In Paul Watkins ambitious new novel, The Forger,
a young American artist named David Halifax arrives by train in Paris
in the fateful summer of 1939. France is poised on the brink of German
invasion. War is in the air. Halifax wants to paint masterpieces, and
hes finally arrived in the sacred city of his calling. As he walks
through the station, one of his suitcases falls open. Paintbrushes and
tubes of paint come tumbling out. He scrambles to retrieve them, and
a gendarme in a black uniform approaches. In time-honored fashion, echoing
a thousand other Philistines, in a thousand other works of fiction,
from the era of Hugo and Balzac to the present day, in movies, TV shows,
and operas, the cop pronounces a sentence on the bohemian. "Just
what we need," he says. "Another artist."
Its one of the better moments in the book, a fine
beginning that does two things at once. On the one hand, Watkins acknowledges
with a wry sense of humor that we have been with this person, in this
city, in this very place, many times before. On the other, by letting
us know that he knows, he promises us that this time around he is going
to bring a fresh eye to this overly familiar place and time.
Halifax has come to Paris on a grant from something called
the Levasseur Committee, a mysterious group that provided a boat ride
across the Atlantic, a lump sum for expenses, and a few months worth
of lessons from an odd genius named Alexander Pankratov. As Halifax
settles into this new life, we meet its demimonde: Fleury, the shady
art dealer; Valya, the beguiling, unapproachable nude model; Balard
and Marie Claire, fellow artists who are conducting an extramarital
affair; Ivan, the crusty owner of the old Legionnaires café
frequented by this crowd; and, of course, the dyspeptic landlady, Madame
Paris, too, is a character, and early on, Watkins gives
the city a concise sense of place, as when he writes about Halifaxs
place on the Rue Descalzi:
There were indoor sounds
. Water dripping. Muffled
conversation in the room across the hall. Someone sloshing in a bath
. It was dark outside now. From down in the street
came sounds of laughter. Breaths of music reached me high up in my
dingy apartment, which smelled of old cooked meat and coal tar soap
and the faint sourness of milk. In my newness here, I could pick up
each odor of the place.
But what begins as another fable of the struggling Left
Bank artist soon becomes the tale of a man asked to sacrifice the individuality
of his art for the greater good of saving masterpieces from the Nazis.
In his second life, a well-kept secret, Pankratov is a forger, and with
the Germans blitzkrieging across the continent, the misunderstood genius
must put his expertise to urgent use.
"Pankratov told me that a group had been formed to
deal with the safekeeping of works of art in the event of Germany invading
France," the narrator relates. "The Germans were planning
to establish an art capital of Europe in the Austrian city
of Linz. Plans for a museum there had already been approved by Hitler.
The Germans were going to remove as many works of art as they wanted
from the countries they invaded and then sell off or destroy the rest."
Instead of becoming an artist, Halifax follows in Pankratovs
footsteps and becomes a forger.
There are other surprises. It wont be giving too
much away to say that no one is quite what they seem. Valya, the model,
has Fascist leanings. The affair between Balard and Marie Claire ends
when the latter gives her lover up to the French draft board. And Fleury,
the dealer, has more scruples than one would expect from a man who pawns
the protagonists sketches off as Gaugins to untutored collectors.
Watkins is attempting more here than just a gripping story
about one of the more fascinating chapters of World War II history,
the looting of Europes art treasures by the cultural czars of
the Third Reich. He is trying in the same breath to reinvent the idea
of the American in Paris, and in the process, to ask large, difficult
questions about what exactly constitutes the difference between the
forger and the artist.
Unfortunately, despite a few twists, some nicely upset
expectations, and passages of utterly gorgeous writing, the author doesnt
quite pull off his conceits. Ever since his debut ten years ago, Watkins
has been compared favorably to Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, and
much of his work deserves those comparisons. His superb early novel
Night Over Day Over Night and his more recent The Story of
My Disappearance are both marvels of tension and intrigue.
By comparison, The Forger is strangely slack.
We are told in the first line of the book that it is the summer of 1939.
Any student of history knows that the Germans will be arriving soon,
but it takes the author some eighty pages to get us to the end of August
and the outbreak of war, when the novels real action begins.
Instead of placing us smack in the middle of a Europe
aquake, Watkins lets us meander in the streets of Paris, and these early
scenes feel uncomfortably close to cliché. Pankratov, for one,
behaves too much like Lermontov, the over-the-top, near campy genius
of dance in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburgers cinematic ode
to High Art, The Red Shoes. With his bad temper, his overwrought
contempt for his students work, and his reputation as a "genius,"
he feels more like a pastiche of Svengali than a real human being.
The problem with the book, however, lies ultimately with
Halifax, the narrator. We know early on that his father spent time in
Paris but died in the Great War. We know that he comes from Narragansett,
where his French-Canadian mother runs a boarding house. We know that
he wants more than anything to be an artist, if for no other reason
than to discover, or create, the deep connection between himself and
the lost parent. We are told these things, but do not feel their presence
as elements in the character of the narrator, word for word, sentence
for sentence. We do not see much of the narrators inner life at
all, and when we do, that inner life doesnt feel alive, doesnt
feel as if it is coming from within a genuine nature. Rather, it feels
explained, as if the author were worried that we didnt get the
message the first time around.
"I was thinking that all my life, I had been fighting
against a current," Halifax tells us on the day that he decides
to take up the forgers brush, "Like water. Water deep under
the ground that I struggled through even though I couldnt see
it. I couldnt beat it, and I knew I couldnt beat it, but
I didnt know what else to do except keep struggling against it.
Today was the first time that I felt as if Id quit struggling."
This comes after more than one hundred pages in the company
of Halifax, and we should know by now that he had always felt himself
to be a forger, rather than a great original. We should feel the relief
and the anguish in this moment of confession. But we dont. What
we get, in Halifax, is a counterfeit of emotion and the trappings of
a backstory, neither of which, finally, constitute a character.
Its a shame, because the novel has sublime moments,
as when Pankratov talks about how he escaped from the Bolsheviks:
The horses ran across the ice until they reached the
trench and then they all fell into the water. The horses coming behind
had no chance to stop. Some reared up and fell and crushed their riders.
Other riders skidded on their backs, on their bellies, howling as
they slid into the water in their heavy greatcoats, weighed down with
swords and rifles and bandoliers of ammunition. They went under as
well. Seventeen men and horses went into the lake. The torches went
out one after another. The horses and men were screaming.
This is great, haunting stuff, worthy of Curzio Malaparte,
even Isaac Babel, buried too deep within a somnolent, uneasy novel.
is author of The
Wall. He is currently working on a novel about the Bosnian War.