‘Painting Time’ by Maylis de Kerangal (Review)

With a few intriguing-looking ARCs calling from the shelves, it’s time to take another short break from my IBP travels, but at a site focusing on fiction in translation, that simply means more travels, and different destinations!  Today we’re looking at a book out this week, in which a familiar name tackles an unfamiliar subject.  Join us as we journey around Europe in the company of a woman who is no ordinary house painter.  She has a gift for adding a final touch to a surface and creating something new – although, as we’ll see, what she’s doing is something that’s very, very old…

Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, translated by Jessica Moore, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and five years on writer and translator are back with a new novel in English, no doubt hoping for another shot at the prize next year.  However, where the earlier book is a medical drama running over the course of  single day, Painting Time (review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is a rather different affair.  It takes us through the formative years of a young woman learning to be a decorative painter, and if you don’t quite know what that is, don’t worry – de Kerangal will fill you in along the way.

We begin with a reunion in Paris, as Paula Karst, Jonas Roetjens and Kate Malone (no relation…) enjoy a long-awaited catch-up, reminiscing about old times.  This is the cue for the story to shoot back a decade or so as we see Paula enter the Institut de Peintre in Brussels for the first time, taking the first steps on her path towards a new career.  Over six months of gruelling training, she and her fellow students learn how to imitate natural substances, creating illusions of wood panelling, marble and tortoiseshell, and by the time she graduates, Paula is ready to set off into the world and practise her art.

In one sense, then, Painting Time is a Bildungsroman, and if the six months in Belgium are her Lehrjahre (apprentice years), what follows (to continue the Goethe allusion) are her Wanderjahre, in which she roams around perfecting her craft.  These years of honing her skills culminate in her being chosen to participate in a major project, one that will require all her talents and ingenuity, and allow her to make her mark on history.

While the short first section of the novel hints at an ensemble piece, in truth the focus is very much on Paula.  Early on, the writer points out Paula’s strabism, a condition in which her eyes (one black, one green) point in different directions.  This has the effect of making her stand out, as well as suggesting that she’s able to see differently, a trait built upon as the story progresses.  The more Paula learns, the greater the interest in her chosen art grows, and she surprises herself at how committed she is to examining materials, learning about their history and then using that knowledge to create an image on paper or concrete.  It’s an art brimming with deception, in which drab film sets or hotel walls are magically brought to life, and it provides Paula, who was fairly aimless before discovering this craft, with a goal that enriches her life.

The time the young woman spends at the Institut is probably my favourite part of the book, and I’m sure it will evoke memories of uni days for anyone who left home for the first time to study.  Of course, there’s initial uncertainty, but Paula’s fellow students soon become her close friends, her allies:

From then on, the students of the rue du Métal make up a little society unto themselves, connected to the material of the world but closed off into a few of the city’s streets and isolated, school work leaving little room for leisure time, when they might make friendships beyond the school’s walls (and by now each of them has understood the advantage of seeking resources on site rather than losing time combing the countryside).  So clandestine connections form within the school, romantic, friendly, sexual connections, and enmities as well, connections that grow tighter and tighter as the weeks roll by, forming a network that grows more and more dense, more and more active, such that the school finds its organic form and begins to function as its own ecosystem…
p.71 (MacLehose Press, 2021)

Paula gradually allows herself to open up, drawn out first by Jonas, then by Kate, and she becomes part of a trio working together, all lost in their work throughout whole nights.

One interesting theme covered concerns the nature of the work.  There’s a sense of isolation, but also of obsession, and with little time for an outside life, these artists of deception tend to live in a bubble.  Their art is also surprisingly exhausting, physically and mentally, and de Kerangal carefully describes Paula’s aches and bodily pains, the sore eyes, elbows and shoulders.  Earlier flippant descriptions of these ‘artists’ being mere copyist, fakers, are belied by the sheer effort that goes into the work, and the awestruck expressions of those who see the finished item.

Of course, the hallmark of de Kerangal’s work is the style and its use of language, with the writer elegantly striving to make us see what the characters see:

Paula immediately likes the light of beginnings that bathes the place, a white, matte light, made that much clearer by the dimness of the lobby and the hallway, as though it were necessary to pass through an airlock of opacity in order to see clearly, and then get to work. (p.41)

She creates a narrator who’s a slightly distant observer, skilled at varying the pace.  They can slow the reader down for descriptions and then rush them breathlessly through the painting process, these shifts in focus, from near to far, pushing and pulling us through Paula’s whirlwind days and helping us to feel the pressure she’s under.

On a related note, another feature of de Kerangal’s work, one that’s hard to overlook, is her liking for high-blown, low-frequency vocabulary.  It’s something I touched on in my review of Mend the Living, and the writer has certainly indulged herself again in this book, with Moore’s word choices, no doubt, duteously reflecting the original in terms of rarity.  A few select examples I noted down are haruspex, placoderm, spumous, pleochroic, kype, parietal – not words you stumble across every day (and there are many more where they came from!).  To be fair, these unusual word choices are usually a little clearer in context, but they may prove to be obstacles for some readers – caveat lector 😉

Given the book’s cover, and blurb, it’s not giving much away to say that it all culminates in Paula travelling to Lascaux to work on replicas of the world-renowned cave paintings.  This section contains the fascinating background and story of the caves’ discovery, and this new task acts as the natural culmination of Paula’s apprenticeship.  By this point, the nature of the novel has changed somewhat, with Paula’s story slowly fading into the background as the work becomes more prominent.  This is probably deliberate, echoing the role of the decorative painter, where the material is more important than the artist, yet some readers might wonder if the shift is taken too far – in places, this final section is more a history lesson than the resolution to a novel…

Still, even if it’s slightly unbalanced at times, Painting Time is a beautiful, absorbing novel providing an intriguing glimpse into a world I, for one, had certainly thought little about.  After years of struggles and hard work, Paula’s arrival in Lascaux marks the moment when everything comes together, and her choice of career is vindicated:

Paula listens while her hands mix the selected ochres with acrylic binders, and at the same time get mixed up in the fissures of Cerfontaine marble, the carp in the ponds at Versailles, the painted eyes of the statue of Kha behind the glass of the museum in Turin, and the ground of teatro 5 at Cinecittà: everything coexists – you have to make us feel the time, the man in the fisherman’s sweater had said, and rubbed his fingers between which, indeed, time ceased to exist, became translucent, no thicker than a rolling paper. (p.237)

Her task is to peel back the layers of history, then put them back again in such a way that others feel that they’re actually there…

…a bit like being a writer, I suppose 😉

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