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Novel set in BRUSSELS and around Europe

12th May 2021

Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal, novel set in Brussels and around Europe. Translated by Jessica Moore.

Novel set in BRUSSELS and around Europe

Behind the ornate doors of 30, rue du Métal in Brussels, 20 students begin their apprenticeship in the art of decorative painting…. the art of trompe l’oeil, the recreation of textures, surfaces and finishes designed to fool the eye.

Paula is the young student who spends a year studying and working on the intricacies of the art, together with fellow tutees Jonas (with whom she shares accommodation) and Kate. The hours are arduous and all-consuming, as they hone their skills. They study the materials – the gnarled knots on wood, the different varieties of marble, the intricacy of tortoiseshell. Everything has to be examined with an acute eye and then reproduced with a careful and painstaking hand.

Paula completes her training and in the subsequent years finds herself in Turin, creating backdrops for Egyptian exhibitions, and then heads further down the Italian peninsula to Rome, where she finds work at Cinecittà. It is an odyssey through the world of the decorative painter, detailing the craft, the personal life and the sheer art of reproduction. The novel culminates as she finds inspiration and personal growth at the caves of Lascaux.

This novel is full of art, and the narrative slides along as though it is being squeezed from a tube of rich paint, it is sumptuous in its descriptions and observations, as it glides between people and inanimate objects. The visceral flow is conveyed by the atmospheric writing style.

In the opening pages one sentence can take up a whole page and the singular length of sentences is a hallmark of the novel. The text is not broken up by dialogue – alluded to, yes, – but nothing in inverted comments that could possibly break the swirling colour of the words. Occasionally the words do feel clunky but whether that penetrates through from the original or is a manifestation of the translation, it is hard to tell.

This is such an unusual book, it is highly atmospheric, full of roiling words and a painterly and oily (for want of a better word) trajectory. It won’t be for everyone and so I must pose the question. Was it for me? There were times when I was in thrall to the very good writing but at other times I felt (and I whisper this) that it is pretentious. Did I really say that? Yes. Up to a point I could go with the prose but towards the end when I came to the following passage where Paula is making love with her beau, I truly lost the will:

“They undress in a hurry, barely lifting themselves from the bed, drop their clothes on the floor, and even though it’s collected, concentrated, this moment also splits in two, two  speeds  are flush; the earthly embrace, linked to yesterday’s shock and the desire to become one (like the hunger for sex after a funeral), and then the cosmic embrace, that of resonance, born  of the orbits that whirl in a sky as ordered as music paper“. The description then goes on into metaphorical realms, equating the art of the decorative painter with the complex dance that is sex, as they stray and discover each other’s bodies. Probably a contender for The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award

It was ultimately not really  a book for me, although I am a trained painter and was eagerly looking forward to reading this book. I could really at times dive into the writing but I found reading the book an exhausting experience and that, for me, is not how I would choose to spend my time reading. It has THE most fabulous cover, however and that will catch many a reader’s eye.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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