A Fugitive Canvas

We think of the Weimar Republic as the calm before the storm. Its histories are near drowned out by an ominous descending note in the reader’s imagination. Clare Clark’s stunning novel reminds us that the Republic had a great autonomous life of its own – and that things did not have to go the way they went.

Clark’s acknowledgements testify to the thoroughness of her scholarship, but she avoids the obvious trap for the historical novelist, that of throwing her research around. She wears her learning lightly, and as a result her setting is recognisably Berlin, the city of Victor Klemperer and Alfred Döblin, not to mention Bernie Gunther. It is arts and cabaret and tenements and noise and life, a city where the National Socialist movement is just one of many political annoyances Berliners shrug off from the day to day. On the beach one summer young artist Emmeline is propositioned by a group of young thugs, who call her a ‘dirty little Jewess’. Emmeline insults them back in both German and Russian. It’s a fine scene but also the only point at which Clark’s world feels artificial in the knowing historian’s sense. It feels too much like a foreboding.

The plot itself involves a complex art fraud involving fake van Goghs. We begin with the elderly art critic, Julius Köhler-Schultz, embroiled in a bitter divorce from a much younger woman. (Clark handles the dying echoes of their relationship with deft irony: Julius tells us in narration that his ex Luisa is a mindless dilettante but her voice that cuts into his thoughts is always bright and perceptive.) A young man named Matthias Rachmann seeks him out for advice on his fledgling career as an art dealer. Matthias has a Russian friend who smuggles numerous great works out of post-revolution Moscow. The novice is flattering and deferential, and soon Julius trusts him more than any living soul. Later, the young man is convicted of selling forged paintings and his disgrace threatens to ruin Berlin’s galleries, its valuation experts, anyone who was ever gulled by Rachmann’s ingenue charm.

Who cares when most of these paintings will end up on the pyres of degenerate art anyway? But Clark’s strong narrative carries you along, the pull and tug of a complex story well told, and you don’t have to know anything about art (I certainly don’t) to be absorbed in her world. (Emmeline’s chapters have some marvellous vignettes on arts in advertising and commerce.) But it is the final sequence, the diaries of Frank Berszacki, that really resonate. By this point it is 1933 and the net is tightening. Frank is a burned out lawyer, who defended Rachmann unsuccessfully. As a Jew he is vulnerable, and his passages are full of disappearances and deportations and insults and abuse.

Mourning a lost country and a lost child, Frank’s diaries are deeply sad. Yet they are also inspiring as Clark captures the forbearance and dignity in Frank’s love for his wife and their determination to keep their family together whatever the odds. You finish In The Full Light of the Sun with the sense that there will be another morning someday.

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