Michael Gruber – The Forgery of Venus
Read By: Eric Conger
Length: 10h 05m (318 pages)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Started: 02 March 2013
Finished: 19 March 2013
Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I originally heard about it from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, way back in the day.
This guy’s a famous
painter… but is it really
just all in his head?
Summary: Charles Wilmot Jr. is an artist, a painter. He makes his living producing magazine covers and other commercial pieces in the style of the Old Masters, but does not particularly have his own voice. Until he enters a medical study, in which the experimental drug seems to send him back in time – specifically, into the life of the 17th century painter Diego Velasquez. As he continues these vivid flashbacks, he becomes less certain about what is real in his life, although his talent, his ability to paint like the Old Masters, remains with him. Some restoration work that he’s done on a fresco bring him to the attention of a Werner Krebs, a German art merchant, who makes him an unbelievable offer: he wants Wilmot to forge a Velasquez. But Wilmot is still losing time to his hallucinations of the past, and so when a lost Velasquez does in fact materialize, how is he to know whether it’s real, or whether he painted it?
Review: My summary gives away more of the plot than I usually prefer to, but in this case, I think it’s for the best. This book is a long, very slow build to the point where any noticeable action really starts. Its main “hook” doesn’t come until relatively near the end – maybe 3/4 of the way through? – but once Gruber finally pulls the trigger and the pieces start falling into place, I was hooked, and good. But before that point, I found this book extremely slow going. If I were the sort that found it easier to abandon books unfinished, I doubt I would have made it past disc 2 or 3. (We’ll get to my reasons why in a bit.) And I did in fact get stalled out, and didn’t listen to any of it for over a week. But I persevered, and am definitely glad I did so.
My problems with the first half (at least) of the book were two-fold. First, I did not particularly like Wilmot as a person, nor as a protagonist. He’s prickly and arrogant and self-involved, and it made it harder for me to care about the fact that he wasn’t selling paintings or expressing himself as an artist or didn’t have a good relationship with his ex-wife or whatever. That’s probably related to my second problem with this book, namely, there is a lot of musing about art, and painting, and the modern state of painting, and what it means to be creative, and why we will pay millions of dollars to have a legitimate Old Master to hang on our walls but if someone is painting in that exact same style nowadays they’re a derivative hack, and the importance of forgeries, etc., etc. Each of the times that Wilmot goes off on a rambling tangent about art (and he is a rambly and tangent-prone narrator), I thought that he brought up an interesting idea, but then he proceeded to harp on it past the point where my interest waned. Someone more versed in art, art history, and modern art might have more patience with these parts than I did, but I thought they made the first half of the book drag, without a corresponding amount of action to back them up.
But the good news is that even though the whole front part of the book is relatively action-free – sure, stuff happens, but there’s no real sense of conflict other than Wilmot vs. the Monumental Task of Wilmot Getting His Shit Together – the way that everything falls together in the end makes up for a lot of slow going in the beginning. By the end of the book, the pieces really do all slot together in this terrifying and fascinating way. Gruber is not shy about messing with the minds of his characters nor his readers, and the questions about how one can prove anything about their past or themselves when they can’t trust their own memories, or even their own perceptions, is a mind-trip of the highest order. There’s a great level of tension and paranoia that’s the result of the slow build in the beginning of the book, and once it’s set, it doesn’t let up until well after the last page. I was still thinking about this book, the ending of this book, well after I’d finished it… not a bad trick for a book I initially wasn’t sure I wanted to finish at all. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Tough one. I think fans of modern fiction, particularly those with an interest in art, a fondness for stories with unreliable narrators, or those who occasionally like to have their fiction mess with their minds, would be the best audience for this book. Just be prepared for a slow and prolonged first and second (and third… and fourth?) act.
First Line: “I’ll lay a bet,” said Sancho, “that before long there won’t be a tavern, roadside inn, hostelry, or barber’s shop where the story of our doings won’t be painted up; but I’d like it painted by the hand of a better painter than painted these.”
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