"Pictures at an Exhibition" shows the 'real' Paris

  • Article by: EMILY CARTER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2009 - 3:31 PM

The son of an art dealer sets out to retrieve paintings stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling

These days, every book review has to present a case for buying and reading the book instead of watching a movie of a baby spitting up on YouTube. A book has to deliver something that the merely visual can't. "Pictures at an Exhibition," for instance, offers a free trip to Paris. Not the Paris of today, but the real Paris, the idea of which inspires 10,000 tour groups a month.

This is the Paris of Impressionist paintings and 18th-century apartments, the Paris of classical music floating out of bay windows at 4 a.m. while young swains buy pretty girls daffodils from pushcarts on Les Halles. This is the Paris of balusters and brocade, marbled light and Maurice Chevalier, the Paris of cobblestone alleys and bustling boulevards, opinionated greengrocers and passionate lovers.

Incidentally, if you are an art lover for whom the recession has put beautiful coffee table books, not to mention European vacations, out of reach, this book will conjure up the colors of Manet and Picasso more effectively than a glossy reproduction. Author Sara Houghteling is an art historian, and her descriptions of paintings put her skills to excellent use. It contains not so much as a sketch, but you'll remember the book as richly illustrated.

Visual memory is such an important element in the book that when we first meet its narrator, he is trying to recall, by rote, a huge catalog of pictures. Max Berenzon, the scion of a well-known art-dealing family, is everything you'd want to be in Paris in 1940 -- young, wealthy and cultured. Unfortunately, he's also the one worst thing to be at the time, a Jew. At first, his only preoccupations seem to be with his father's gallery and Rose, the beautiful young intern who helps his father run it.

In a reversal of the usual plot line, Max is desperate to go into the family business, while his father, "a man whose attention everyone sought," insists he isn't suited for it. Charismatic and passionate about art, Berenzon Senior coolly insists that Max, though good at heart, is no more than a rich man's son, "without the need to hunt and chase."

During the occupation, however, the Berenzon home is destroyed, the gallery decimated and the painting collection dispersed. Max leaves his parents and sets out to retrieve the paintings and his lost love, Rose. He begins to hunt and chase.

It is in this Paris, violated and still smoking, that Houghteling's book takes real flight.

If before things may have been a tad too cultured, what with all the elegiac descriptions of still life fruit and church architecture (Max is forever standing rapt before some painting or stained glass window), she now begins to ask what culture means. Can art ever be worth even one human life? One survivor asks if each painting represents "1,000 of us?" In this mutilated Paris, Houghteling finds the arena for the real battle between barbarism and civilization, fascism vs. humanism. So besides being a thriller, a travelogue and a mystery, this book also makes for an excellent discussion.

Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some." She lives in Minneapolis.

  • PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION

    By: Sara Houghteling.

    Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 243 pages, $24.95.

    Review: A lavish and passionate tale that conjures up vivid pictures of romantic Paris and asks the question: Is art more important than human life?

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