Once upon a time there was a kingdom that lived in darkness, for the sun, the moon and the stars were hidden in a box, and that box was hidden in a sow's belly, and that sow was hidden in a troll's cave, and that cave was hidden at the end of the world.
Once upon a time there was a studio of artists who feared they were doomed to obscurity, for though they worked and they worked, no one was interested in the paintings that stood in racks along their studio walls.
Steven Brust's fantasy novel The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars is a tale of two quests, of two young men who are reaching for the moon. And the sun. And the stars.
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The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars
By Brust, Steven
Orb BooksCopyright © 1996 Brust, Steven
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1. THE LAMENTATION
YOU WANT TO KNOW what good is? I'll tell you what good is.
My freshman year at the University my roommate was a guy named Phil. In addition to the room, we shared a couple of art classes and a weakness for Girodet. We were in one of the newer dorms, all shiny and tiny and boring and beige. One time when we were bitching about how cramped it was, he got a funny look in his eyes. I hardly saw him for the next week. Then, when I came in one evening, I almost choked on the apple I was eating. I stood there, half in and half out of the room, trying to simultaneously stare at what Phil had done while gasping and coughing around the piece of apple. I'm sure it was quite comical, but I was too busy to notice whether Phil was laughing at me.
He'd done this painting, you see. An oil. The edges of it exactly matched the edges of the far wall of the room, right down to half the smudge where Phil's girlfriend had thrown a beer at me (that's another story). The painting covered over the window, and you'd swear there was another room there. It was perfect. The doorway was a dark hardwood, with knots in it here and there, and textbooks were off to one side in their own bookcase; he'd given me a huge wooden desk, while I could see half of a glass desk for Phil, and there were these big speakers, and I could see the label on the SONYamplifier.
It was when I found myself grimacing with annoyance at the color of the carpet on Phil's side of the room and being glad it wasn't under my chair that it really hit me.
Do you have any idea of what must have gone into that? It isn't just the perfection of the illusion; he also had to know me well enough to create a room that was mine and his--that is, that reflected both of our personalities, as well as the sorts of compromises we'd reach if we'd had another room and enough money to furnish it. He had my half just a bit messier than his, and in just the right ways--including scattered albums of some people I'm sure I hadn't told him I liked.
The thing was up for the rest of the year, and I never got tired of looking at it. It was scary that he knew me that well, but that didn't hit me until later.
Right then I gave him the kind of reaction he must have wanted--oohing and ahhing and pointing out details. I'm sure he was satisfied, and I didn't have to fake my reaction at all. I hung around a little longer, then I went off into the corner room of the dorm where the floor's refrigerator lived, and I locked the door, and I cried, because I knew I'd never be able to do something like that.
That's what good is.
I ran into Phil a couple of years ago. He's now doing billboards--excuse me--Outdoor Advertising.
What can you say?
* * *
2. The Annunciation
* * *
It's too much to hope for that everything I paint will be better than what I did before, but I can try. I used to think that once I'd mastered composition, and perspective, and form, I could forget about them and just think about art. I don't think so anymore.
Maybe some people can do that, but for me, it's like karate: the more I learn, the more I have to concentrate on simple technique. For instance, Sensei yelled at me the other day about hip rotation. Hip rotation, for God's sake. I should have mastered that when I was sixth kyu, and now I'm getting ready to test for shodan and I have to work on my bleeding hips.
Maybe it's a basic flaw in my personality, but it's just the same with painting. The more I try to accomplish, the more I have to work on the basics. Is it like that for everyone? I doubt it. I should probably study some art history; it might make me feel better. But do you have any idea how boring art history is? Karen is the expert of the five of us, and, well, I have to admit her painting doesn't impress me as much as, say, Dan's. But that isn't fair; Dan is a genius.
I used to wish I was a genius. I guess maybe I still do. But then, that old cliché about challenging yourself is true; there's a certain satisfaction that comes from pushing your limits. Of course, sometimes you fall flat on your face. But you have to try, don't you?
* * *
3. The Marriage of St. Francis to Poverty
* * *
Robert came bounding into the studio wearing biker leathers and studs and an honest-to-god French beret. He's short and anemic looking, with big, hollow brown eyes and dark hair that he has restyled about every half hour. Right then it was fairly long and pushed back behind the beret.
I said, "Where'dya find that, Unca Bobby?"
He nodded a laidback hello and said, "Rag stock. Would you believe two dollars?"
"Yeah? They have any more?"
He shook his head. "How was training?"
"Great," I lied. "You should join. Then you can be really tough."
"Yeah. Like you. I will, one of these days. Let's grab everyone and do some dancing tonight." He chacha'd in place to emphasize the point.
I gave an exaggerated look around the place. The studio is long, with two huge windows flanking the door, both of which are presently covered by thick black drapes. At the opposite end is a balcony, or really a deck, about eight feet above the floor, reached by an iron stairway. Robert's area is back and to the left as you face it, Dan has the front right. Dan works with his back to the rest of us, so whatever he's working on is usually the second thing you notice when you walk in, even before the wall decorations hit your eye. The first thing you'll respond to though, is the ceiling, even if you aren't aware of it. It's high, with exposed rafters below a steep roof. When you walk in the door, your eye automatically travels up to it, lifting you, raising your spirits. We're all agreed that that was what sold us on the place, although none of us were aware of it at the time. The walls are our joint project; even Dan gets wild when he works on them. They're full of garish blues and yellows and swaths of red two feet thick, in a style Karen calls, "Post-Urban Subway."
Anyway, I gave a look around the studio and said, "Everyone doesn't seem to be around, Unca Bobby."
"So call 'em, bozo."
"No, I want to get some work done."
"You can shut up now."
"Yes, sir." He looked around my area. "You ever going to clean up this dump, or what?"
"Eat raw fish and die, white boy."
"Guess not, huh? So what's cooking?"
Actually I hadn't decided, except that I was ready to start on something. Just for the hell of it, I said, "I'm thinking about hauling out the big one."
He turned serious. "Are you really? The Monster?"
I nodded, wondering if I was actually going to. A year before then, I'd made my first (and, to date, only) sale of more than a hundred bucks, and to celebrate I'd bought and sized this six by nine canvas, like they used in art school and nobody ever wants to buy. Dan had just given me a lecture about painting bigger, and when he saw it, he nodded and went back to working on another masterpiece that wouldn't sell. The Monster had been sitting in the back room since then.
Robert whistled, then said, "Arnold says the rent is due." He was referring to the fifth member of our little band, David, who goes through occasional stretches of body building. (Get it? Body building? Stretches? Never mind.) Robert calls him Arnold Schwarzenegger when he isn't around.
I ignored the comment about the rent because it would just frustrate me. I truly loathe and despise money and all things associated with it, and I will continue to do so until I'm making enough so I don't have to worry about it.
He decided not to let it die. "We need to come up with some cash, chum."
I said, "Yeah."
"Will your old lady--?"
"Don't call her that."
He isn't as much of an asshole as this makes him sound; he just knows how to make me mad, and does it whenever he thinks I'm tuning him out. One of these days I'm probably going to belt him for it. I've been sponging off Deb for two years, now, and I've never felt good about it, and Robert knows that. He's really not a bad guy; I don't know why he does things like that to me. Maybe if I hit him just once...
"All right, Debbie, then. Is she going to be able to--?"
"We're trying to come up with our own rent, Robert. We'll try to kick in what we can."
"You know, if we all got a big house together--"
"I know. I've heard it before. We'd kill each other inside of a month."
"How do you know that? It doesn't make sense for each of us to pay our own rent, and have to pay again for the studio."
I didn't answer, hoping to shut him up. It worked, this time. He leaned back against the wall near the door and watched me. I sighed to myself and went into the back room to get the Monster. I might as well set it up. Hell, I might as well try to paint something on it, though I had no idea what.
When I got back, Robert was staring at David's latest project, an oil portrait of the waitress at Bill and Toni's. I set the Monster down and said, "I like it. He had the whole background sketched in at first, remember?"
"Yeah. I like it this way, with the choppy effect instead, and nothing behind her."
I nodded. "Like she's formed from the color. It's nice."
I was pleased that he agreed, since I was the one who suggested to David that he lose the restaurant background and just concentrate on the figure.
Robert returned to my area and helped me argue with a pair of easels until they agreed to hold The Monster. I'd need to set the canvas on the floor to do the top third or my arm would fall off, but I could start this way.
"What's the project?" asked Robert, damn his eyes.
"I'm going back to the classics."
"Yeah. Something Greek. You know, Zeus raping Athena, or whoever it was."
"Are you serious?"
I stopped and looked at him, but decided not to pursue it.
He said, "So what are you going to do?"
I pulled on a few switches to turn some of the spotlights on, then moved the stepladder over and played them until they were right. I didn't burn myself too badly. Experience, son. I went for a kind of natural morning light, for no reason that I can identify.
I moved the ladder out of the way, then picked up my palette and squeezed out some flake white onto four separate spots around it, then light chrome interspersed with it in three spots. I love flake white. It makes me want to lick my brushes. Sorry if that's too grotesque for you. "Paint," I said.
"No, but are you going to do something classical?"
I squeezed out the ochre yellow. I love squeezing paint onto the palette. It reminds me of fingerpainting. I'm always tempted to squeeze it onto my hands and work that way. Dan did that once, for part of a beach scene and it worked for him. I said, "Why not?"
"Too much research," said Robert.
I shrugged. "Depends what I want to do with it."
"I guess. Gonna sketch first?"
"Just diving right in, eh?"
"Yeah. What the hell? I'm feeling gutsy today."
"In that case, are you sure you don't want to go out to The Revue tonight?"
"This is Friday? Bob Berlien and the White Women, I think."
"Forget it. I don't have that much energy. Maybe tomorrow."
He hung around for a few more minutes, then walked out, setting the stupid chimes tinkling and leaving me alone in the big studio, and a minute later I heard his Yamaha fire up. I noticed the silence that I hadn'st been aware of before. After a moment, I was noticing traffic sounds coming from North Lincoln, a block away. I knew there would come a time when I'd want more noise than this to work to, but, for reasons I can't figure out, not when I'm starting. That's partly why I always try to start paintings on Friday or Saturday evening, when I often have the studio to myself.
I set the palette down on the table to my left, and started laying out brushes and stuff on my right. I pulled up the bar stool I always sit on when I work and that's going to be responsible for destroying my back some day. I stared back at the Monster. "I'm gonna getcha," I told it.
It didn't deign to answer.
* * *
4. The Birth of the Virgin
* * *
Robert and David say they are intimidated by empty canvas (or paper, in Robert's case). I feel a kind of exhilaration when I stare at it. I'm a bit frightened, too, but there is this incredible potential staring at me. I can go anywhere with it.
Sometimes I have an idea of what I'm after. In fact, most of the time I know almost exactly what I want it to look like; I'll do eight or nine sketches, then transfer it to the canvas. But just attacking the thing with the first color I come to and seeing what it is that takes shape is more fun. It's also more risky, but that's just another way of saying the same thing. I'll admit that I had doubts about trying that with a canvas this big, though. Dan had suggested that I go for a large effect, like they made us do at the "U", and that meant working hard on balancing the forms and everything. But, on the other hand, I thought about how much fun it would be to take on something this size just by feel and to have it work.
I've never been good at resisting temptation.
I stared at the canvas and my hand found the palette knife. I stared some more, and stepped back to try to grasp the whole size. It was bigger than anything I'd done before, even in school. I moved back and forth a bit, glanced at my palette, and drew in some ivory black, mixed it with viridian, white, and some ochre yellow. I studied the sort of green I'd produced and added a bit more white. The result was a very light green-gray that just hinted at some blue highlights. On the canvas it would be--how do I say it--sensitive. If I started with a background like that, I might have to make up for it later. I mean, there was nothing vibrant about it, and I'm not into making oils that look like pastels. But I liked it. It had character, you know what I mean?
I set down the palette knife and took up my favorite half-inch brush; hard bristles, unyielding, assertive.
I got the brush wet and attacked.
* * *
5. The Meeting at the Golden Gate
* * *
Once upon a time there were three Gypsies playing in a thicket near a road. One of them would gather up dust from the road, the second would build it into a mound, and the third would squash it flat. Then they would all roll on the ground, laughing in the fashion of Gypsies, their hands clasped together in front of their bellies.
Who knows how they came to be there? Perhaps their poor father, having no way to feed them, left them there. Perhaps they wandered off from their camp and became lost. It could even be that they were created there, out of the very dust with which they played. I don't know, but I know they were there, because I saw them myself, as I had pulled off the road to rest my horses and have a drink of pálinka.
In fact, I was going to offer them a drink, when a man dressed in a yellow gown came along the road and stopped before them. They looked at him, and he looked at them, and pretty soon up comes another man, dressed in a white gown, and stops next to the first and he looks at the Gypsies too. And pretty soon a third man comes along, and he has a black gown, and he stops by the first two. A fourth man comes along then, and he's dressed in green.
Well, just then the first one, who had the yellow gown, says to the second, "Brother, our master the King has commanded us to spread the word to all living souls, whomever or wherever we may find them, even if they are only three Gypsy boys living in the thicket by the side of the road."
The second man (he had the white gown, you remember) nodded and turned to the third man. "Well, brother, we should begin then with these three Gypsy boys, who are playing in the dust."
The third man, who was dressed in black, turned to the fourth man, and he said, "Our three hundred and sixty-two comrades will be along soon. We can get the jump on them if you will tell these three Gypsy boys of our quest, and then we can go on the next."
The fourth man (he was in green, if you recall) nodded and addressed the Gypsies, saying, "As you know, we do not now have a sun, a moon, or any stars." (I forgot to mention that this happened long ago, before we had the sun, the moon, or the stars.)
"Well, our master, who is King of all his Kingdom, will give half of this Kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage to anyone who can fix the sun, the moon, and the stars in the heavens."
Well, two of the Gypsies started laughing, and the four men started to leave, but the youngest of the Gypsies stood up and he said, "Go no further. My name is Csucs-. Kári the Gypsy, and these are my brothers who are called Holló; and Bagoly, and you may tell the King that between us we will do as he wishes." (You might say that Csucskári should have said among us, but he was young and a Gypsy, so don't judge him too harshly.) He went on, then, and said, "But, to do this, the King must bring us three things. First, he must bring us the tallest tree in the world, for we will need to climb very high to fix the sun, the moon, and the stars. Next, he must bring us a rope that will go all around the world, so we can stop the world to put the sun, the moon, and the stars in place. Third, he must bring us an iron skillet and two eggs so we can eat breakfast."
Well, the four counselors (for that's what they were) hurried off, and soon came back with the iron skillet and the eggs, and the three Gypsy boys sat down to breakfast. While they were eating, one of his brothers said, "Come now, Csucskári, you have earned us a meal for nothing, it is true, but surely you are having a joke with the foolish counselors, aren't you?"
Csucskári said, "No, Holló." (The one who had spoken was Holló;.) "All we need are those things I have asked for and I will do as I have promised." Then he told them that he was a taltos, and, in fact, he hadn't eaten any breakfast, but had left the eggs for his brothers, for a taltos can't eat, as we all know. "You, my dear brothers, must agree to let me lead in all matters concerning this business, and I promise you that we will all become rich, and I will marry the King's daughter."
Well, his brothers agreed, and they settled down to wait for the King's counselors to return.
* * *
6. St. John the Baptist
Leaving the City for the Wilderness
* * *
Beginnings are difficult times. There's so much there. Potential, of course. And uncertainty, along with his older brother, fear. Excitement. Setting out blind is the worst, as well as the best.
When you work this way you're opening yourself up completely. You're working from your soul, and if those you respect (and, at least as important, those who don't know you from Adam) don't like it, there's no way around it: it's your soul they don't like.
So what do you have to fall back on? Technique. I've worked hard to build up technique, always hoping it would run itself, like a reverse punch follows an inside block. I've got it now, right at my fingertips, so to speak. All of my past, all of the things that surround my life and make me who I am and who I am becoming, the eye that I desperately hope can tell good from bad, the demons of imagination that buzz around my subconscious and direct the labor--all these are what I can count on.
Later I won't be thinking about this, I'll be thinking about what I'm doing, but at the beginning I can't help it; I step back, just as I will at the end, and hope for success as if it were something beyond my control.
I stand naked before you.
Copyright 1987 by Steven K. Z. Brust
Excerpted from The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Brust, Steven Copyright © 1996 by Brust, Steven. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is not Brust's best work.
I wish there was a 3 1/4 rating. This book, while interesting, was filled with annoying stereotypical types. The main character is too whiny about what art is, and is not. Also, couldn't the narrator get a part time job to help with bills, instead of relying on his girlfriend to pay for everything?I also found that the Hungarian folk tale doesn't really match the story of the starving artists, although I enjoyed this secondary story is quite wonderful.So, to conclude. Interesting premise. Solid writing. Annoying characters. That is all.
Well, count me in as at least one other who thought this one should've remained unpublished. Certainly the "fairy tale" portion seemed tacked on merely to merit inclusion in a book series. As a male and an artist, I wasn't impressed, either, with this story. Perhaps if there had been a hint that the author was writing tongue in cheek...or just a bit of a wink to the reader, like, "yes, I know, I was a snuffling little boor back then, wasn't I?" But it seems the man really does believe he has important things to say about Art, sad to say. It's an adolescent-era novel written by someone who had obviously still not grown up at the time of the novel's writing. Rather embarrassing to read, actually.
This is the first of Brust's books I've read, although it certainly won't be the last. He's a prolific writer, mostly in the sci-fic/fantasy genre, and I understand this book is a bit of a departure for him. It succeeds. It's an innovative and informative novel that weaves together an examination of how five emerging artists (who share a studio) work together and perceive the creative process, as well as a Hungarian fairy tale concerning Csucskari, a taltos (priest-magician) on a journey to find the sun, moon and stars and place them in the empty heavens. The art-studio tale is narrated by Greg, and the voice is lovely -- funny and candid and sincere. We follow his thoughts as he works on a huge classicaly-inspired painting. He ponders what makes art what it is, technique, and authenticity. He maps the mental stages of creativity with a delightful lack of pretension. Both characters, Csucskari and Greg, are on quests and each battle their own dragons. It's wonderfully told and thought provoking. Brust's voice is fluid and engaging. Recommended.
A book from Mount TBR read and off the list. Hurrah! I was motivated by a book challenge, but I've been meaning to read this fairy tale retelling for quite some time. I bought it as part of a series of retellings called "The Fairy Tale Series" because some of the other books in that series were so compelling. I didn't really know what to expect, as the original fairy tale was based on a story from Hungary with which I was unfamiliar, and the synopsis was brief. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the novel. This is one of those retellings that sets a very modern tone, rather than trying to be similar to the original, or setting it in a typical fantasy landscape. In fact, the fairy tale portion of the story is a symbolic underpinning of the main action of the story, which is completely realistic. Normally this might disappoint me, because I like fantasy, but the plot was compelling enough that I didn't mind. The story is about a group of struggling artists that are experimenting on whether or not they can support themselves while doing their art. Five of them own a studio where they work on their individual projects. The narrator, Greg, is one of these brave souls, a painter, who lives with his girlfriend and also lives on her support. At the start of this novel, things aren't looking too good for the artists. They can barely afford rent for the studio, much less their own homes and bills, and no one is having any shows or selling any of his or her work. Greg decides on one last grand gesture and takes out "the Monster", a huge sheet of canvas that he hasn't braved before.The format of the story is unusual, and I liked it. Each chapter is divided into six sections. The first is a flashback from Greg's personal life, the second is a little philosophical rambling on Greg's part about different aspects of art theory, the third is the piece that is happening in present day with Greg and his artist buddies in the studio. the fourth is specifically all about the painting work that is being done on the Monster, the fifth is the fairy tale, and the sixth is another look at art, usually a metaphoric reflection on his life and the fairy tale and how they are intertwining. With such a layout it takes a few chapters to grasp the story and start to piece it together; Brust builds his story up in layers just like Greg builds up his painting in brush strokes. The first person narration is personable and engaging enough that I didn't mind taking a few chapters to sort through the plot line. How does the fairy tale figure into all of this? The artists take turn entertaining each other on art breaks, and Greg's form of showmanship is telling stories. The Hungarian fairy tale is his current story (which I was really glad to find out when Greg finally revealed that information, as I was very curious about the connection) and its influences creep into his painting of the Monster. I love the way the story has a lot of symbolic crossovers between the fairy tale, his painting, and his life. A complex web Brust weaves for us. The writing is tight and the dialogue is crisp. The descriptions are concise and sensuous. It reminded me of literary short stories, in the sense that you get the feeling that every line has a purpose, every description has its place in the story. His style grabbed my attention right away. When I read, I felt like I was involved in the artistic process. This book is as close to painting as the written word can come. While this may not be like most fairy tale retellings, it is a great novel, and well worth attention.
I was very disappointed with this novel. It dragged. Maybe it was meant to be a short story.
This story mirrors typical Hungarian fairy tales in that there are several sub-stories going on at once. We learn what is happening to Greg (the main character) and his friends at their studio, we learn Greg's ideas about art, we watch Greg's painting, and we are told a Hungarian fairy tale in between. It is never too much, and it stays interesting, even as Greg rants. Greg does come to some realizations, and things do come to a point, even though we're not entirely certain if they will or what it will be until we're there. The story was definitely not, however, a re-enactment or retelling of the fairy tale.
Ok, but kind of boring, painters would probably enjoy it much more.
A neat diversion from Brust's usual fantasy novels. An exploration of the difficulties of being an artist, intermixed with a Hungarian fairy tale.
This book is a hodgepodge of freshman writing. It fails to follow the cardinal rule of writing: SHOW me don't TELL me! The phraseology is boring, the characters unlikable, and the 'folktale' ridiculous. It was like reading someone's ego instead of someone's talent. I sped through it (it's not hard to read) just to get it over with. Very droll.
A wonderful and sensitive tale about a group of artists trying to hold together a studio, interwoven with a Hungarian folktale. Unique and unforgettable.