“We were archaeologists in our own tomb,” observes Sara Houghteling’s narrator when he and his father come home to Paris in August, 1944. Paris itself is hardly recognizable and the Berenzon Gallery, their family business, has long since been emptied of its treasures. Even the 250 paintings stowed in a nearby bank depository have vanished without a trace. During the war, the Jewish Berenzons sequestered themselves on a farm in Le Puy. They saved their lives, but lost their wealthy holdings. Pictures at an Exhibition describes what happens next, as Max is determined to prove himself to his father by recovering their paintings and restoring their gallery to its former prominence.
The Berenzons are fictional, but the background of this novel is wholly based on fact. How the Nazis stole art for themselves, burning the paintings they deemed decadent and shipping the rest back to the fatherland, has been retold by countless historians and art critics.The steps taken to trace the provenance of the art that was recovered has been well-researched, too. Houghteling has done her homework, imagining the story of one family’s quest for restitution and compensation while relating a factual account of what really was happening in Paris in the mid-1940s. I always appreciate novels that teach as well as delight. Pictures at an Exhibition does both extremely well. One of its main characters, in fact, is based on the curator of the Jeu de Paume who surreptitiously documented “the looters, the looted, and the destinations of the spoils” during World War II. Houghteling’s fictional Rose Clement owes her provenance to that heroic Frenchwoman, Rose Valland.
I also admire writers who create visual prose, who possess what literary critics like to way is a painterly touch. Like Susan Vreeland, in Lisette’s List, Houghteling frames her words and takes the reader through a gallery of prose images, the “lost museum” of Max’s mind. As Max walks the war-torn streets of Paris or when he and his father stare at a painting for hours, a reader can see the scene both literally and figuratively. Lisette’s List works like a bookend to Pictures at an Exhibition, the one tracing lost art in the French countryside, the other tracing lost art in the heart of the city, both drawing the reader into their vividly graphic artistic post-war worlds. Reading them sequentially would be like wandering through a gallery, a very special collection of “pictures at an exhibition.”
Although I genuinely recommend reading Pictures at an Exhibition, I must admit I didn’t care for the narrator himself. Max neither talks nor acts like a young man in his early twenties. His fascination for Rose is believable, but his pursuit of her, in my judgment, just doesn’t ring true. To me, Max sounds more like an anxious teen-aged girl than a man motivated by testosterone. Throughout my career I have mused about how difficult it is for a writer to get inside the head and body of a character of the opposite gender. Some do so adroitly, but more often the result is an awkward clash of traits and characteristics. That is definitely the case here. I suspect that Sara Houghteling chose Max, rather than Maxine, because of real-life Rose. But with minimal tweaking, the story would have worked equally well if her narrator had been female instead of semi-male. That said, I really did enjoy reading Pictures at an Exhibition, for the ambiance and the information, if not for the hero himself.
Pictures at an Exhibition
World War II
Nazi theft of paintings
Jeu de Paume
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