As she wanders the immense backlot of Rome’s Cinecittà film studio – “Hollywood on the Tiber” – the heroine of Maylis de Kerangal’s Painting Time is struck by how unreal the sets seem up close, how patently confected. “A set doesn’t have to be real,” her guide explains, “it has to be true.”
There is something magnificently true about De Kerangal’s fiction, which braids technical fluency with winged prose. A meticulous researcher, she draws immensely humane stories out of niche vocational knowledge: the world-bending muscle of mechanical engineering (Birth of a Bridge); the hermetic brutalities of transplant surgery (Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome science book prize in 2017); the explorations of haute cuisine (The Cook). In her new novel, Painting Time, translated by Jessica Moore, the French author turns her granular attentions to trompe-l’œil and its artisans: those “bamboozlers of the real” who can conjure marble, wood and ethereal skyscapes from pigment and lacquer.
The students at the Institut Supérieur de Peinture in Brussels are a dissonant bunch, ranging from penniless house painters to the rebellious daughters of aristocrats. The school’s trompe-l’œil course – immersive and uncompromising – will remake them all. For one trio, a lifelong friendship will form in the hectic months between October 2007 and March 2008, born of all-nighters and the unshakable stink of turpentine. There’s Kate, a 6ft Glaswegian nightclub bouncer; cryptic, talented Jonas; and Paula, the painter we will follow once lessons end, with her untapped fervour and David Bowie eyes.
To become trompe-l’œil artists, Paula, Kate and Jonas must learn to see anew. “To see, under the glass roof of the studio on the rue du Métal, high on the fumes from paint and solvents, muscles sore and forehead burning, doesn’t just mean keeping your eyes open to the world,” De Kerangal writes; “to see is to engage in a pure action, to create an image … To see, here, is something else.”
At the institute, Paula will learn the “patient work of appropriation”, with all its bruising rigours. From her friends, she will learn to be a storyteller. For what is a polished slab of marble, but “a slice of time”? A tale of prehistoric coral, tectonic melodrama and human avidity: “Everything that has happened since the beginning of time has left its mark, a palimpsest.” To render the natural world in paint is to retell – or perhaps continue – this ancient narrative.
Paula’s work as a trompe-l’œil painter will take her from Italian villas to Moscow film sets, and – in the book’s sublime final act – to the very birthplace of art. As she tells the story of each surface she paints, Paula will tell her own. Every job rouses a memory, drags something quietly formative up from the cortical deep. It is here, De Kerangal argues, in this intimate collision of history, memory and creative yearning, that art happens.
Painting Time is a celebration of mastery, which is nothing more, she writes, “than an aptitude for failure, a consent to the fall, and a desire to start over”. But how exhilarating that fall can be, how heady that desire. The book finds the sensuality in proficiency: the way a new skill feels as it settles into your body, the way a new language feels on your tongue. As she has so often done, De Kerangal shows there is poetry to be found in our jargon, and stories embedded in our tools. A tin of sky blue paint tells a saga from Renaissance times of pulverised gemstones and ostentatious wealth. A pigment chart becomes an incantation of friendship: “Paula, unfolding her fingers one by one, lists the litany of colour names they all know by heart, enunciating the syllables as though she were bursting capsules of pure sensation one by one …”
Capsules of pure sensation – it’s a description worth stealing to describe this novel, which is strung together image by beautiful image. This is writing that defies haste, that slows the eye. It is also a mighty feat of translation. Analogies with painting come easily, but they’re more than critical hyperbole. De Kerangal’s heart-transplant novel invited medical comparisons; her bridge building novel invited construction comparisons. “Writing must be like the texture of the world, having the form of the world,” the author explained in an interview for her last book. Like Paula with her paintbox, De Kerangal builds her story into every layer. That her new novel’s painterly resonances feel elemental, rather than effortful, cements her reputation as one of contemporary fiction’s most gifted sentence builders.
For trompe-l’œil to truly enchant, it must first deceive and then reveal itself – only then can we marvel in the trickery. So it is with Painting Time; revelling in the artistry of this book makes the grand illusion complete.