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Review of 'The Primary Colors'

Review of 'The Primary Colors'

The Blue Room in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, "actually a sort of inner-sanctum lock-up vault for rare gems and not open to the public," he notes, "is painted government-issue blue and carpeted in an equally drab blue." Then he gives us a peek at his own bedroom: "My favorite blue, used on the walls of my bedroom, is a Benjamin Moore paint that being custom-mixed I had taken deeper, deeper, deeper. The formula is #832 plus BB3X, MG-1X, RO-1O."

An idiosyncratic history of art and film emerges in these pages. We find, for example, that "Douglas Fairbanks, a man whose swarthiness resembled an eggplant's, had dozens of yellow pajamas of heavy silk made for him in China." And that James McNeill Whistler indecorously wore yellow socks to the "Yellow and White" exhibition at London's Fine Arts Society in 1883. On Cezanne's apples, Theroux gives D. H. Lawrence's opinion that they were more important than Plato's ideas; and he quotes Raoul Dufy's retort to a critic who questioned the impossibly poetic blue of his seascapes: "Nature, my dear sir, is only an hypothesis."

I can imagine Theroux, were I to call his wordscapes a mindless mountain of information, replying that the mind, my dear sir, is only an hypothesis. And perhaps that is the point of his book.

There is so much else in it, I can share with you only a few of the sentences I enjoyed bumping into. I cannot place them in context. There is no context:

"Disraeli loved pyramids of strawberries on golden dishes."

"Incidentally, August A. Busch, of the beer family, often served his guests suckling pigs with red-painted toenails."

"Regarding wretched excesses, in the 1970s there were leisure suits that had both the nap and color of baby vomit."

"Nostradamus prophesied that the anti-Christ would wear a blue turban, although in Sikhism that very same symbol signifies a mind as broad as the sky."

"And the flowers of melilot, often used to flavor beer-and also cheese-are bright yellow, like scorzonera, a perennial plant with a root not unlike a carrot. . . ."

And of course, the sentence we began with, "Oscar Wilde collected Blue Willow china."

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