Against a backdrop of rampant inflation and corruption, “madness spreading like gas”, in 1920s Berlin, famous art critic Julius Köhler-Schultz is in the throes of a bitter divorce from his much younger wife, who has decamped with their small son and “the only painting in the world” Julius “could not bear to live without”, a self-portrait of Van Gogh. In this vulnerable state he falls under the spell of a charismatic young art dealer, Matthias Rachman, but is he quite what he seems? Julius also supports the artistic ambitions of talented but troubled teenager Emmeline Eberhardt.
This novel was inspired by the long-forgotten but once famous case of Otto Wacker, the German dancer who was eventually tried for knowingly selling fake Van Gogh paintings, always after compromising the reputation of some expert by gaining his authentication. Initially I was impressed by the novel’s very strong sense of time and place, and the slow-burning build-up of suspense. It was therefore a shock to be plummeted into Part 2 with an abrupt switch to the viewpoint of Emmeline whose drunken agonising over unrequited lesbian love becomes somewhat tedious, although no doubt a true reflection of one aspect of inter-war Berlin. By the time I reached Part 3 in the form of the diary of lawyer Frank Berzacki, forced to face up to the Nazi regime’s inexorable crushing of Jewish rights, I realised that the author has deliberately inverted what one expects of a plot. Instead of setting an art crime at the forefront, this is obliquely referred to throughout the book, generally secondary to the inner thoughts and concerns of the three main characters in turn.
Can one ever be sure a painting is not a fake? Are the eye-watering sums paid for some art justified? Such questions woven into a historical thriller about possible fraud should make an absorbing read, so why did I find it frustrating, the middle section in particular such heavy going? I could forgive the frequently overblown or mawkish style whenever the author touches on passionate feelings, because this is offset by the many striking, poetical images, particularly in Emmeline’s section which I suppose is a way of portraying her artistic eye. She describes a flock of starlings: “ a vast rippling cape…surging and wheeling, stretching into swooping curves, twisting in helixes, rising in streamers on the wind, the whisper-roar of their wings like the sea or the thrumming of a thousand fingers on a thousand paper drums”.
The three sections are welded together in an unwieldy structure. Too many mostly thinly sketched and often unnecessary characters, and minor incidents which pad the novel up to over four hundred pages, tend to overwhelm or drive out the plot, in which key events take place “off stage” and so remain confused or unclear and left for the reader to surmise. I would have preferred the author’s painstaking research applied to a factual portrayal of art in interwar Germany.