In Berlin between the world wars, a trove of rediscovered works by Vincent van Gogh propels a story of passion and betrayal in the art world.
Clark (We That Are Left, 2015, etc.) situates this historical novel in a decade marked by economic, political, and cultural turmoil in Germany. The story is told in three sections. The first, set in 1923, focuses on Julius Köhler-Schultz, author of an acclaimed biography of van Gogh and “Germany’s pre-eminent art critic, composed, cultured and authoritative, a man garlanded with the privileges of lifelong success.” That life has been upended by the departure of his wife, Luisa, a hedonistic young woman half his age. She has taken with her their baby son and Julius’ most treasured painting, a van Gogh self-portrait. He misses the painting more. Julius meets Emmeline Eberhardt, an even more rebellious, even younger woman, an artist who will be first his protégé and then something more problematic. She is the main character in the book’s second section, set in 1927, as she explores her sexuality in Berlin’s demimonde. The lives of Julius and Emmeline become intertwined with that of a charming and mysterious young man. Matthias Rachmann, an aspiring art dealer, might be a true lover of art driven by aesthetic passion—or he might be an exceptionally intelligent grifter working a very long con. The book’s third section, set in 1933, consists of diary entries by Frank Berszacki, who was Rachmann’s attorney after he was charged with art forgery. Berszacki is Jewish, and he adds yet another layer to Matthias’ story while describing his own struggles with the rising tide of Nazism in Berlin. Clark’s mastery of historic and artistic details merges with skillful plotting and compelling characters in this accomplished novel.
A suspenseful, atmospheric portrait of Berlin during Hitler’s rise.