Sara Houghteling’s first novel Pictures At An Exhibition recounts the story of Max Berenzon’s effort to recover the paintings confiscated by the Nazi’s during World War II. The chronicle begins by describing the art collection that his father, Daniel Berenzon, held before the War began. The novel is based on the true-to-life story of Daniel Berenzon the highly respected Jewish collector of the works of Picasso, Matisee and the likes.
When the Berenzon family returned to Paris after hiding in rural France during the war, they discovered that their priceless collection has been looted. Max begins the problematical task of finding as many of paintings as he can and capture the love of his father’s assistant Rose who remains as elusive as the confiscated paintings.
“If you only love a thing for the chase of it, you don’t question if you love the thing itself because you never get close enough to see. You love to yearn, Max, you love to desire. But desire is simpler than love.”
While art plays the central role in the novel, music is always playing quietly in the background. That should be clear from its title drawn from Mussorgsky’s well-known piano suite of the same name. Early in the novel Max’s piano playing mother explains to him how each movement in this piece represents an artwork viewed at an actual exhibition.
"This, the Promenade that I am playing, means Mussorgsky was walking between paintings. Movement One. And the first painting he saw was The Gnome and that’s Movement Two…Then he sees another painting—I could hear a key change—and that’s The Old Castle. This is the closet you can ever get to that exhibition. They say all of Hartmann’s paintings have been lost, so there is only the music.”
Pictures At An Exhibition is clearly a work of considerable scholarship. While I know very little about art or art collecting, the story appealed to me a great deal. No doubt, I was hoping Max would redeem himself to his doubting father by finding a fair number of the looted paintings and that he would win the love of lovely and mysterious Rose and just as much by the story of the Jews of France during the Nazi occupation or the more general issue of coming to terms with loss of anything so precious.
Whatever the reasons, and I am sure there is more than one, I thought the novel was a substantial and elegantly told tale that read much like a historical mystery. To learn more about the novel and its background, I invite you to view the author’s presentation of it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REqAU3JsX7w