TOWhile wandering around the immense backlot of Rome’s Cinecittà film studio – “Hollywood on the Tiber” – the heroine of Maylis de Kerangal Painting time He is struck by how unreal the close-up sets seem, how clearly tailored. “A set doesn’t have to be real,” explains your guide, “it has to be true.”
There is something magnificently true in De Kerangal’s fiction, intertwining technical fluency with winged prose. A meticulous researcher, she draws immensely human stories from niche vocational knowledge: the muscle that bends the world of mechanical engineering (Birth of a bridge); the hermetic brutalities of transplant surgery (Repair life, which won the Wellcome Science Book Award in 2017); haute cuisine explorationsThe Cook). In his new novel, Painting time, translated by Jessica Moore, the French author turns her granular attention to the trompe l’oeil and its artisans: those “tricksters of the real” who can conjure up marble, wood and ethereal skies from pigments and lacquers.
The students of the Institut Supérieur de Peinture in Brussels are a dissonant group, ranging from penniless house painters to the rebellious daughters of aristocrats. The school’s trompe l’oeil course, immersive and uncompromising, will remake them all. For a trio, a lifelong friendship will form in the hectic months between October 2007 and March 2008, born of staying overnight and the unshakable stench of turpentine. There’s Kate, a 6-foot-tall Glasgow nightclub doorman; Cryptic and talented Jonas; and Paula, the painter we’ll follow after the lessons are over, with her untapped fervor and David Bowie eyes.
To become trompe l’oeil artists, Paula, Kate, and Jonas must learn to see again. “TO watchUnder the glass ceiling of the rue du Métal studio, with paint and solvent fumes, aching muscles and burning forehead, it doesn’t just mean keeping your eyes open to the world, ”writes De Kerangal; “Seeing is engaging in pure action, creating an image … watch, here’s something else. “
In high school, Paula will learn “patient appropriation work,” with all its harsh rigors. From her friends, she will learn to be a storyteller. For what is a polished marble slab, if not “a portion of time”? A story of prehistoric coral, tectonic melodrama and human greed: “Everything that has happened since the beginning of time has left its mark, a palimpsest.” To represent the natural world in painting is to retell, or perhaps continue, this ancient narrative.
Paula’s work as a trompe l’oeil painter will take her from Italian villas to film sets in Moscow and, in the book’s sublime final act, to the birthplace of art. As she tells the story of each surface she paints, Paula will tell her own. Each job awakens a memory, drags something silently formative from deep within the cortex. It is here, De Kerangal argues, in this intimate collision of history, memory and creative yearning, where art occurs.
Painting time it is a celebration of mastery, which is no more, he writes, “than an aptitude for failure, a consent to the fall, and a desire to start over.” But how exhilarating that fall can be, how intoxicating that desire. The book finds sensuality in competition: the way a new skill feels when it settles in your body, the way a new language feels on your tongue. As he has done so often, De Kerangal shows that there is poetry in our jargon and stories embedded in our tools. A can of sky blue paint tells a Renaissance saga of powdered gemstones and ostentatious riches. A table of pigments becomes a charm of friendship: “Paula, unfolding her fingers one by one, enumerates the litany of names of colors that everyone knows by heart, enunciating the syllables as if she were bursting capsules of pure sensation one by one. .. “
Capsules of Pure Sensation: It is a description worth stealing to describe this novel, which is linked picture by picture beautiful. It is a writing that defies haste, that slows down the view. It is also a great feat of translation. The analogies with painting are easy, but they are more than critical hyperbole. De Kerangal’s novel on heart transplants invited medical comparisons; his novel of bridge construction invited comparisons of construction. “Writing should be like the texture of the world, have the shape of the world,” explained the author in an interview for her latest book. Like Paula with her box of paints, De Kerangal builds her story on each layer. That the pictorial resonances of her new novel feel elementary, rather than strenuous, solidifies her reputation as one of the most talented sentence builders in contemporary fiction.
For the trompe-l’œil to truly enchant, it must first deceive and then reveal itself; only then can we marvel at deception. So it is with Painting time; delighting in the art of this book completes the grand illusion.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism