Book Review: Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling

Mussorgsky wrote [“Pictures at an Exhibition”] for the painter Victor Hartmann, who died young… This is the closest you can ever get to that exhibition. They say all of Hartmann’s paintings have been lost, so there is only the music.

I’ve recently taken to listening to audiobooks on my way to and from work, and a couple weeks ago, I came across 2010’s Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling, which was readily available to download from the library (related note: it was very enjoyable to hear it read by Mark Bramhall, who beautifully articulates multiple European accents and French words). Pictures at an Exhibition tells the story of Max Berenzon, a young Jewish Frenchman who desperately wants to work in his family’s prestigious art gallery in the late 1930s, and pines after the lovely assistant, Rose Clément. His father repeatedly denies him the opportunity to become a gallerist, telling him that he does not have “the hunger, the desire to hunt and chase.” Max and his family are certainly cognizant of the Nazis’ war efforts and occupations that are coming ever closer to Paris, and there are a few moments where you see them experience anti-Semitism from fellow Parisians. The war itself is largely glossed over, and before you know it, it’s 1944, and the Berenzons are returning to Paris after hiding in a farmhouse on the French countryside. 

Upon their return, they find that their beloved gallery has been looted by the Nazis, and Max embarks upon a quest to find what has become of the art. He still obsesses over Clément, who had worked tirelessly through the war to keep track of much of Paris’ stolen art, and his obsession is as fruitless as his endeavor to recover his family’s art. The most beautiful and tragic parts of the book are his observations about how empty Jews felt as they returned to post-liberation Paris, either from hiding or having survived the concentration camps, only to find that their homes have been ransacked; or his search for his friends who disappeared after being sent to the camps; or his relationship with his father, particularly at the end.

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Rose Valland (Source)

Overall, the book was enjoyable, especially the last third, but the most egregious author-crime committed by Houghteling was with the character Rose Clément. Clément was based on a real life hero of World War II, Rose Valland (1898-1980), an art historian, military captain, and one of the most decorated women in French history. Like Clément, Valland worked alongside the Nazis at the Jeu de Paume, the German stronghold for stolen art, to track train shipments and catalog the treasures they stole as they drove French families, many of which were Jewish, out of their homes and galleries. However, what the Nazis didn’t know was that Valland was actually working with the French Resistance (indeed, they didn’t even think that she understood German [fun fact: she did]), and the copious, detailed notes that she made helped Allied forces avoid bombing train cars or buildings filled with priceless art, or prevented the trains from leaving Paris all together. Later, these notes were crucial in recovering much of the art to their rightful owners.

Clément often felt two-dimensional as a character and overly sexualized. She is described as “a woman as Ingres would have painted her: luminous skin, impossibly long limbs and hair so fine it never stayed in its combs but found its maddening way to the sticky corners of her mouth.” At one point, Max’s friend Bertrand said that Clément regularly slept with his (Max’s) father, reducing her even further to a borderline gallery girl. Valland was perhaps a little plain in reality, but she was charming, meticulous, and, most importantly, working alongside the damn Nazis while hiding her true intentions to protect the art and help the Allies! If she had been discovered to be a traitor, she would have been imprisoned, sent to a concentration camp, or– most likely– flat out executed. Clément comes off as robotic as she pushes away Max’s advances, and is so narrowly focused on the art that she might as well be one of her inventory lists. Max desperately wants a relationship with her, so much so that his desire for her overshadows his admiration of her efforts that are far more worthy of commemoration. However, this is not the first time that I’ve seen Valland and the Monuments Men prosaically rendered in historical fiction (I’m thinking mainly of the atrocious Monuments Men movie with George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, et al. Really, how can anyone take such a cool part of history and make it so bloody boring?).

In spite of the flattening of Clément/Valland, the overall theme of loss saves the narrative. In the epilogue, there is a particularly poignant scene in which Max feverishly sought to have a picture taken of him and his father developed, as he had died earlier in the day. After the camera shop owner took the camera into a darkroom to remove the film (because Max was too afraid to remove it himself in case he exposed the negatives), he comes back after a moment to say that the camera did not have any film in it. Max sadly muses to himself, “And so my father’s picture joined the other images in the lost museum of my mind.” From the beginning, with his mother’s description of Mussorgsky’s symphony, to the empty camera at the end, it is undeniable that Houghteling captured a facet of the emptiness and despair felt in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

 

 

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

 

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