Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal

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Translated by Jessica Moore

Reviewed by Annabel

Maylis de Kerangal is a novelist whose primary focus is not the characters that people her books, but the subject they’re involved with. For instance, her Wellcome Prize Winner Mend the Living (which I reviewed here) was about a heart and its transplant journey from one human to another. The language, expertly translated by Jessica Moore, was uncompromising and considered – both technical and poetic.

Her new novel does much the same for painting, but not just any kind of art. Painting Time is all about the highest form of decorative painting, trompe-l’oeil, and is a meditative study on the art of illusion and how it disguises the truth.

The novel opens with a reunion, Paula is meeting her friends and former classmates Jonas and Kate in Paris. Their profession takes them all over the place, so their annual meetings are precious to them all.

It begins back in 2007, when twenty-year-old Paula arrives in Brussels to seek a place on the course in decorative painting at the Institute de Peinture. It’s fair to say that the woman who interviews Paula is quite intimidating. She explains that:

trompe-l’oeil is the meeting of a painting and a gaze, conceived for a particular point of view, and defined by the effect it is supposed to produce.

Paula is amazed that she appears to have been accepted onto the intensive six-month course, during which she’ll learn to paint all kinds of wood, marble, stone and more. She had been rudderless in trying to decide what she wanted to study or do with her life, her parents having done their best to support her; but this course, which she discovered for herself, had grabbed her attention and insinuated itself into her psyche. Within days, her parents have helped move her into a Brussels apartment, sharing with Jonas – who isn’t there — ready to begin painting.

The author now takes time to immerse the reader in the world of decorative painting: colours, brushes and techniques, as the students learn their craft in long, gruelling days spent on their feet, dizzy with turpentine vapour. The long paragraphs sprawl over several pages, with some equally long, almost Proustian, sentences evoking the personalities of the woods and marbles rather than the students, who are often secondary.   

All too soon, six months are up, and the course is over. The students are thrown back into the world to find jobs. Paula is determined to use her new skills, but until a contact of Jonas comes through with a job in Italy, she flounders a little back with her parents. She doesn’t look back once she hits her stride though; the parental home in Paris becomes a mere stopping off point for repacking her bags between jobs. She is a traveller now with no time to build a home.

Soon we find her at Rome’s fabled film studios Cinecittà, where she builds her set painting skills further. Cinecittà puts on a good act but is tired behind the scenes. Paula gets to see both sides, the truth and illusion, echoes of past successes from Quo Vadis to Spaghetti Westerns, which gives more time for introspection. 

The novel continues to follow Paula’s career fairly closely, intersecting with Jonas and Kate from time to time. The book’s last section gives her the chance of a lifetime, collaborating in creating Lascaux IV, a replica of the Cro-Magnon cave paintings discovered in 1940 in Perigord. The caves were shut to the public in 1963 to protect the artwork, and two replica sections had previously been built (I visited Lascaux II in the 1990s). Recreating the cave and its precious art from a digital scan is the ultimate fake – as the novel’s title describes, it’s painting time.

By concentrating on the subject rather than her characters, de Kerangal is able to display dazzling verbal dexterity, which Jessica Moore does such a superb job to translate into English (give her a prize, someone!). As in Mend the Living, de Kerangal appears in love with her subject, barely pausing for breath in the long paragraphs and sentences, totally immersed in the aesthetic nature of this art form.

If you want a story about artists, their lives, loves and work, then this isn’t a novel for you. If you relish thinking about the artistic process (and want to learn some new vocabulary) then there is much to enjoy in this novel.

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Annabel is Co-Founder of Shiny and one of its editors, and will look with fresh eyes at decorative painting.

Maylis de Kerangal, Painting Time (Maclehose, 2021). 978-0857059864, 320pp., hardback.

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