“The improbability of love” by Hannah Rothschild – pas pour “Moi”

Whereas the prologue to a novel is usually a short, sharp dramatic incident to “hook” the reader,  this starts with an indigestible litany of the caricatured stereotypes of super-rich clients converging on the Monachorum auction house, and the staff baited to lure them into bidding up the price of “The Improbability of Love”,  a painting hyped as likely to sell for a record sum. The storyline then switches back six months to the lovelorn Annie buying the painting for only £75 on an impulse, thus rescuing the masterpiece in its neglected and unrecognised state from half a century spent in a rundown antique shop.

The author is undeniably articulate with a vivid imagination,  her professional knowledge of how paintings may be cleaned, dated, attributed and interpreted is quite interesting, and the book seems to have delighted many reviewers, but I found it almost unreadable, a frothy confection with a hollow centre.

Part farce, part Mills and Boon romance, past crime thriller, it falls short for me by reason of its ramshackle plot, with implausible twists and many niggling inconsistencies in the basic telling. It is too long, by reason of the continual wordy digressions. Even the painting, which adopts the irritating habit of addressing us, has to remind us in a gimmicky seven line Chapter 11: “Hello. I am still here…….Moi”. Arch and snobbish after spending centuries in gilded salons, it cannot identify modern cars by name but has somehow acquired some knowledge of modern life despite being stuck in a shop for fifty years.  I would rather have had a thread about the painter’s creator Antoine Watteau running through the book.

Was this written as a ludicrous parody of the art world to amuse friends “in the know”?  I was struck by the chapter which, instead of creating an exaggerated stereotype, dissects a real-life artist in the form of Damien Hirst.  When boorish exiled Russian oligarch Vlad visits the Tate Modern retrospective, he encounters sharks in formaldehyde in glass tanks, rooms full of medical equipment and a piece made of dead flies and diamonds. “Suddenly he got Hirst: the man was a brilliant comedian making a joke out of life and the art world and all those who took it seriously……you can encase anything, add jewels and precious metals, but it’s still the same old s***.”  (This is a quotation from th book). Presumably, Hirst is happy about this representation, as a form of free  publicity.

In contrast to the turgid detail of earlier chapters, the ending feels quite condensed and rushed, as if the author has bored herself and grown anxious to finish it.

Truth seems stranger and more entertaining than fiction, also provoking a real debate over the value we put on works of art.

A recent example is the purchase at the record price of $450.3 million dollars of  the long lost “Salvator Mundi” which may well be, though possibly only in part, the work of Leonardo da Vinci but claimed to have been so heavily restored that the Louvre Abu Dhabi postponed its initial plan to display it.

I am also  reminded of the excellent and highly recommended “The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez” by Laura Cumming,  who  demonstrates some of the problems of attributing paintings correctly to their creators. It is also disturbing to read about the dealer who, having cleaned up a “Velasquez” to make it more attractive to a buyer, had it darkened and aged to fetch a better price.

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