Book Review: 'Pictures at an Exhibition' by Sara Houghteling

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By Roger Atwood
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 18, 2009


By Sara Houghteling

Knopf. 243 pp. $24.95

When the Nazis invaded France and began gutting Jewish-owned galleries, a modest curator named Rose Valland seemed eager to help. She impressed the Germans with her knowledge of the local art market and the meticulous notes she took on the looted Rembrandts and Vermeers as they arrived at the Jeu de Paume on their way east to Hitler. To German eyes, she was a Parisian fantasy: pretty, discreet, cultured. Now and then, the Nazis would become suspicious and dismiss her. She could always charm her way back.

Or so it seemed. Valland was a double agent who took such copious notes on stolen paintings that they could later be tracked down and restored to their rightful owners. She passed information to the Resistance on shipments of art so that either the pieces would stay bottled up in Parisian train stations or, when they were shipped east, Allied bombers would spare the trains. If it sounds like a movie, it was: "The Train" (1964) with Suzanne Flon in the role of Valland, who lived until 1980 as a much-admired heroine of the Resistance.

In her first novel, Sara Houghteling builds a love story around Valland's mission to save art, but the story works better than the character. Houghteling's depiction of the famous curator, renamed Rose Clément, is oddly denatured and sketchy, a figure who spins at the center of every melodrama and contrived coincidence in wartime Paris but never takes off as a full-blooded character. She smells like honeysuckle, she walks along the Seine, and she "is part of a new breed, the hungry, independent, middle-class, educated elite," one of the characters says, sounding like a sociology textbook. As depicted by Houghteling, Rose is an attractive frame around a bland work of art -- which, as one of the characters explains, is a common trick to disguise an inferior painting. Turning a historical figure into a fictional character is not easy to pull off, and this book points to the perils of trying.

That is a shame because most of the completely fictional characters succeed, particularly Max Berenzon, the son of a prosperous Jewish art dealer, Rose's lover, and the book's first-person narrator. After liberation, Max takes to wandering the galleries of Paris in a mostly futile search for paintings that belonged to his family, trying to reconstruct his prewar relationship with the elusive Rose. In one nicely executed scene, he enters a curio shop to inquire about looted art, but the one-eyed proprietor misreads his intentions and instead shows him photographs of naked children. Wincing, Max shuffles through them until he finds, underneath, a drawing by Manet that could only have been stolen from a collector. Manet is mixed in with kiddie porn. France has won, but the French are defeated.

Houghteling also deftly evokes the desperation and confusion of post-liberation Paris, as deranged Holocaust survivors straggle back into town and once-prosperous Jewish burghers emerge from four years of hiding in attics and farmhouses to find themselves reduced to a life of bread lines and bed-sits.

Houghteling's characters represent variations on the fate of Jews in mid-century Europe. Max's father, secular and assimilationist, at first denies the Nazi threat, becomes a refugee and returns to Paris a broken man who has given up not just on art but also on the value of all material possessions, advising his son to do the same: "Throw Death off your scent, Max. Give it all away. And when it is taken from you, say it is God's will." His mother is a high-strung Polish immigrant and pianist who plays the Mussorgsky suite of the book's title and, Cassandra-like, warns the family of doom as the Germans swallow up her homeland.

Max stumbles upon his own past through a friendship with a pedantic Hasid who survived Auschwitz. They meet through a trusty plot device -- "I heard singing, followed it, and found an open basement door. There were Jews inside" -- and soon Max is sleeping in the bed of the man's dead son, which sounds like a heartwarming, surrogate-father, it-takes-a-village kind of moment, but it isn't. To Houghteling's credit, the atmosphere here, and throughout "Pictures at an Exhibition," is one of despair, resignation and futility.

Sometimes, I could swear I was reading a French roman that had been translated into English, complete with attendant family melodrama including incest and a taboo infant death. Houghteling's sentences can sound as if they were taken from a rather stiff translation of Guy de Maupassant: "What she was telling me, I realized stupidly, the whole tapestry of it, was amazing and terrible." And yet, more than most writers, Houghteling succeeds in making us feel and understand the full, perverse impact of the German pillage of art in World War II, its sickening human cost; and that is some virtue. Rose Valland would approve.

Atwood is author of "Stealing History" and a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine.

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