2010 Harold U. Ribalow Prize Winner: Pictures at an Exhibition
Max Berenzon, son of a Paris art dealer, is fascinated by his father’s new assistant, Rose Clément. But it’s 1939, and though Rose’s brilliance and beauty make her attractive to one Jewish boy in particular, in the years to come she will prove to be a heroine for all. Rose, who during the German occupation would meticulously document the looters, the looted and the destination of thousands of paintings, is one of the central figures in Pictures at an Exhibition (Vintage), the novel for which Sara Houghteling has been awarded the 2010 Harold U. Ribalow Prize. With a keen sense of history and elegant prose, Houghteling evokes Paris in the 1930s and 1940s and paints an unforgettable portrait of one Jewish family that survived the Holocaust and tried to pick up the pieces of its life.
I first learned about Rose Clément when I was nineteen and she was twenty-one. In the end, she will prove the most indispensable of us all. In January of 1939, however, I understood her only as the object of my envy. I did not understand that we were living on borrowed time.
“Hide this from your mother,” Father said, and handed Paris Soir to me. He smoothed his mustache. “I have to interview a new assistant tomorrow. The boss”—this meant René Huyghe, curator of the Louvre’s department of paintings and sculpture—“says she’s got the best eye the museum’s seen since Louis Quatorze walked through the Salon Carré. That old adage. He insists she still work on some extravagant project of theirs for a few hours each week, stockpiling sandbags at the museum and refitting Notre-Dame’s stained glass windows with putty so they are easier to remove in case the bombing starts. I suppose I must learn to compromise.”
Before I was of the age to work alongside my father, I had greeted the arrival of his new apprentices with glee. Every two years, he took on one of the Louvre’s young, underpaid curators. As a child, I enjoyed the uninterrupted stream of older-brother figures. They were debonair. Some spoke French with an accent; one came from as far as Delhi. They had excellent taste in clothing, cigarettes, women, and—I realized later—men. I learned to blow smoke rings, to discern between interchangeable Braques and Picassos (they said Braque’s lines were blunter, Picasso’s more fluid), to iron a shirt, and to say, “The night is beautiful and so are you. Kiss me,” in Swedish.
In the years between the wars, the curators-in-training traveled with my father from the Prado to the Uffizi and from the Rijksmuseum to the British. They went to the Hermitage to discuss the acceptable humidity ranges for Byzantine triptychs and to the Vatican to examine the separation of soot from fresco. I had a dusty collection of trinkets and snow globes, one from each city Father visited. The apprentices occupied an apartment off the gallery, inexplicably called the Nurse’s Room, which could be entered either from the gallery’s main floor or through a separate door in the courtyard. My father liked his trainees to challenge him, to suggest purchases and donations, and to worship Manet with a passion verging on the unsound. They visited artists’ studios alongside my father and decided which paintings to buy before they were finished and which finished paintings to buy, in order to ensure that the dross never reached the market. Apprentices learned to keep a silken scrim between the Berenzon Gallery and its clients. A buyer eager for a painting was not cause enough to sell it; rather, Father placed the paintings with owners who could add luster to the artist’s reputation.
At my side that evening in January, my father resumed his ritual of recitation. “Sisley, 1926,” he said. I stood and began to walk around the room, pointing to the place on the wall where each painting had hung when I was six.
“Watering Place at Marly in the Snow, Banks of the Seine in Snow, The Bridge of Auvers-sur-Oise.” My brain seized up. I couldn’t remember the rest. Father listed them quickly.
He accused me, on that occasion and others, of possessing the ardor of an aristocratic art lover—once something was mine, I planned to keep it forever. Indeed, because I had to be removed from the gallery whenever my father sold a painting, I spent most of my childhood elsewhere, usually with Bertrand and Fanny Reinach, the grandchildren of the Count Moises de Camondo and my favorite playmates. So that night, when, as I often had in the past, I asked why Father could not take me on as his assistant, he reminded me of my childhood temper. “All that wailing whenever we sold something, throwing a tantrum, pulling at your mother’s dress. We had to clear you out on the days the owners came to fetch their new paintings.” I began to speak, but he stopped me with a raised hand. “Don’t worry yourself so. Time for sleep, my boy. Check that the main entrance is locked.” He gestured toward it with his chin. I was dismissed.
I wanted to pace the gallery’s green floor in my own tuxedo. I wanted to have a near-photographic memory like my father. But as I did not, I needed the gallery there to guide me. I raised my fist to strike the glass door. Yet because my father was not a man of violence, of sharp words or brutish action, I lowered my hand.
That next day, in expectation of my enemy’s arrival, I dawdled in the living room with its convenient heating vent. When she came, Mademoiselle Clément’s heels clicked a double staccato down the hallway. I peered into the gallery and glimpsed one slender leg, a high-arched foot, and the black shoe dangling from it.
“Shall we discuss the influence of Spanish artists on French painters?” my father said.
“In Spanish or French?” Mademoiselle Clément asked.
“French will be fine.”
The girl talked and talked. I imagined that she had a large gold key sticking out from between her shoulder blades like a pair of wings and that an attendant continually wound it. Father stifled a yawn. She instructed him on the details of Manet’s single visit to Spain in 1865. She informed my father of facts he already knew in a voice that did not take this into consideration. My irritation turned to curiosity.
“My fascination lies primarily in Goya’s influence on Manet. Manet adopts the composition of Goya’s history paintings in order to layer his own critique of Napoleon’s regime with Goya’s condemnation of French barbarism in Spain. I’m thinking of the connection between The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and Goya’s 3 May 1808.”
Through the chute came Manet’s interest in eliminating halftones of the palette and his lasting friendship with the painter Berthe Morisot, who was also his sister-in-law. Rose cited Baudelaire’s essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” and Zola’s defense of Olympia.
“Bravo,” I whispered. I could not compete with the mind that belonged to the woman with the beautiful instep. I felt awe and envy, one of which registered in my ribs and the other in my stomach. Her voice reminded me of the flute solo in Daphnis and Chloé, the sound of waving scarves, diaphanous colors, a changeful pitch unwilling to rest on any note but returning often to the same theme. I think I must have fallen in love then.
Lucie entered the room with a tray. The room was quiet, and I could hear the sounds of sipping and blowing across the hot tea. I leaned back from the heating vent, tropically warm. I opened the window on the hour and let the peal of bells drift in.
While my father talked, I thought about the operating theater of the medical faculty. A female cadaver with its head shrouded lay greenly sweating formaldehyde on a table with a wobbly leg. The day’s discussion was on reproductive diseases, and as the surgeon pointed to the woman’s ovaries, I considered how my father’s artists must have attended lectures such as these.
Down below, I heard my name.
“Hard work, medicine,” Rose said.
“Oh-ho, not for Max. Things come easily to that boy,” Father lied. I fished my heavy textbook out from underneath the sofa where I had thrown it, blew the dust off its cover, and tried to study for the next day’s class. The names of the bones in the skull slid around on the page each time I looked away, trying to re-create the picture in my mind.
When I heard my father’s chair scrape back from his desk, I looked through the heating vent again. “Shall I speak with your son?” Rose asked.
“No, no,” Father sang. “Valves, veins, tendons, hospitals, and moaning invalids, those are his passions. He prefers the morgue to the museum.”
I stood at the top of the stairs while my father and Mademoiselle Clément commented on the rain outside. Rose said she was unprepared for this weather. Thinking of Humphrey Bogart, I descended the stairs and offered to accompany the young woman to her destination.
“My gallant son, Max.” Father’s mustache twitched. “May I introduce to you the lovely Mademoiselle Rose Clément.” I took her hand in mine and she looked at the floor through a fan of black lashes. She was 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. Her blouse revealed the bracket shape of her collarbone, and I imagined the white, lacy brassiere, with all its complicated hooks and straps, beneath.
“You could walk me as far as the Métro,” Rose offered. “I’ve some distance to go underground after that.”
She shook hands with my father, bending slightly at the waist. I plucked an umbrella from its stand and jabbed the tip out onto the street. It opened with the sound of a sail catching wind. Rose stepped under. As we walked the ten paces to the corner, rain ran down my collar.
“So you’re the infamous son,” Rose said.
Unsure how to respond, I lit a cigarette. She took one as well. The smoke hung low under the umbrella.
“What is amiss here? I don’t mean to offend you when we’ve only just met. I like you instinctively. I have a good sense about people. Like a collie. It’s rather clear there’s a family situation, and even though I’d give anything to work with your father—to work with a legend—it seems like it could be a minefield, too. I don’t need any job that badly. I could keep working at the Louvre and eating my two tins of beans for supper.”
“Only beans?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation from my father.
“Unless I’ve been asked to dinner or I visit my aunt, who feeds me like I’m going into hibernation. Well, sometimes it’s a can of beans and a can of soup with the cheese that I keep out on the windowsill. It’s a dream come true. A freezing garret on île Saint-Louis with a bathroom down the hall that I share with a constipated waiter and a nymphomaniac. I don’t have an oven, and it wouldn’t be much good if I did. It’s a struggle to convince myself to heat the beans.”
Our shoulders jostled against each other as we tried to avoid colliding with a mother pushing a pram. Rose shifted her body so that it was directly in front of mine under the expanse of the umbrella. I could have kissed the curve of her neck.
“Truly,” Rose continued, “why would anyone not want to inherit his gallery? It’s breathtaking. And lucrative beyond my wildest dreams. A goose that lays golden eggs.”
“No idea,” I said. She looked skeptical.
“He doesn’t think I’m cut out for it. I don’t have the eye, the taste, the memory, the savoir faire.” I ticked each trait off on a finger. The way Rose fixed her eyes on me made it hard to fit words together. “They corralled me into medical school. They want me to be a pediatrician, but I’ve failed at least one exam every semester, and I would have been expelled long ago if there weren’t so few pupils left. We’ll be halfway through this century by the time I’m finished. I’m not much of a student and don’t try to be one.”
“That,” Rose said, “is a tired cliché, and surely there is some nice dark psychological explanation for your deliberate failure.” Although I was slightly uncomfortable with my psychological state as the topic of conversation, I was happy for anything that would keep her attention. “You know Ivan Benezet?” she asked. I nodded and pictured the back of the Breton student’s neck, his reddish hair and gingery freckles, the broad shoulders, and his shirt stretched across them. “He’s in your medical class.”
Despite his size, or perhaps due to it, Benezet was a mild-mannered fellow. Though he did not know my name, he had invited me to several student outings. I never attended any.
I could guess his importance by the way she mentioned him. “Is he your boyfriend?” I asked.
Rose nodded. “Lucky chap,” I said.
She shook her head and colored. “You could tell him that.”
“I would,” I said, “but then I’d have to start going to Basics of Surgery again. I don’t have the stomach for it.”
“Ivan loves that class,” Rose said. We laughed for no reason and then fell quiet, surprised by our loud voices under the humid umbrella. A trolley rolled by, bell clanging.
Rose leaned toward me. “Do you like to dance?” she asked. I tried to say yes but did not succeed in touching wooden tongue to cottony palate. “You look like you would be a fine dancer. Fox-trot, Charleston, the dances they’re doing at Bal de la Musette?”
“I haven’t been there in a long time,” I lied. On my last visit there, my companion and I spent the whole evening kissing in the corner, not dancing. She was of Czech extraction, and I had done my best to help her forget the sorrows of her homeland.
“You seem like you would be a good dancer. Lanky, not a string bean but not a muscleman, either.”
“Thank you—I think,” I said.
“No, it’s a compliment,” Rose said. “I love to dance, but men are always afraid to ask me because chances are I’m taller than they are. And a girl’s legs look nicer in high heels, so what am I to do?”
We walked west onto the Champs-élysées, toward the Métro at Georges V.
“Would you like to have some lunch?” I asked. “There’s an excellent place around the corner. Fast, first-rate pepper steak, and a dozen times better than anything they’re serving on white tablecloths around here.”
“Sorry,” Rose said, and she did sound as if she meant it. “I’m helping Ivan review for an exam on the skull.”
“So he’s in my Anatomy class as well,” I said.
“Then you should get to work, too.” She had a small birthmark above her mouth that moved when she smiled. “Though the word steak does make me hungry. Good-bye, Max.”
She raised her hand to her ear, touched it to make sure the earring was in place, then smoothed her hair behind it. I wasn’t sure whether to kiss her cheeks or shake her hand. I felt my head and torso jerk in separate directions from each other. She leaned toward me, and I didn’t so much kiss her as press my cheek against hers.
I watched the men on the street watch Rose descend into the Métro, shaking their heads at the way her hips swung as she shifted down each step in her black-heeled shoes. I felt an undeserved pride—they must have thought she was with me.
By the time I returned home, the rain had stopped and the old women of the neighborhood had reappeared, walking their dogs. The old women wore winter coats, though the day was not cold, and muttered to their pets. A terrier scratched helplessly at the pavement.
From behind his desk, my father called out, “So?” I sat down across from him.
“She’s unusual,” I said. “Strident. An eccentric. Intent on the job. As am I.” Father pretended not to hear me. “Lovely to look at,” I added.
“I didn’t notice,” Father said. He finished addressing an envelope—its second line read élysée Palace—and pushed the bill away from him. “Max, the Berenzon Gallery needs to be ahead of the times, not with them.” He gestured with his pen in the air. “Women will have the vote any day now. Miss Clément is part of a new breed, the hungry, independent, middle-class, educated elite. You and I will be out of touch and stale without the likes of her. I’m canceling the rest of the interviews.” He punctuated this with a single clap. The crooked eyes of a Picasso nude stared at me piteously. “She knows her Goya, by God! Now there is only a single but significant obstacle in our path, Max.”
Mother streamed across the gallery floor in her kimono, her face porcelain white without its paints, her eyes flashing and ready for one of her cherished fights with my father. Mother dressed only when she was satisfied with her practicing. It was then two o’clock in the afternoon. She played piano from eleven to two, and again from three to six, though some days she sat at the piano bench for barely an hour. She was fond of saying, “I practiced enough even as a child to last a lifetime.”
“Auguste has told me all about your plan, Daniel,” Mother began. Our chauffeur was her special confidant. “A woman does not go to shul without a hat.” Father rolled his eyes at her Yiddish. “She does not go to the theater without a companion. She does not engage in commerce without her gloves. And she certainly does not move into the house of a strange art dealer if she is a decent lady. She’s unchaperoned. No proper parents would send their unmarried daughter into such a situation. If they cannot save her from disgrace, I will.”
“Ma puce,” Father said. “For a woman to enter this field, she’d have to be plainer than a librarian. This is a curator, Eva, not a cancan dancer.” He poured a scotch and swirled it in his glass.
“This business of yours, it does not have a kosher reputation. And what would people say about my son?” I cracked my knuckles and she slapped at my hands. “Not good for fingers,” she said. “Or my husband! Nikhil was perfection. Why not another young man like Nikhil?”
“Of all the assistants, your mother only likes royals from the subcontinent,” Father said, and dabbed at my mother’s mouth with his napkin.
“Or why not Max, for goodness’ sake, Daniel? You choose a girl over your own son.”
Father gripped his glass as if he might throw it. Instead, he drained the liquor in a swallow. “You know why, Eva,” he said. From outside, the two-pitched whine of an ambulance covered his words.
“Why?” I cried, standing up.
“This is not the business for you, Max, any more than you are prepared to fly an airplane or perform surgery with your left hand.” The edge in his voice sounded like a knife touching its grindstone.
“You’re a rich man’s son—”
“Your son,” Mother said.
“—and though it’s no fault of your own, you lack the hunger, the desire to hunt and chase.” I tried to protest, but Father drowned out my stammering. “Your morose face would depress the clients, make them feel all the sadness they’ve come here to escape.”
My mother reached for my hand, but I snatched it away and walked up the stairs while my parents fought in whispers.
Later that evening, I rang Bertrand Reinach, who said he could meet me in Pigalle, though not until ten o’clock. I looked at my watch, which told me I would have to wait three hours.
I wandered around the city, eating a stale egg sandwich by the quay until it was time to walk to the Eighteenth. Bertrand never appeared at our meeting place. Later he explained that he had been experimenting with the sexual pleasures of self-strangulation and had fainted. As usual, I was neither sure what to believe nor what was stranger, his extravagant stories or the joy he took in telling them.
I went into a brasserie and began talking to two nurses in white uniforms. I said I worked in a munitions factory. They had been raised in adjacent homes in Toulon and were hurt when I said I had never been there. “But I would love to visit,” I added. “Please tell me all about Toulon. What should I see when I go there?” While they reminisced about the miners’ museum, the maritime museum, the prison that Hugo described in Les Misérables, and the cafés along the waterfront, I procured them each several more drinks.
When the bartender wiped down the counter and announced he was closing, I bought a bottle of wine and paid him what he asked. I tried to convince the two nurses to hurdle the wall of Pere Lachaise with me, though only the less pretty one agreed. I figured out that she was Annette when her friend said, “Don’t make me say ‘I told you so,’ Annette.” However, Annette scraped her leg and tore her uniform on her descent from the wall and began to cry and insisted I take her home. It was much harder to get out of the cemetery than to get in it, we discovered, and the girl was sullen and weeping quietly and we were both sober and unhappy.
I felt bad because of the ruined uniform. As we walked, I fished some money out of my wallet and offered to pay for a new one. Annette held the crumpled notes in her hand and shook the small stack twice. I could tell she wanted to take it, but since a monetary exchange with a man would have smacked of something else, she gave it back. We felt more kindly toward each other after that.
Eventually, we found a ladder leaning against a crypt and used it to climb over a low point in the cemetery’s wall. It was four in the morning, and I hailed a taxicab and bought her daffodils from a merchant setting up his stand in Les Halles, near Annette’s apartment. This seemed to cheer the girl and she gave me a kiss at her doorstep and said she would invite me upstairs if her roommate didn’t snore so loudly. I said I wouldn’t pay any attention to it, but Annette said no so vigorously that her curls bobbed against her cheeks. She shut the door and locked it quickly behind her. I knocked twice but she had, I supposed, already trotted upstairs.
I walked toward home, crossed the Seine and back for good measure because the morning light was beautiful, smoked a cigarette with the policeman who patrolled our neighborhood, and drank a coffee in the café by our house. I arrived at school in time to stare briefly at my exam on the bones of the skull before falling asleep.
Excerpted from Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling. Copyright © 2009 by Sara Houghteling. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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