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As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel [Paperback]

Rudy Rucker
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 15 2003
Peter Bruegel's paintings---a peasant wedding in a barn, hunters in the snow, a rollicking street festival, and many others---have long defined our idea of everyday life in sixteenth- century Europe. They are classic icons of a time and place in much the same way as Norman Rockwell's depictions of twentieth-century America. We know relatively little about Bruegel, but after years of research, novelist Rudy Rucker has built upon the what is known and has created for us the life and world of a true master who never got old.
In sixteen chapters, each headed by a reproduction of one of the famous works, Rucker brings Bruegel's painter's progress and his colorful world to vibrant life, doing for Bruegel what the best-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring did for Vermeer. We follow the artist from the winding streets of Antwerp and Brussels to the glowing skies and decaying monuments of Rome and back. He and his friends, the cartographer Ortelius and Williblad Cheroo, an American Indian, are as vivid on the page as the multifarious denizens of Bruegel's unforgettable canvases.

Here is a world of conflict, change, and discovery, a world where Carnival battles Lent every day, preserved for us in paint by the engaging genius you will meet in the pages of As Above So Below.

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From Publishers Weekly

As intricate-if not as fluent-as one of its subject's own vivid depictions of 16th-century life in the Spanish-dominated Low Countries, Rucker's fictionalized life of Bruegel draws its readers into a teeming world of politics, art, love, sin and loss. Rucker has marshaled years of research into 16 chapters, each built around one of Bruegel's famous paintings and highlighting a pivotal experience in the artist's life. Bruegel left his boyhood village to be apprenticed to Master Coecke of Antwerp, and once a master himself, traveled to Italy to be smitten by Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Once back in Belgium, he began to receive commissions for his paintings, using audacious perspectives and even more risky interpretations of religious themes. Rucker's own boisterously crowded canvas includes characters like homosexual cartographer Ortelius, the scheming bishop and later cardinal Granvelle, the charismatic half-American Indian Williblad Cheroo, and young Mayken, Bruegel's adored wife and canny business manager. Though Rucker's literal-minded narration repeatedly leads him to tell rather than show ("Bruegel was beginning to feel the stirrings of romantic love"; "For her part, Mayken acted quite unromantic"), he skillfully interlaces his account of Bruegel's various artistic and literary influences with insights into the genesis of some of his most renowned works. This is clearly a labor of love and, though sometimes less than graceful, it grapples handily with Bruegel's genius-his ability to wittily and gracefully recreate all human activity, from the sublime to the scatological. 16 b&w reproductions.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* What possesses a popular science fiction writer to write a historical novel about a sixteenth-century Flemish painter enamored of peasant ways? Unbridled fascination with the depiction of worlds real and imagined. Rucker's keen insights into Peter Bruegel's spellbinding and politically subversive work underpin this animated, suspenseful, and affecting tale, a step up from Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (2000). Biographical information about Bruegel is scant, but Rucker's sense that the painter was lively, compassionate, courageous, and determined feels right, and the characters Rucker invents to flesh out Bruegel's violent and precarious universe are equally compelling, especially the cultured mapmaker Abraham Ortelius, who is so careful to conceal his homosexuality; the sexy and volatile half-Native American, Williblad Cheroo; and Bruegel's smart, saucy wife. Just as Bruegel's paintings are a great joy to behold even as they induce the viewer to face the grimmer aspects of life, Rucker's vivid imagining of Bruegel's trials and triumphs is set against a cutting indictment of the horrors of the Spanish occupation and Inquisition. Bruegel's great gift was his perception of the sacred in the earthy, and Rucker follows suit in this vital portrait of a sweet-natured disciple of life's fecund beauty in a time of cold-blooded tyranny. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Peter Bruegel was looking at his first mountain, a steep, rounded foothill at the edge of the Alps. Read the first page
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Look deeper! Jan. 4 2003
I picked this up blind from the new book bin at the Kailua-Kona public library, and boy, I'm glad I did. I've always enjoyed Bruegel, but this novel really makes you look at each picture with new eyes. Thank goodness I had an art book (Phaidon) of Bruegel at home with big color plates, which really complemented the text of this book. I love the feeling of delving into the past, but with good friends, which is how I think of Bruegel now that I've read this book.
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3.0 out of 5 stars A great artist, a fine life Oct. 21 2005
Rucker's telling of the life of Bruegel is built around 16 of his extant drawings and paintings. At the beginning of each chapter is a reproduction, in black and white, of the painting that provides the name to the chapter. The chapter then recounts anything from a day in Bruegel's life to several months, often refering to the composition of the painting, or alluding to it through descriptions of the people around Bruegel. At times, such as in the chapter "The Peasant Wedding," this works wonderfully. Rucker develops Bruegel's character, and simultaneously evokes the daily life of the era that is at the core of Bruegel's work. At other times, however, this structure does not work. It becomes snapshots, spread over time, of a man's life. Unlike a story, a life does not necessarilly have narrative drive, and this becomes a problem here. Narrative tension starts to dissipate as Bruegel ages (this despite the growing repression of the Spanish in Belgium and the terror they hold over both the country and Bruegel's household). When we walk through an art gallery we see, alternatively, the art work and the blank spaces of the wall between them. Too much of this novel works this way, moving between wonderful set pieces and less interesting bridging. Going to a show of an artist's work, the currator may place the pieces in chronological order. Walking by, you might note the chronology, but it is the contents of the individual works that are most important. In this novel, unfortunately, the chronology too often overshadows either Bruegel's or Rucker's images, to the detriment of the book as a whole.
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Amazon reviews are not normally used as a forum for questions and answers, but I will answer your question now and put in my review later. The title of this book comes from the translated text of "The Emerald Tablet," from about 800 A.D. The actual line of text is, "That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one." Some interpret this to mean that God and Nature are the same, that God and Man are the same and on the same level, and that the intent and actions of God and Man are linked. In Western religious culture, God is often imagined to be "above" and Man "below," so this interpretation is not always well received. But there is dispute about the authorship of The Emerald Tablet - some say it is Arab and some say it may even have come from China - and so the interpretation of it could depend very much on its true origin. Still others ascribe mystical, magical powers to The Emerald Tablet. For further information on The Emerald Tablet, you may do research on the Web. Of course, in relation to the novel, "As Above, So Below," it might be more important for the reader to understand Rudy Rucker's interpretation of this ancient text. Any ideas?
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3.0 out of 5 stars Spend some time in Renaissance Belgium Dec 21 2003
Rucker builds a series of chapters around particular paintings by Bruegel, in order to produce a biographical novel that is well-informed concerning the (known) historical details of Bruegel's life and the political and cultural history of the day. The book offers a good way to get engaged with the period and with the paintings. The writing is a bit clunky, and the novel works more because of the inherent interest of the artist and the period than by what the writer contributes. I could easily have put the book down had other things been available, but as it was it served as a welcome companion during a day of many, many delayed flights and long layovers as I flew across the US.
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