Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Book review: The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber

The Forgery of Venus is New York Times best-selling author Michael Gruber’s latest opus and it is a humdinger. Intelligent, exciting and scholarly without being pedantic, this novel examines the fine and often blurry line between true genius and true madness.

This is the story of Charles “Chaz” Wilmot, a modern painter of some talent who may or may not also be Diego Velazquez, the famous painter and portraitist who died in 1660. Rather than truly explore his art, Wilmot makes his living doing commercial art; he has a gift for copying and can reproduce nearly any of the Old Masters that his commercial clients might request. When an old college friend lets him know about a drug trial that studies the effect of an experimental drug on creativity, Wilmot signs up. The effects are instantaneous and amazing: not only does he manage to tap into skill and imagination long-dormant, he also starts to hallucinate that he is Velazquez, re-living the painter’s private life in details that could not be known by modern folk.

Things get complicated quickly. Wilmot’s hallucinations come more frequently and at one point he loses track of three full months of his life, coming back to what he used to refer to as “reality” with no recollection of what he’d been doing – except for a painting he thought he did in the 1600s but which is resting on the easel before him. He is approached by a sinister and possibly connected figure, Werner Krebs, who appreciates Wilmot’s redoubtable skill and uncanny knowledge of Don Diego’s life: Krebs wants Wilmot to forge a lost painting so that he can sell it as a true Velazquez. Before long, Wilmot has created masterpieces that turn out to be indistinguishable from their purported origins – paintings that would be masterpieces even if it was ever learned that he painted them and not Velazquez or Tiepolo. But Wilmot has lost his family, lost his mind, and lost his hold on who and when he’s supposed to be.

In addition to being exciting and paranoiac, The Forgery of Venus is smart, providing nearly an art history elective’s worth of insight into Velazquez and his contemporaries. While knowledge of art history is not at all necessary to enjoy the story, it would certainly add to the experience; I ended up marking a number of pages so that I could later go online and see the art the characters were discussing. The reader is also treated to a seminar on how to forge an Old Master, reminiscent of What’s Bred in the Bone by the under-appreciated Robertson Davies. Gruber is not as witty as Davies but still entertains while educating – an accomplishment not easily attained.

I enjoyed The Forgery of Venus immensely. It starts a little slowly, in a possibly unnecessary story-within-a-story framework, before launching headlong into the first person narration by Chaz Wilmot that makes up the bulk of the novel – great, strange stuff. I’d never read anything by Gruber before but after this introduction I will make it a point to track down his earlier novels.

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