Berkeley novelist immerses self in story of looted art

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Many first-time authors fantasize that their work will be recognized, even make a difference. Sara Houghteling is more specific: She hopes her book will lead to the recovery of Nazi-looted art.

In “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the Berkeley author references dozens of painters and paintings in her work of historical fiction. She also includes images of two paintings by the French Impressionists Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot — both looted during the Holocaust and never recovered.

Sara Houghteling

“No one can ever go to a museum, at least not now, and see these paintings, and I felt it was important to memorialize them in some way,” Houghteling said. “Also, I have this secret fantasy that the more times they’re seen, the more likely it is they’ll be recovered.”

Houghteling, 32, began writing “Pictures at an Exhibition” in 2001 while in graduate school at the University of Michigan. It was published in 2009.

The book’s narrator and main character is Max Berenzen, the only child of Daniel Berenzen, a famous Jewish art dealer who represents Matisse and Picasso and schools Max in the beauty of the modern art world.

But for reasons Max can’t understand, his father refuses to hand off the family business to him, forcing Max to attend medical school.

Before the Nazis invade France in 1940, the Berenzens go into hiding in the French countryside. When they return to Paris in 1944, their gallery is empty. The Nazis have looted or destroyed every single sculpture, painting, sketch and photographic plate.

Max, horrified, is determined to recover the lost paintings as well as find his lost love, Rose Clément, his father’s assistant. While the family was in hiding, Rose had continued to work in a museum where she documented the Nazi looting. Max spends his days looking for Rose and his father’s paintings.

Houghteling’s novel mirrors reality: Of the more than 100,000 pieces of art stolen from French collectors during the war, nearly 40,000 are still unaccounted for.

“I was really interested in the aftermath of the Holocaust,” Houghteling said. “It boggles the mind to think — how did people resolve their lives after going through this?”

Houghteling grew up hearing tales of postwar Paris, since her grandfather worked for the Marshall Plan and her grandmother was a prolific storyteller. She also had always loved French art.

“I knew I wanted to write about art dealers, but I realized that coming from a Jewish family, writing about a Jewish family was more authentic to my experience,” she said.

Many characters in Houghteling’s book are based on real people. Daniel Berenzen is based loosely on Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s primary dealer with great influence on the French art market.

Rose Clément is based on Rose Valland, a member of the French Resistance and an art curator who witnessed and kept track of all the looted paintings, and  wrote an autobiography about her experience.

After working on the novel for four years — and using chapters as an alternative to research papers in a graduate-level art history class — Houghteling in 2004 earned a Fulbright scholarship that allowed her to conduct more research in and around Paris.

There she spent her mornings writing, perched on a folding chair in her tiny apartment, staring out into the courtyard and quietly observing her neighbors in the sixth arrondissement (municipality).

She also spent many afternoons in the Holocaust archives and interviewing survivors and descendants of the Parisian postwar art community.

Thanks to the Fulbright, “I was no longer just some American with confused French grammar calling people on the phone to ask about the most tragic period of their life,” Houghteling said.

Houghteling moved to the Bay Area in 2005 to teach writing at San Jose State University as part of the John Steinbeck Fellows Program. She now teaches English at the Marin Academy in San Rafael.

“I love getting to watch kids read Shakespeare or ‘The Great Gatsby’ for the first time,” she said. “It’s a pleasure watching them discover great literature.”

Since “Pictures at an Exhibition” was published in 2009, the author has started work on a second novel about Jewish brothers, both pianists living in Boston in the 1950s, who become entangled in the McCarthy-era paranoia that raises suspicions about the Jewish musicians being communists.

In April, Houghteling was honored by the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, which gave “Pictures at an Exhibition” its 2009 Edward Lewis Wallant Award.

“Each judge gave a speech about my book as a piece of Jewish literature — it was completely overwhelming,” she said. “I felt like it was my bat mitzvah all over again.”

“Pictures at an Exhibition” by Sara Houghteling (256 pages, Knopf, $24.95).

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.