Author Interviews
11:39 am
Wed March 28, 2012

Art, Mystery And Posh Pigments In 'Sacre Bleu'

Novelist Christopher Moore says he isn't very good at giving elevator speeches — those quick pitches on your latest project that Hollywood screenwriters are so good at.

"[That's] one of the reasons I probably don't work in Hollywood," Moore tells NPR's Scott Simon. But if he had to give a brief rundown of his latest novel, Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art, he says, "I'd talk about it being a book about the color blue, and about solving the murder of Vincent van Gogh and the sort of mystical quality of making art. And it's funny."

The narrative winds all around late 19th century Paris through artists' homes, cafes and brothels. But it begins and ends with a meditation on blue.

Early in the book, van Gogh shoots himself in a field in Auvers. This sets the novel's two main characters — Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and a fictional baker and aspiring painter Lucien Lessard, eventually joined by some of the most noted artists of their time — on a quest to solve a multilayered mystery combining art, suicide and maybe murder.

"The murder mystery is what's compelling to Lucien and Henri," says Moore. "That relationship is, 'What happened to our friend?' He was getting better. He was at the height of his powers. And no one shoots himself in the abdomen in a cornfield in Auvers and walks a mile to the doctor for help. And it just didn't seem right. And gradually the circumstances of this rather mystical shade of blue starts to manifest in the story."

These days you can walk into any drugstore and buy a cheap pack of markers in all the colors of the rainbow. That makes it hard to appreciate just how rare and precious blue pigment was, not so long ago.

"The translation of sacre bleu is sacred blue," says Moore. "In medieval times, the church said that if you are going to portray the Virgin Mary's cloak, it has to be in a certain shade of blue. And that blue must be ultramarine, because ultramarine blue is permanent. It doesn't go black or fade as organic colors do. And that is made essentially from crushed lapis lazuli, which is only available in Afghanistan. If you think about the 11th and 12th century, trying to get a stone from Afghanistan to Europe, for years and right up into the 19th century, was more valuable, weight for weight, than gold."

Moore's novel introduces readers to the bygone figure of the color man. The pigments that went into paint came from all over the world, and painters in Europe depended on these itinerant merchants to supply them with rare pigments from far-flung locations.

"We all think that Michelangelo and da Vinci all went out to the hills of Italy and dug ochres out of the hills. Some colors you just couldn't get. I mean, purple would come from snails off of Syria. And the cochineal beetles that came from what is now Hungary, they made red out of. And so a colorman provided these pigments. And they sort of had a route. They'd travel all over the world trading and collecting sometimes rare pigments and getting them to the people that could use them."

Moore says his novel dwells on the period of French painting beginning in 1863, when Manet unveiled his seminal painting, Le dejeuner sur l'herbe. "That sort of kicks off what we know as Impressionism," says Moore. "And it takes us up through 1891. Renoir had moved back to Paris in the 1890s when Toulouse-Lautrec was on Montmartre. And they knew him as 'the little gentleman' in those days."

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of Moore's most vivid characters. In researching the real Toulouse-Lautrec, Moore says that the painter's journals and letters proved strangely unhelpful — they were stilted, earnest accounts of his life written mostly to his relatives with the aim of getting a little money. "And at the same time we know from accounts of his friends that he was living for weeks at a time in brothels. So you just sort of have to put it together from what is written about him by his contemporaries," Moore says.

As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Moore's artist-detectives want to figure out what happened to van Gogh in order to figure out what will eventually happen to them.

"I think that they are modeling themselves after this generation of revolutionaries that came before them," says Moore. "But I think that they're looking for some clue in what they will become, and Vincent sort of throws a wrench into their works."

Van Gogh's self-destructiveness disturbs their idea of how a revolutionary painter should be. But as they dig deeper into the past, they find that nearly every artist that they know has had a self-destructive streak.

"All of the ones that I account are actually based in reality, from James Whistler to Monet himself to Cezanne," says Moore. "I think that punctuates beyond wanting to find out what happened to their friend and this sort of mystical color blue that was involved in it. They are looking for some clue for what they will be."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You know what an elevator speech is? Those quick pitches on your latest project made famous by entertainment types? We recently asked Christopher Moore for his elevator speech on his latest novel.

CHRISTOPHER MOORE: I'm not very good at the elevator speeches. One of the reasons I probably don't work in Hollywood. But I talk about it being a book about the color blue, and about solving the murder of Vincent van Gogh and the sort of mystical quality of making art. And it's funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: And it's funny.

SIMON: They always are. He's got a string of New York Times best-selling novels to prove it. Christopher Moore's new book is also a romance and a mystery, in which the most noted artists of their times - Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Seurat, Renoir and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec - take artistic turns to pursue the question: why did Van Gogh take his life?

The narrative winds all around late 19th Century Paris, but it begins and ends with a meditation on blue. Blue, says the author, is beauty, not truth.

Christopher Moore's new novel is "Sacre Bleu." He joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

MOORE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The story begins with Vincent van Gogh or to save us some email, Van Gogh to some people.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Shoots himself in a wheat field, and this sets off an investigation...

MOORE: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ...that involves a baker who wants to be an artist, Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

MOORE: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And the women Lucien longs for, a blue-black haired beauty named Juliette. Now, are they out to solve a murder mystery or a suicide mystery or in a sense, an artistic mystery?

MOORE: Well, under my purposes, all the above. But the murder mystery is what's compelling to Lucien and Henri.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MOORE: So that relationship is what happened to our friend? You know, he was getting better. He was at the height of his powers. And no one shoots himself in the abdomen in a cornfield in Auvers and walks a mile to the doctor for help. And it just didn't seem right. And then gradually, the circumstances of this rather mystical shade of blue starts to manifest in the story.

SIMON: Let's get right to blue stuff - if you please - because it's hard, in these times when you can walk into a drugstore and buy markers in scores of colors, to appreciate how rare and precious blue as a pigment was not so long ago.

MOORE: Well, exactly. And the translation of sacre bleu is sacred blue. And it was given that name because in medieval times, the church said that if you are going to portray the Virgin Mary's cloak, it has to be in a certain shade of blue. And that blue must be ultramarine, because ultramarine blue is permanent. It doesn't go black or fade as organic colors do. And that is made essentially from crushed lapis lazuli, which is only available in Afghanistan. If you think about the 11th and 12th century, trying to get a stone from Afghanistan to Europe...

SIMON: Yeah.

MOORE: ...for years and right up into the 19th century, was more valuable, weight for weight, than gold.

SIMON: I didn't know about color men before reading this novel.

MOORE: Well, I think we all - and I don't know where they teach us this - we all think that Michelangelo and da Vinci all went out to the hills of Italy and dug ochres out of the hills. And some colors you just couldn't get. I mean, purples would come from snails off Syria. And the cochineal beetles that came from what is now Hungary, they made red out of. And so a color man provided these pigments. And they went, they sort of had a route, travel all over the world trading and collecting sometimes rare pigments and getting them to the people that could use them.

SIMON: The way you depicted all these great artists, whose names we rattled off knew each other and encountered each other in the cafes and gave each other weary advice, was that true?

MOORE: Yes. Absolutely. You know, the period that I really sort of dwell on is between 1863, when Manet does "Luncheon on the Grass," so I'll spare you my French pronunciation. And they sort of...

SIMON: You said "Luncheon on the Grass" beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Not a problem.

MOORE: I didn't want you to have to suffer my French mispronunciation. But and that sort of kicks off what we know as Impressionism. And it takes us up through 1891. Renoir had moved back to Paris in the 1890s when Toulouse-Lautrec was on Montmartre. And so they knew him as the little gentleman in those days.

SIMON: My favorite character in this book is Lautrec. What a magnificent and engaging character you've drawn here. And how? I mean I know he wrote a lot of letters and he left journals.

MOORE: Well, the thing about his letters - and you find this with many of the letters at the time - is that they're very formal. And Lautrec is like writing home for money from college all the time. All of his letters are to his grandmother and his mother. And they're all: I'm working very hard and I should go see the dentist, if you could spare 50 francs. But it's all very earnest. And at the same time we know from the accounts of his friends that he was living for weeks at a time in brothels. And so, you just sort of have to put it together from what is written about him by his contemporaries because the voices in his letters are so formal and so staid and academic that there's not really much revealed there of the person that we know.

SIMON: I'd like you to read a section.

MOORE: Sure. Mm-hmm.

SIMON: A wonderful section I think you have of a speech you put in to Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's mouth, where he talks about the paintings - and if you see some of his pictures of women in a brothel, he describes what he's trying to do in some of those paintings.

MOORE: (Reading) Sometimes during the day, when there are no men here and it's just the girls, they forget I'm here. They brush each other's hair or whisper about times when they were young or they wash out their stockings in a basin. They nap in each other's arms or just collapse on a bed and snore like puppies, and I sit in the corner with my sketch books saying nothing. Sometimes the only sound is the scratching my charcoal on the paper or the gentle splashing of water in the basin. This becomes a world without men - soft and unthreatening, and the girls become as tender as virgins. They are not whores as they would be if they took a step outside or as they will be when they're called downstairs by the madam. But they are nothing else either. They are between - not what they used to be and not what they have become. In those times, they are nothing, and I am invisible and I am nothing too. That is the true denouement, Lucien, and the secret is, it's not always desperate and dark. Sometimes it's just nothing - no burden of potential or regret. There are worse things than being nothing, my friend.

SIMON: That's quite a passage. As the story progresses you get the idea that these artists are interested in figuring out what happened to van Gogh...

MOORE: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ...to figure out in the end what will happen to them.

MOORE: Well, I think that everybody has sort of - especially these two young artists that are sort of the center of the story, which is Toulouse-Lautrec and Lucien Lessard, my fictional baker turned painter - and I think that they are modeling themselves after this generation of revolutionaries that came before them. But I think that they're looking for some clue in what they will become, and Vincent sort of throws a wrench into their works, into their consciousness of this isn't part of the process, this being self-destructive. And then, as the story goes on, they find out that virtually every single artist that they know or know of has had these self-destructive episodes, these almost psychotic breaks. And all of the ones that I account are actually based in reality, you know, from James Whistler to Monet himself to Cezanne and so forth. So I think that punctuates beyond wanting to find out what happened to their friend and this sort of mystical color blue that was involved in it. They are looking for some clue for what they will be.

SIMON: Christopher Moore's new book is "Sacre Bleu." It goes on sale this Tuesday. And if you can't wait that long, read an excerpt on our website, NPR.org.

Christopher Moore, thanks so much.

MOORE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Perhaps I should say merci.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: De rien.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.