a shape-changing prehistoric sea beast?) and Fool (as in King Lear’s buddy) is an acquired taste.

Throughout the course of pretty much all of his novels, readers are likely asking themselves: Am I crazy? Or is he?

Those comfortable finding no good answer to such questions are going to appreciate Moore’s latest, in which innocence and experience, friendship and malevolence, lust and love battle for supremacy in the cafes and salons of fin de siècle France.

A combination romance, dark comedy, and mystery, the book is also an extended meditation on the properties, provenance, and power of a pigment that is, Moore reminds us, found in no earthly vertebrate creature, and was once, in its purest ultramarine form, considered more valuable than gold.

“This is a story about the color blue,” Moore writes in the preface, “and like blue, there’s nothing true about it. Blue is beauty, not truth. True blue is a ruse, a rhyme, it’s there, then it’s not. Blue is a deeply sneaky color.”

And the writer is a deeply sneaky colorist.

Within pages, he has drawn us not only into the busy streets of 1890’s Montmartre, but also into a friendship between a young painter and baker, the fictional Lucien Lessard, and the amorous, oft-intoxicated painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Yes, that Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Or at least someone who looks very much like the riotous, talented lover of prostitutes, dancers, and alcohol.

It is Toulouse-Lautrec who sets out, with his sometimes preoccupied and always smitten compatriot Lessard, to discover what happened to his old friend van Gogh — and to diagnose the peculiar ailment that (who knew?), as it turned out, had long affected artists riven by a love for painting (and by their perhaps questionable taste in women).

If there is a role for an ingenue in Sacre Bleu, it is that of the young Lessard, student and family friend of impressionists.

But even his stout mother and her crepe pans cannot protect him from the wiles of Juliette, an incarnation of what might be called (except in the case of the painter Michelangelo) the eternal feminine and his favorite model.

What the siren lacks in morals, she more than makes up for in sex appeal.

The same cannot be said for her companion, the enigmatic, sometimes bumbling Colorman, who services the pigment needs of painters for his own rather evil ends — which may be partly explained by a rather ancient inferiority complex.

Fair warning: To enter a Moore novel is not just to suspend disbelief, but to ignore it. Take passages like this one, in which Toulouse-Lautrec, concerned about the amorous and odd behavior of his friend Lessard, pays a visit to the house of an eccentric local professor, Monsieur Bastard.

“Henri cringed as a hazelnut shell crunched under his shoe. ‘Sorry,’ said Bastard. ‘I have a machine that counts the shells. ‘But why do you have the shells all over the floor?’ ‘I just told you, I have a machine that counts them. Would you like to see a demonstration?’ ‘Perhaps another time, thank you,’ said Henri. He removed his hat and laid it over the skull of the sloth, who had a disturbingly melancholy look on his face, probably because he was only partially assembled.”

The adjective wholesome cannot often be applied to Moore’s novels, given that his protagonists seem to exist in a state of constant randiness, and bloodlust is often the order of the day. A running joke about a certain character’s privates seems to be included as much for the author’s amusement as for that of his readers.

Yet the impressionist painters who weave in and out of Sacre Bleu suffuse the novel with a most unhorrific warmth (when they aren’t succumbing to the wiles of mysterious females and the maddening inspiration of blue pigment).

Their paintings and those of other contemporary artists are interspersed throughout the book, along with Moore’s often saucy captions.

Whenever they make an appearance, the courtly and welcoming Monet, gentle Renoir, and fatherly Pissarro begin to feel like old friends — and almost as if they had taken a break from a more sentimental story.

One could almost say they add a measure of normalcy to the cultured weirdness of this tale of love, art, and slow poisonings.

Reassuringly for the stalwart Moore fan, the good-natured peculiarity of his characters and themes wins out.

It never was a real contest.

Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is an Episcopal priest and a freelance writer. Contact her at bellettreliz@hotmail.com.

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