Pic­tures at an Exhibition

Sara Houghtel­ing

By – November 14, 2011

Sara Houghteling’s pow­er­ful debut nov­el takes place in World War II-era Paris and brings to life the sto­ry of the Nazis’ mas­sive and orga­nized theft of the city’s artis­tic mas­ter­pieces. At the cen­ter of the nov­el is Max Beren­zon, the over­looked son of a promi­nent gallery own­er. When the Beren­zons return out of hid­ing to find their entire col­lec­tion stolen, it is Max who throws him­self into a quest to recov­er the art, even against his father’s wishes.

Rich with romance and direct in the face of the war’s atroc­i­ties, Max’s jour­ney is one that uncov­ers both sto­ries of the Nazi inva­sion as well as long-buried secrets of his own family’s past. The innu­mer­able pieces of the city’s stolen art — some dis­ap­peared for­ev­er, many with no one to claim them — come to embody with vivid force the enor­mous loss of this time. And yet in Houghteling’s vivid prose and deft­ly woven nar­ra­tive, we can­not help but feel the pres­ence of irrecov­er­able beau­ty always hov­er­ing near.


by Arielle Lis­tokin

Set in Paris in the World War II era, Sara Houghteling’s debut nov­el, Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion, is poignant and ele­gant, sophis­ti­cat­ed yet tan­gi­ble, and — per­haps most impor­tant­ly — an incred­i­bly sat­is­fy­ing read. The sto­ry fol­lows Max Beren­zon, son of a promi­nent art deal­er, as he search­es for his father’s stolen mas­ter­pieces and, in the process, uncov­ers his family’s haunt­ing past. Houghtel­ing is a grad­u­ate of Har­vard Col­lege and received her MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. The recip­i­ent of a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship to Paris, she lives in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, where she teach­es high school Eng­lish. 

Arielle Lis­tokin: Is it true that it took you six years to write this book? 
Sara Houghtel­ing:
Actu­al­ly, it took me eight years to fin­ish the book — I was so con­sumed by this sto­ry that I just nev­er want­ed to leave it or let it go. 

AL: How would you describe your nov­el? 
SHIt is, of course, the sto­ry of a Paris art deal­er and his son who goes in search of their loot­ed art after World War II, but it is also so much more…it cen­ters around a fam­i­ly tragedy and a secret that taints and impacts the lives of all the characters. 

I love it when peo­ple tell me about the core that resound­ed most strong­ly with them. It’s hard for me to see if one theme stands out more than anoth­er. I would describe it as a book about this fam­i­ly and the ways in which art com­forts these indi­vid­u­als and the ways in which it is a reminder of a painful past and what’s been lost that can nev­er be recov­ered. 

AL: How did the idea for the book come to you? 
SHMy grand­fa­ther worked in France for the Mar­shall Plan after the war and my father lived there as a boy, so my inter­est in France and post-war France was always very strong. I also always want­ed to write about art. When I dis­cov­ered that there were paint­ings miss­ing from the war and the sto­ry of Rose Val­land whose covert actions allowed for the even­tu­al repa­tri­a­tion of much of the loot­ed art, I became intrigued by the mys­tery of her life and her sto­ry — that was the spark that drove the engine. The char­ac­ter of Rose Clé­ment, who plays such a piv­otal role in the book, takes her name and sto­ry from Rose Valland. 

I was also inspired by the sto­ry of Paul Rosen­berg and his fam­i­ly. I found out that there was this Jew­ish art deal­er who was so essen­tial to the Paris art world, who men­tored and fos­tered Picas­so and allowed him to be so cre­ative. I don’t think the Paris art world has ever recov­ered from what hap­pened — the peri­od before World War II was a gold­en age, both for the art deal­ers and the artists. 

AL: Would this book have been writ­ten with­out your own expe­ri­ence in France? 
SHFrom a rea­son­ably young age, I was in love with France. If I hadn’t gone there, it would have been very hard to write this book. Alto­geth­er I spent about two years in Paris, first as a teacher at the Amer­i­can School and then lat­er as a Ful­bright schol­ar. One of the secret, per­son­al plea­sures of this book for me is that it is geo­graph­i­cal­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Rose’s apart­ment with the pull-out bed and the shoe-shaped bath­tub is my old apart­ment in the 6th arrondisse­ment.

AL: Why did you name the book Pic­tures at an Exhibition?
It is named after a musi­cal piece that was com­posed by Mus­sorgsky for his friend, the painter Vic­tor Hart­mann who died at a young age. The piece is the sound­track” to an exhi­bi­tion of Hartmann’s work and is meant to accom­pa­ny Mus­sorgsky as he walks from piece to piece in Hartmann’s memo­r­i­al exhi­bi­tion. The trag­ic irony is that Hartmann’s paint­ings, which were the inspi­ra­tion for Mussorgsky’s Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion, were lost. There is this res­o­nance of the theme of lost art, a lost friend, and the after­im­age of what remains fol­low­ing a tragedy. 

AL: What do your high school stu­dents think about hav­ing a teacher who is a pub­lished author? 
SHThe thing they are most impressed with is that I have a Wikipedia page! Being reviewed in The New York Times doesn’t com­pare to being on Wikipedia. 

AL: Do you think of your­self as a teacher or as a writer? 
SHFor me, teach­ing and writ­ing com­ple­ment each oth­er very well. I hope always to be a writer who teach­es and a teacher who writes. 

AL: Are you work­ing on some­thing new? 
SHI’m work­ing on a new book about two broth­ers who are pianists. It focus­es on a Brahms’ con­cer­to that’s infa­mous­ly dif­fi­cult and known for ruin­ing pianists’ hands. This nov­el takes place in Brook­line, Mass­a­chu­setts, where I grew up. I thought that maybe I could shave a few years off the pub­li­ca­tion time by set­ting it in a place I am real­ly famil­iar with and where they speak Eng­lish! 

AL: What does it mean to you to be part of the Jew­ish Book Net­work?
SHI recent­ly came back from the con­fer­ence and I had a great time talk­ing to the JCC rep­re­sen­ta­tives. I felt a real sense of con­nect­ed­ness to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty which I’d only expe­ri­enced before when I was in Israel. It’s a warm feel­ing that has grav­i­tas to it because we all have a shared her­itage. 

AL: Who are some of the authors that have inspired you? 
SHI read all of W. G. Sebald’s books dur­ing the course of writ­ing this book; his books are very good and very painful, espe­cial­ly Auster­litz. It was tempt­ing to imi­tate him, but only Sebald can write like Sebald. I love Pri­mo Levi, in par­tic­u­lar The Peri­od­ic Table, which real­ly touched me. I also love Wal­lace Steg­n­er for his his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives that jump back and forth in time.

Ariel Djanikian is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan’s MFA pro­gram in cre­ative writ­ing. She is the recip­i­ent of a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship to study in the Yukon Ter­ri­to­ry, and cur­rent­ly lives and teach­es in the Philadel­phia area.

Discussion Questions

1. is framed by the much old­er Max reflect­ing on his youth dur­ing the war years in Paris. How does this frame affect how the nov­el is read? Why does Max feel com­pelled to revis­it his mem­o­ries deter­mined to find the hid­den vein of sav­agery with­in them”? [p. 3].

Pic­tures at an Exhibition

2. Sara Houghtel­ing has obvi­ous­ly gath­ered a wealth of research for . By what means does she man­age to weave this infor­ma­tion into a com­pelling fic­tion­al nar­ra­tive? What is the effect of mix­ing both actu­al his­tor­i­cal fig­ures — like Rose Clé­ment, Her­mann Goer­ing, and oth­ers — with pure­ly fic­tion­al characters?

Pic­tures at an Exhibition

3. What are the plea­sures of read­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion? What might account for the great resur­gence of the his­tor­i­cal nov­el in past decade?

4. When he first meets him, Chaim asks Max if he is lost in the spir­i­tu­al sense” [p. 108]. Is Max spir­i­tu­al­ly lost? In what sense is his quest to find his father’s pait­ings a spir­i­tu­al quest?

5. Rose tells Max: I think that you are look­ing for extra­or­di­nary hap­pi­ness, with me, with these lost paint­ings, and it is not here. Not in this life­time. Only aspire, Max, to ordi­nary hap­pi­ness” [p. 169]. Is Rose right about Max’s aspi­ra­tions? Does he find ordi­nary hap­pi­ness” in the end?

6. In what ways is Max’s rela­tion­ship with his father com­pli­cat­ed and dif­fi­cult? What does Max ulti­mate­ly hope to accom­plish by find­ing his father’s stolen paintings?

7. By what means is Rose able to lull the Nazis into trust­ing her? How does she man­age to turn her­self into a reg­istry of lost art” [p.151] and there­by help res­cue hun­dreds of paint­ings after the war?

8. How does learn­ing of his sis­ter affect Max? Why does he con­sid­er it a betray­al that his par­ents and Rose have kept Micheline’s exis­tence and her death a secret from him?

9. Late in the nov­el, it occurs to Max that the child believes his par­ents’ behav­ior has every­thing to do with him, always, and that this will then be the source of a life’s worth of mis­un­der­stand­ings” [p. 219]. In what ways is this true of Max? What mis­un­der­stand­ings have result­ed from his feel­ing that his par­ents’ behav­ior was always about him?

10. What does the love sto­ry — Max’s unre­quit­ed love for Rose — add to the nov­el? Why does Rose repeat­ed­ly reject him?

11. What does Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion reveal about the inner work­ings of the art world in Paris before, dur­ing, and after World War II? In what ways were art col­lec­tors and deal­ers often com­plic­it in the theft and resale of great art­works dur­ing this period?

12. What are the many ways in which the theme of loss gets played out in the nov­el? What are the major loss­es that Max suffers?

13. After Max is mugged and beat­en on the streets of Paris, he thinks to him­self: My father had been right — the paint­ings were not to be found — and had turned back as soon as he sensed this, which was almost instant­ly. I had gone on, blind­ly. I was a work on paper: weight­less, sketchy, all impulse” [p. 210]. Why does Max keep search­ing blind­ly” for his father’s paint­ings? In what sense is he a work on paper, weight­less, sketchy, all impulse”?

14. What does Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion add to our knowl­edge of World War II?