Soft historical fiction, by the author of Lost and Found (1980), offering an intimate though at times romanticized glimpse into artists’ lives.
Loosely based on the biographies of German painter Franz Marc and American artist Harold Paris (here called Harry Baer), the story traces real-life events, including two world wars and developments afterward, through the detail-oriented eyes of the dual protagonists. We first meet Harry escaping a German advance during WWII. Hiding in an old farmhouse, he finds the lost sketchbook of painter Franz Marc, who was a soldier for the Kaiser during WWI. The narrative then jumps back to 1909, showing Marc as he talks with Kandinsky about making things new, detailing Marc’s brief and unsuccessful marriage as well as his equally unsatisfying affair with a more worldly woman. Marc’s story and his life end in the trenches, which provide the backdrop for Greene’s fairly gripping portrait of war and battle. The story then returns to Harry Baer, who after the war relocates to Paris to become an artist. Following his life and successful career, the novel creates an image of a self-centered man given to braggadocio (not unlike Marc) to whom individuals count for less than the artist’s creative vision. After the death in childbirth of his French wife, Harry takes a teaching position at Berkeley, arriving with the beatniks and staying on to witness hippies protest the Vietnam War. He falls in love, has affairs, gains notoriety as both a womanizer and an artist to watch. The characters here can sometimes sound overly didactic, especially in the case of Marc: the artist may have expressed similar ideas when he proselytized for the Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, but they make for stiff reading. Nevertheless, Greene creates an engaging vision of the life of art.
Occasionally stagy, but with characters worth exploring.