Looted Paintings, Stolen Hearts

With occupied Paris as a backdrop, a young man watches both his family's legacy and the woman he loves slip out of reach.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling Knopf, 256 pages, $24.95

It's hard not to cringe at the appearance of yet another Holocaust novel. More than ever, it seems, the annihilation of Europe's Jews has become the preferred theme for so many writers - the perfect template through which to reinvent the past. All of which makes "Pictures at an Exhibition," a first novel by Sara Houghteling, particularly remarkable. Though centered around the Holocaust, Houghteling's is a refreshingly understated work that offers a subtle but powerful exploration of loss, and of the pain and havoc left in its wake.

"Pictures at an Exhibition" is also a coming-of-age novel. Set in Paris, it tells the story of Max Berenzon and his experiences before and after World War II. But if Max is the story's central character, it's the Berenzon family art gallery, owned by Max's father, Daniel, and managed by Rose Clement, the novel's femme fatale, that provides the lens through which the story unfolds.

Daniel is one of Europe's leading art dealers during the pre-war period, and, like many of them, a Jew; in addition to owning some of the most valuable works of Impressionist art, he has contracts with two of the biggest artists of his day: Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Since childhood, Max has been studying the works of art in his father's collection, memorizing the details of each painting and reciting them back to his father after every exhibition. Now that he is 19, he expects to be included in the family business. But for reasons that are never fully revealed to the reader, Daniel chooses not to pass this vast enterprise on to his only child. "You lack the hunger, the desire to hunt and chase," he tells Max. Instead, Daniel hires Rose. Max, though envious, is also helplessly smitten.

"Pictures at an Exhibition" is a well-researched historical novel that draws much of its inspiration from the author's obvious passion for art, which comes through in her vivid descriptions of various real works that make their way into this book. Many of the novel's characters are also based on real-life individuals. In particular, Rose, who spends the war years working at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, once Paris's most prominent museum of modern art, is modeled after the French resistance member Rose Valland, who oversaw the Jeu de Paume during the German occupation (as Houghteling tells us in an author's note). Though Max Berenzon is "entirely imaginary" his father is based, in part, on the great prewar art dealer Paul Rosenberg.

Like her real-life counterpart, the fictional Rose, while working in German employ, secretly records what she can about the thousands of artworks that arrive at the museum, which the Nazis use as a warehouse for looted art, much of it from private Jewish collections. These works would turn up in private collections, galleries and museums across Europe and, eventually, around the world. As Houghteling points out, Rose Valland's work during the war ended up saving "thousands of paintings for eventual repatriation," although many remain lost or unclaimed to this day. The book is less clear with regard to how the fictional Rose's records affect the destiny of the stolen goods. Indeed, the author fails to fully develop this character's historical role in the story, which is particularly disappointing given that Houghteling considers Rose the novel's "most important historical figure."

Tragedies abound in this novel, and Max's unrequited love for Rose is not the least of them. If Max lacks the drive to buy and sell art, when it comes to love, drive is all he seems to possess - a love of longing, which is ultimately doomed, because, as his friend Bertrand points out, "desire is simpler than love." But the real issue may be less Max's inability to love than the fact that he has simply chosen the wrong woman. "I have never expected to marry," Rose tells a still-hopeful Max. "Perhaps I am ill-suited for it. Or, perhaps there are things that occupy me more."

Rose, formerly a curator at the Louvre, begins working for the Berenzon gallery in January of 1939, moving into a wing of the family home that also houses the gallery. The two become close friends, and Max pines for her romantically, but to no avail. Eight months later, on the day that Poland falls to Germany, Rose moves out, perhaps in an effort to ward off Max's advances, but more likely because she foresees what is to come. Things happen terribly fast in Europe during this period, as a grieving Max notes: "The bathwater scalded, I cracked my Cole Porter record in two, and France declared war." There is little warning of what is about to happen, and few realize, as Max points out in retrospect, that they are actually "living on borrowed time."

Soon enough, though, the Berenzon collection is put into storage - in vaults at the Chase Bank and beneath a false floor in the gallery. Houghteling skims over the war itself, and we learn of Max's wartime experiences only via passing recollections. The novel jumps from 1940, just before the family goes into hiding, to their return in 1944, as Daniel and Max navigate the streets of post-liberation Paris. What they find on reaching home is utter destruction: Everything, down to the carpet, has been looted. "There had been a fire. Holes were gouged in the walls. . .The skylight had shattered . . . The spandrels clung like metal spiderwebs." As for the artwork, the entire collection is gone. The hiding place has been discovered and the vaults at the bank have been looted as well. The few paintings that were left hanging on the gallery walls are burnt.

As Max wanders aimlessly through the gallery rooms, noticing the paintings on the walls, all covered in black, he senses that "an identical great loneliness reached up a paw and knocked me aside so that I felt askew and utterly at loss."

Much in the manner of survivors searching for loved ones, Max's new obsession becomes searching for the lost paintings, in the hope of restoring a valuable and prestigious collection, but more importantly, perhaps, out of a desire to win his father's respect. In the process, he tracks down Rose, who is living in hiding, terrified for her life. Some have accused her of collaboration because of work she did under the Nazis; she is also reviled by art dealers because of what she knows about the dubious history of many of the works in their possession. In postwar Paris, what the locals want more than anything else is to forget. This is especially the case in the world of buying and selling art, where many of the transactions necessarily involve stolen goods.

A reluctant Rose eventually points Max to a gallery where he manages to recover a specific work of art from his father's collection. But his luck does not last long. The web of stolen artwork is wide, and it seems as if the whole world of art dealership has been tarnished by the Nazi legacy. Following a lead he finds among Rose's wartime records, Max approaches one gallery, where he finds one of his father's stolen paintings. Intending to buy it back, he promises to return with the money. But as he discovers several days later, he has unwittingly frightened away the owner, who disappears, along with the precious canvas.

As he searches, Max learns something of the extent of the destruction of Europe's Jews and of the scope of the looting, which stripped survivors like the Berenzons of their most valuable possessions. On a visit to a former art dealer, a Jew, Max learns that the dealer's home was also completely looted initially, only to be refurbished, with stolen goods, when it was requisitioned to house a Vichy official. "No two things came from the same house," says the dealer's wife, of the home's new furnishings, which evoke, for her, the image of "a central warehouse of furniture from all the Jews in Paris."

It's this image of precious belongings rounded up, much like their owners probably were, many of them never to be seen again, that Houghteling has chosen to focus on in her fictional account of the Holocaust. Approaching anything so vast and horrific as the Holocaust with subtlety and elegance is always challenging, and this novel's remarkable success is at least in part attributable to the choice of lens through which it explores the difficult and intensely human experiences of loss and loneliness. While at times the novel falters by failing to tie up loose ends and fully explain certain factual details, the sensitivity with which the author addresses the novel's larger themes more than makes up for the book's flaws. Houghteling is also a gifted storyteller, whose polished prose and carefully crafted sentences make this book a pleasure to read.

By the time the novel draws to a close, decades later, Max is a successful doctor in New York, married with two grown daughters. Though he hasn't forgotten Rose, who makes one final appearance at the very end of the novel, he seems to have reached a certain inner peace. He is on a trip to visit his elderly parents, who remained in France, when Daniel suddenly takes ill. During his last hours, Daniel lays on his deathbed, half-deaf after being resuscitated by his son. With his father fast slipping away, Max says, "We all had to shout our love at him, which, it occurred to me, I had been trying to do my whole life."

In the end, Houghteling's answer to the question of loss is incredibly simple. Love, she seems to be suggesting, is the only way to cope.

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer from New York temporarily living in Jerusalem.