Exclusive: Sara Houghteling Schools Us on Art History

About a month back, we posted the first page of Pictures at an Exhibition, by Sara Houghteling, a history lesson in the form of a novel. Houghteling drew inspiration from the autobiography of Rose Valland, who played an instrumental role in the protection and recovery of some of France’s great works of art when Nazis plundered the museums and galleries of Paris in World War II. After the jump, Houghteling talks with us about her research, and the true stories from which her fiction is constructed.

Flavorwire: What was the way into this novel for you? Was there one idea out of which it grew?

Sara Houghteling: It has a few different roots. The first is that my father lived in France as a boy, because his father was working for the Marshall Plan/OSS/CIA. So hearing his childhood memories of post-war Paris, and then hearing my grandmother talk about what life in Paris was like after the war. Those kind of family stories are very vivid — I grew up hearing French nursery rhymes and my parents would speak French with a lot of the French families they were close to. Then when I was living in Michigan, I worked as an editor and a secretary for a French Holocaust survivor who was writing his memoir. So that was really a life changing experience. His name is Dr. Emanuel Tanay. He self-published an astounding autobiography called Passport to Life. He went on to become a forensic psychiatrist. He was a psychiatrist in the Jack Ruby case and the Ted Bundy case, so he’s had an incredibly unusual life. And then really when I discovered Rose Valland, who the character in my novel Rose Clément is based on… and just realizing that this was an extraordinary woman who had acted very bravely, who had seen something that no one else had seen. Her autobiography had gone out of print and it’s not translated into English. In some ways that was almost part of her personal plan, because during the war she tried to make herself unassuming so that she could carry out this work. She’s become sort of overlooked by history, in part because she kept reminding members of the French establishment of a past that they, for various reasons, wanted to put behind them. So I had the story of Rose Valland, and also the story of Paul Rosenberg, and this huge role that Jewish art dealers had played before the war in fostering the changes that occurred in modern art. Then this group of people completely disappeared after the war, and the artwork changed so drastically. The big three [roots of the book] would be my family history, Dr. Tanay, and reading Rose Valland’s autobiography.

FW: Did you have an art history background?

SH: I’m a wannabe art historian. I love reading art history stuff, but I only realized it too late into college that I loved this. When I was at Michigan, I took two art history classes with a really nice professor who was like, write whatever you want. So he didn’t make me write papers but I wrote chapters from my novel. He was amazing.

FW: The art plays such a central role in this book. But also music — the art is so foregrounded that it’s easy to miss. The title comes from a piece of music and the narrator’s mother is a musician. Had you studied music in the same way that you studied art history, or did you have a closer connection to that?

SH: I have a much closer connection to music. I played flute very seriously growing up. A lot of the great flute music is written by French composers. Every year in France, I’m sure they still do it, they have something called the maîtres du concours, or the masters of the contest — I can’t remember exactly what the name is — where all these great flute composers will write like the annual exam piece for the flute players in the French conservatory. So there’s a lot of great flute music that comes out France. A lot of the music that’s in [the book] is just my own iTunes playlist that I’m listening to while I’m writing. So I’ve been getting more and more into opera, so there’s some Puccini that shows up in there.

FW: To go back to Rose for a second… it’s important to know, while reading your book, that she’s based on a real person, because it makes the foresight that she displays all the more astounding. Are there other direct links from the novel to history? Specifically in the way Max and the other Jewish characters returning to Paris after the war are treated. There seems to be a collective sense of guilt among the non-Jewish Parisians, an immediate understanding and a need to make amends.

SH: I think a lot of the different stories are stories that I’ve borrowed from people that I’ve interviewed or seen in documentaries. When Chaim goes to the police department, and the police officer who fills out his card is the same officer who oversaw his deportation. That’s a scene that I saw in the Holocaust archives in Paris. You can watch video testimonials of different Parisian Jews. So a lot of those come form speaking to different people. There’s a character who appears briefly and talks about how his family’s furniture collection was replaced by other furniture, by people leaving stuff on their doorstep. That’s also a story that comes from a furniture dealer in Paris. So I think that in general, I filtered other people’s reactions that I heard about and put them in the novel. But it’s really hard to know: when did people know about the Holocaust? When did they understand the scope of it? … My experience when I’m here is that the war feels more distant, and when I’m France, the history feels like it’s staring over your shoulder all the time. So I found in Paris, at a party, if I told some one I was writing a novel, they’d get really excited, but when I told them what it was about, it was like a total conversation killer. The average French person still has conflicted enough feelings about the war that it tended to shut people down.

FW: Do they still find missing pieces of art on a regular basis?

SH: Definitely. Now, we’re of the generation where they’re going to continue to find more. Somebody who I spoke to who specializes in art claims said that the more times art changes hands, the more likely it is to rise to the surface. So for example, with the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist, every year they think “this might be the year!” because [the art] changes hands, people get desperate. With those pieces it’s recent enough and everyone knows the history, that if this Rembrandt shows up it’s pretty clear that it’s from the museum. The Rothschilds got all of their Vermeers back, but some of the others were middling range stuff by artists I’d never heard of before I started research the book… A lot of this stuff is floating to the surface now that the Soviet Union has opened up. I think a lot of the artwork was looted a second time by the trophy brigades, because there was this overwhelming sense among the Russians, you know, “we’ve lost a million soldiers and suffered unbearable privations, we’re going to take everything we can.”

FW: Have they found pieces in the US as well?

SH: Yeah. There was a case in Seattle maybe a decade ago, I think it was Monet’s smoke stacks. Somebody will have bought something in good faith, and kept it in their collection for however many years, and then when they die they bequeath it to a museum or the museum buys it. Then it appears on the public market, and the heirs of these collections come forward and say, this is my family painting. I’m sure you followed the whole story with the Klimts in the Neue Gallery. There are tens of thousands still missing from France; France was the most looted country during the war. One third of all privately held art was looted, it’s totally mind-boggling.

FW: That’s what is so great about your novel — that it goes into such depth, particularly with Rose’s search. It clearly consumes her as well. People are aware of the looting in a larger sense, but to see how it actually happened in such great detail…aside from Rose’s biography, were there other sources?

SH: It mainly came from her autobiography. The other source that was extremely helpful to me was this wonderful book called The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas. On my book tour I feel like, I’m promoting my book, but I’m also promoting The Rape of Europa. What Nicholas does is, she has all these first hand witness accounts, that she’ll sometimes quote at length. Sometimes in a straight-up non-fiction book, the information has already been processed, but if it’s like a witness speaking, then there’s something that’s a little fresher there [to work with in fiction]. I rely completely on non-fiction books, so I don’t mean to dog on them. But because Lynn Nicholas’s research was so complete, and she had these first-hand accounts, it was very helpful. And then just talking to art dealers about what their parents did before the war to try to hide their paintings, and what it was like when they came back after, those interviews were very helpful and also very painful.

FW: Does art play a role in whatever you’re working on now?

SH: Right now I’m writing something about Brahms’ Piano Concerto in B-Flat Major. It goes…[Houghteling does a fair job of singing the concerto]. And this pianist that ruins his hands practicing it, or he ruins his right hand, so he can only play left-handed piano. And there’s this whole like weird wacky history about left-handed piano pieces, mainly because Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother, Paul, lost his arm in World War I, and because the Wittgenstein family was so wealthy, they could commission all the great composers of the 20th century to write him pieces of music. He was like an ornery, really grouchy guy, so he would say, this Ravel piece is trash! or this Prokofiev doesn’t make any sense! Hindemith wrote him a concerto that he said was unplayable, and then it was mysteriously lost, and it gets discovered in 2000. So I have a pianist who is looking for Hindemith’s lost piano concerto.

FW: Another quest for a lost piece of art.

SH: I hope I can do it.