On the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII, Sara Houghteling discusses the oral histories of Jewish survivors, the Nazi looting of art, and Pictures at an Exhibition.
Sara Houghteling’s debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, appeared this February, a little more than six months before the seventieth anniversary of World War II. The novel deftly blends history and fiction, and hinges on before-and-after descriptions of the World War II Paris art scene. A young Jewish man, Max Berenzon, grows up in the shadow of his renowned art-dealer father, Daniel, who initially balks at teaching Max the family business. Throughout the novel, father and son discuss their most valued paintings. “Indeed, my father was among a tiny group,” Max tells us, “heirs to the patron spirit of Catherine de Médicis… They were as devoted as monks to the beauty of their illuminated manuscripts. Or so my father said, in his most rhapsodic moments.”
Through conversations like these, father and son reinforce each other’s loyalty to their beloved paintings—a loyalty ultimately tested when Nazi Germany descends on Paris, sending the Berenzons into hiding and forcing them to leave their art collection vulnerable to rampant Nazi looting. After surviving the war, Max and his father return to find their art gone into the now-surreal landscape that was once an elegant Paris. Max sets out into the ravaged streets to recover his family’s two most cherished paintings. His fascination with his father’s gallery assistant, Rose, complicates Max’s search; she has helped retrieve hundreds of paintings and is for this considered a war hero. But she is unable to help Max, fearing that she’ll risk losing all the stolen paintings to save only the Berenzons’ two. It is a juxtaposition that resonates throughout the novel, as we see the author’s lens zoom out and back, at each turn feeling minutely the pain of the Holocaust’s impact from the wide view of history, as well as individuals in search of lost family members.
Houghteling’s approach presumes authorial rigor is necessary to coax the story out from its weave. After befriending Marianne Rosenberg, the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg—Paul Rosenberg being the real-life art dealer who lost his collection to the Nazis, and whom Houghteling’s character Daniel Berenzon is based upon—Houghteling followed leads and sent countless cold emails to strangers. But the seed for the novel was planted during Houghteling’s childhood, when her father and grandparents told her bedtime stories about their lives in Paris just after the war’s end. Her grandfather worked for the OSS, a precursor to the CIA.
Houghteling grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, eldest daughter of four to psychologist parents who enforced a TV-free household. “I was an avid, terrified reader of fairy tales, Tolkien, and Roald Dahl,” she says. “In high school, I discovered Borges, Márquez, and Allende and spent the next few years writing magical realism.” Her fascination with the magical and fateful is apparent in this novel, in which we see the war reduce people’s lives to carnival acts. Max observes a pair of girls playing the piano, one with her right hand, the other with her left. “Twins,” someone tells him. “[They] speak only their own language. They invented it in the camp… They’ll forget their made-up tongue soon enough.”
—Melodie Edwards for Guernica
Guernica: World War II broke out seventy years ago this month. I’m wondering if, from the point of view of your sources and your family, seventy years seem a long span of time or the blink of an eye?
Sara Houghteling: The war will always feel very close to me and to my family. I think it feels even closer when I am in Europe. In France, there are the memorials and plaques of fallen Resistance fighters to remind us; then, there are the invisible, geographical memorials—for example, I know that the father of one of the men I interviewed was deported from 13 Rue de Sévigné to Auschwitz, where he was killed. As long as that street exists, I will think of Monsieur Mann.
Guernica: What kind of response are you seeing to this anniversary in your circles of survivors and their families?
Sara Houghteling: Of the survivors I’ve spoken with, the dates they return to again and again are not the start of the war, but rather, the first big roundups in France, in particular, the infamous “Raflé du Vél d’Hiv” of July 16-17, 1942. The names of the deportees are read at a monument in front of the old location of the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a former sports stadium that was used as a holding station for thirteen thousand Jews before they were sent East. The Vél d’Hiv is in central Paris, right near the Eiffel Tower. The atrocity was carried out right in the city’s midst.
Whenever I read something interesting about the Manhattan Project, or see a beautiful Claesz still-life, or listen to a Brahms piano concerto, my first thought is always, “How can I translate this into fiction?”
Guernica: The Louvre, you mentioned, has organized a collection of reclaimed Nazi looted art. What do you know about how the show was assembled? Such a show might have been an alternative ending to this novel. As a fiction writer, how do you imagine Rose Valland might have responded to such a show?
Sara Houghteling: I wish I could be in France to see this exhibition! “The Louvre during the War: Photographs 1938-1947” documents the period known as the “Louvre Sequestration.” Several photographs were uncovered in an archive in Koblenz and include images of looted artwork being prepared for shipment to Germany. In other words, these are photographs taken by Nazis. Other photographs are from both amateur and professional photographers who were in the Louvre at its evacuation, which took place in the late summer of 1939, before Poland fell and France entered the war. I think Valland would be glad for the exhibition—it serves as another reminder of Nazi greed. She might also think it shows how France carefully protected its art, but not its Jewry; when she died in 1980, Valland was still utterly preoccupied with the fate of artwork that had never been recovered, and the paintings whose owners had never been identified (which hang in French museums and are identifiable by the code “MNR”). Ultimately, for Rose, I think, the show at the Louvre would pale in comparison to what remains to be done in terms of identifying the owner of the MNR paintings and tracking down the art that was stolen from Jewish families and never recovered.
Guernica: What was your family’s reaction to the novel?
Sara Houghteling: I think my family was beginning to get nervous that I would never finish this, so they’re tremendously pleased that it is finally a real book and not just conversation at Thanksgiving or a ream of paper in the recycling bin.
Guernica: What led you to decide this historical material was best told in the form of a novel—albeit a roman à clef with many historical figures and events peppered throughout—as opposed to a nonfiction work about the looting of Jewish art?
Sara Houghteling: Whenever I read something interesting about the Manhattan Project, or see a beautiful Claesz still-life, or listen to a Brahms piano concerto, my first thought is always, “How can I translate this into fiction?” For this novel, I relied tremendously on the work of nonfiction writers, in particular Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa. One of that book’s strengths is that it incorporates many primary sources, which are a goldmine for a writer, since they still have a certain vital polish to them.
Guernica: How did it happen that you came to meet Marianne Rosenberg, the granddaughter of the actual art dealer you based your protagonist’s father on?
Sara Houghteling: I was at a party in New York and didn’t know anyone there except for one friend, who had abandoned me upon arrival. I started telling the first person within arm’s length—he was a lawyer—about my novel: that it was about the man who had been Picasso’s art dealer before the war, and that his collection had been looted by the Nazis. The lawyer interrupted me and said, “This sounds a lot like the family story of another lawyer I know.” That night, I emailed him the photograph of Paul Rosenberg that I had been studying for the past seven years while developing the character of Daniel Berenzon, and within twelve hours, I received an email from Marianne, who wrote, “You have a picture of my grandfather.”
Marianne was tremendously generous in her willingness to endure all of my questions about her family. She also read my novel and corrected its inaccuracies. For example, I had heard a story about how her grandfather had found Picasso an apartment that overlooked the same courtyard as did her family’s house. Apparently, Picasso would stand in the window and hold up his canvasses to show Paul Rosenberg. When writing this detail, I didn’t know which floors the men would have been on, but Marianne of course did. There’s probably no one else alive, aside from Marianne’s mother and sister, who could have told me this.
Through Marianne, I saw glimpses of what her grandfather must have been like. When she read that first draft, there was a scene in which I described the photograph of her grandfather. I said that he had “sensitive ears and an intelligent neck.” In the margins of the manuscript, Marianne wrote, “What makes ears sensitive? Who has an intelligent neck?” She has obviously inherited her grandfather’s clear vision and sense of humor.
Guernica: You received a Fulbright to spend a year in Paris doing research for the novel. How did you use this generous time?
Sara Houghteling: I divided my time between research and writing. I interviewed several art dealers and collectors who had been alive during the war and whose family collections had been looted. The archives at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France were essential to my research. I’ll never forget reading the different collections of letters at the Jewish Documentation Center—there are letters from deported Jews to their Christian neighbors, asking them to send soap and blankets; there are denunciation letters; I remember reading one letter to the Vichy “Jewish Bureau” in which a World War I veteran demanded that the government issue him new shoes since the veteran’s cobbler had been deported. In the letter, the veteran says, “I don’t care about the cobbler, I just deserve a new pair of shoes.”
Guernica: In the first section, we get this countdown in which the author is always keeping us abreast of what’s going on in the war just outside the perimeters of the story. Then the war itself is entirely absent in the novel’s time, so that in the post-war section, Paris feels something like a carnival show with broken, eccentric, sometimes disturbing characters wandering the streets—the protagonist eventually losing himself in these streets to become one of them. What did this structure help you say about this time in history?
Sara Houghteling: Thank you, that’s a wonderful reading, and I’ve never quite thought about it in those terms. I think that the most significant work I did on this book was in terms of figuring out its chronological structure, and if that structure would be linear or not. For my first five years of writing it, the narrator skipped haphazardly back and forth in time. Ultimately, my model for the final structure—with the war as a hole in the middle—was Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, which alludes to, but does not recount in real time, Levi’s internment in Auschwitz. Instead, midway through his autobiography, Levi basically tells us that his wartime experiences will be discussed elsewhere (in Survival In Auschwitz).
Guernica: You mention in your Author’s Note that many thousands of paintings are still missing. But your characters are enraptured with two paintings in particular—Almonds, Currants, and Peaches and Young Woman in White. What was your process in choosing those two from among the many?
Sara Houghteling: I have always been interested in Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot, who painted those two pictures you mentioned. Manet was Morisot’s mentor and, later, brother-in-law, and the story of their friendship has always been a shadowy, interesting one. I was particularly drawn to Almonds because it is a still-life, and I’ve been interested in the history and theory behind still-life painting: still-lifes imply that a human presence has just left the scene. They also traditionally impart some moral and remind the viewer of her own mortality. This idea—of a person who has just departed—is important to my protagonist, Max. He knows that someone and something is missing from his life, and that this mystery is somehow connected to Almonds, yet he does not fully understand why until the painting is looted by the Nazis. Neither Almonds nor the Woman in White was recovered after the war—both are still missing. Only the dealer’s original photographic plates remain.
Guernica: Paintings function as characters in the novel, and human characters search out their company and grieve their loss. What is your own relationship to art?
Sara Houghteling: When I write, I know that I am drawn to subjects that let me incorporate another artistic genre within fiction. The first time I remember discovering the concept of ekphrasis—when one medium of art describes another: a painting of a book, a book of a sculpture, and so on—was while studying George Eliot’s discussion of Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in Middlemarch. I’ve been reading about the caves in Lascaux recently. One of the cave painters’ repeated motifs is of a handprint. One scholar I read explains that these handprints were a sign of the cave painters trying to access the spiritual, magical, or animal world that lay beyond the cave.
Guernica: You took oral histories with Jewish survivors and weaved their stories into the novel to give it a truly vivid sense of the unspoken being given voice. What was the experience of talking with survivors?
In uncertain economic times, art frequently becomes a more reliable currency.
Sara Houghteling: I often felt conflicted about asking these very kind, elderly people to delve into the painful pasts. Yet no one that I spoke to was reticent with me. One man named Monsieur Spatizerier told me that for years, he had remained silent about the war because he thought his children didn’t want to hear about it. Then he learned that his children didn’t ask him about the war because they thought that, since he never spoke about it, he didn’t want to be asked. And one of the most amazing stories I learned was told to me by a man named Phillippe Kraemer who owns an antique furniture gallery on rue de Monceau. He had gone into hiding when he was ten, and his family’s gallery was completely looted during the war. They returned to Paris with the Liberation and slowly began to rebuild their collection. In 1960, Monsieur Kraemer went to the preview for an auction, where he was interested in buying an armoire inlaid with mother-of-pearl. He bent down to inspect the armoire—crouched down the height he had been in 1940—and only then did he realize that the armoire had belonged to his parents before the war.
Guernica: Have you heard from any of your oral history narrators about their responses to the novel?
Sara Houghteling: I’ve had a very encouraging response from my friends in France and the people I interviewed; one of them did find a historical error—I have my protagonist flash the V-for-Victory hand sign in 1939—and apparently that sign wasn’t used until Churchill popularized it after the war.
Guernica: The attention that Hitler and the Nazis paid to the looting of art when they surely should have been busy with the business of war seems very odd. Looting is most often accidental or carried out by bandits on the ground (as in the looting of Baghdad in the days after the Iraq war broke out). Hitler had a particularly intense obsession with art due to his early failure as an artist, as you point out in your Author’s Note. But in a larger context, what was it about the German mindset of the time that gave them such an appetite for art, and for French art in particular?
Sara Houghteling: At the outbreak of World War II, three hundred thousand Jews lived in France. Seventy-six thousand were deported, and 3 percent of those “sent East” returned. Hitler planned to erase all of Europe’s Jewry and to benefit tremendously from this disappearance. In Götz Aly’s book Hitler’s Beneficiaries, Aly cites a speech Goering delivered in October of ’42, in which Goering announced, “If someone has to go hungry, let it be someone other than a German.” “Hunger,” for Goering, was assuaged not only by food. Aly argues that Hitler’s success was due to both deep national anti-Semitism as well as the German population’s contentment to receive quotidian Jewish goods. After the war, the Germans blamed Allied incompetence for their food shortages. But instead, these shortages should have indicated to them the extent and severity of the looting that occurred while Hitler was still in power. In uncertain economic times, art frequently becomes a more reliable currency. Also, Hitler chased after Old Master paintings because they were by “Aryan” artists and did not touch on “degenerate” themes. (And as we know, in response to this demand, forged Vermeers immediately flooded the market.) Goering was more liberal in his tastes; he collected works by Corot, Courbet, and other contemporary masters that only years before Hitler had purged from Germany’s museums.
Every time I talk to Marianne Rosenberg and she tells me more stories about her family, I wish I could add another chapter to my novel.
Guernica: The last word of the novel is “lost.” The exploration of all the people and things, real and metaphorical, that were lost in the Holocaust is at the center of the novel. Yet Rose’s character seems to represent to you an archetypal figure who, even in the face of futility, will bend her will to making change in the world. How did you use Rose Valland’s autobiography to develop a fictional character, a woman of great beauty and remoteness, simultaneously the protaganist’s love interest and a full-blown historical hero?
Sara Houghteling: Rose Valland’s 1961 autobiography, Le front de l’art: Defense des collections francaises, 1939-1945, is a work of incredible modesty. There’s very little about her in her autobiography—and so in part, I think I wrote this book to imagine what she was like. I found a picture of her in which she was wearing what to my eyes looked like a man’s uniform; I thought, “Why would she wear that?” Then I realized that she was making herself as invisible as possible; she was the only French curator to stay on in the Jeu de Paume Museum once it was occupied by the Nazis and used as their central sorting station for all of France’s looted artwork. She also writes that she tried to cultivate the perception that she was a curmudgeon—that this was essential to her task of witnessing and documenting the Nazis’ looting.
Guernica: Did any novel in particular influence you in the development of Pictures?
Sara Houghteling: Reading W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz was a very powerful experience. It’s also very seductive to write like Sebald. My protagonist did a lot of walking in earlier drafts. Finally, my editor had to tell me, “You’ve got to cut all that meandering around in Paris!” Reading Wallace Stegner has also been important to me—in particular, his historical novels, like Angle of Repose, which manages to balance historical stories with present-time narration.
Guernica: Do you foresee yourself exploring any of the themes or historical elements of this novel again in future books?
Sara Houghteling: Every time I talk to Marianne Rosenberg and she tells me more stories about her family, I wish I could add another chapter to my novel. This last time I saw her, I also met her mother, Elaine Rosenberg. Elaine explained that when their family had fled France, they had left the gallery’s business files with Paul Rosenberg’s best friend, who was also Jewish. Paul said to his best friend that if the Nazis were coming for him, he should burn the files so that the Nazis wouldn’t be able to seek out other Jews through the Rosenberg’s documents. When Paul came back after the war and saw that his files had been burned, he knew then that he would never see his best friend again.
Sara Houghteling’s Recommendations:
Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky
Mr. Klein (1976, dir. J. Losey)
The Train (1965, dir. John Frankenheimer)
Utz by Bruce Chatwin
The Lost Museum by Hector Feliciano