Faking It

Sam Gilpin

  • The Forger by Paul Watkins
    Faber, 343 pp, £9.99, July 2000, ISBN 0 571 20194 6

On 30 June 1937 Joseph Goebbels issued a decree that authorised the confiscation of entartete kunst (usually translated as ‘degenerate’ or ‘decadent’ art) from public galleries and collections. The works of art singled out were seen to ‘insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form, or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill’. Goebbels’s Deutecher Kunstbericht had appeared in 1933 and discredited artists like Otto Dix and Paul Klee had already been removed from teaching posts at German academies. The new decree formalised the persecution of the avant-garde movement in art. Around sixteen thousand works of art were confiscated from public collections. Six hundred and fifty or so were displayed in the famous Entartete Kunst exhibition which opened in Munich on 19 July 1937: it attracted three million people – more visitors than any other exhibition of modern art has done before or since.

The exhibition focused on artists who were Jewish, Slavic or ‘degenerate’ Germans, in contrast to the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung which had opened the previous day on the other side of the park, in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst. Many of the pieces by foreign artists which were not displayed, including paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and van Gogh, were sold on cheaply – either directly or at auction – to overseas dealers in exchange for hard currency; Kandinsky’s Ruhe, for instance, was snapped up for a hundred dollars. Others were kept as potential barter, to exchange for pieces by Rembrandt, Cranach, Vermeer and other Northern European artists of whom the Nazis approved. In March 1939 nearly five thousand of the remaining ‘degenerate’ art works were burned in the courtyard of the Berlin fire department.

These events provide the backdrop for the fictional incidents recounted in The Forger. David Halifax, the protagonist and narrator, is an artist who arrives in Paris in 1939, at the age of 21, after he has been awarded a scholarship by a mysterious body, known only as the Levasseur Committee. The Committee handles his boarding fees and pays for tutorials with a famous Russian painter, Alexander Pankratov. David is befriended by an art dealer, Guillaume Fleury, who sells on some of David’s ‘Gauguin’ sketches as originals – without his knowledge. The French police discover the fraud just as the Germans are threatening the city, and David and Fleury are blackmailed into working for the Resistance, forging works of art that are favoured by the Nazis and can be exchanged for ‘degenerate’ pictures by Picasso, Matisse and Degas, which might otherwise be destroyed.

Paul Watkins, who was born in 1964 and grew up around Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, has written six previous novels and an autobiography. The novels are generally tightly written, boys’ own, coming of age stories of hardship and courage and have been well received critically: Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn won the 1989 Encore Award. He has been frequently, often lazily, compared to Hemingway because of his tough subject-matter, and his limpid and measured prose. But his fiction lacks Hemingway’s control and complexity and he writes about boys who are wet behind the ears rather than men of the world.

Watkins’s parents were Welsh emigrants; his father represented his country at the javelin in the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games and stayed on in North America, eventually becoming a geophysicist. Neither of his parents had been privately educated in Britain, but when Paul was seven he was sent to the Dragon School in Oxford, and went on to Eton. The effect of this dislocation can be seen in Stand before Your God, which dwells on his parents’ betrayal, his own powerlessness in the face of authority, his lack of a stable sense of home. These themes recur throughout the novels; so does an obsession with the macho and competitive dynamics of all-male friendships, groups and institutions. (At one point in Stand before Your God, Watkins remarks: ‘the first thing I learned was that the Dragon School was no place for cowards.’)

Watkins is well aware of the recurrence of personal experience in his fiction; again in Stand before Your God he comments:

This crept into the stories I was writing. They were always about a person leaving one place and going to another place and trying to survive ... I wondered if this was my theme – the search for a homeland, to be worthy of it and to be accepted.

With the exception of his well-meant but weak eco-thriller, Archangel, all his novels repeat in different locales and historical settings a narrative pattern that changes very little: a tough but untested young man, usually between 17 and 21, is displaced by forces beyond his control; there is then a prolonged testing period, during which he must adapt in order to survive in a new, masculine world; once he is more settled, often towards the end of the story, someone close to him dies. (Watkins’s father died soon after he went to Eton.) The faint wet-towel smell of the dormitory lingers on in The Forger, in this repeated narrative structure and in the occasional detail: David and Fleury call each other by their surnames in the insistent manner of the boarding school; and David’s pre-school home is even near Narragansett Bay.

It is quite usual for Watkins to bring a character or situation from one novel into another one. James Pfeiffer, the narrator of Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn is killed in a chainsaw accident at the beginning of Archangel. Watkins’s third novel, In the Blue Light of African Dreams, foreshadows The Forger. It tells the story of Charlie Halifax, a miner from New England, who flew fighter planes for the French in the First World War, received the Croix de Guerre and was then forced to join the Foreign Legion – he had been caught trying to desert after a disfiguring plane crash. Charlie escapes from Morocco and travels to Paris with his mechanic, a white Russian called Ivan Konovalchik; they then attempt to win the Orteig Prize for the first crossing between Paris and New York, an award eventually claimed by Lindbergh travelling the other way. The Forger develops a number of these plots: Charlie Halifax is David Halifax’s uncle; Ivan, the mechanic, is a friend of Pankratov; Ivan and Charlie’s plane was a Levasseur and the secretive Committee of the same name which brings David over to Paris turns out to consist solely of Ivan and Pankratov. One of the reasons David is so keen to come to Paris in The Forger is that the city remains the last link between him and his father, whose death in the First World War was recounted in the earlier novel.

To understand The Forger it isn’t necessary to have read In the Blue Light of African Dreams. So why does Watkins bother with these forays into self-referential territory? The answer would seem to have something to do with the subject of forgery, of producing an invented artefact that looks like a genuine one. Watkins appears to be fascinated with the way fictional worlds can be made to resemble the real world, and thereby give rise to unexpected continuities between otherwise loosely connected lives. The parallel between a believable historical fiction and a successful counterfeit painting is obvious. Watkins’s novel is not only a faked version of an imagined reality, however: it can be read as a forged account of his own experience.

The preoccupation with the relationship between the original and the derivation makes the historical credibility of the novel increasingly important. Like most of Watkins’s other novels based on real events, The Forger is largely convincing on a cursory reading. He skilfully evokes the feel of another time and place: characters eat mashed turnips because there is no other food during the Occupation; in a rather gruesome set-piece, the skull of a man who has just been shot is compared to an ashtray on a café table. There may be a rather tiresome tendency to signpost impending plot revelations (Pankratov ‘seemed to possess some mighty secret’), and to favour telling over showing: ‘I knew immediately he was in love with her and that she knew it and despised every measure of his devotion.’ But not unlike Defoe – who was a master of literary fakery – Watkins includes details whose irrelevance only adds to the sense of verisimilitude.

The best and most intense moments in the novel have to do with the process of forgery itself: the attempt to enter someone else’s consciousness, the minute attention to detail, the techniques required by different styles of painting. On the other hand, Watkins’s own historical flexibility can be a problem. Despite its general accuracy, The Forger has a tendency to fabricate for the sake of effect. Otto Abetz, the German Ambassador to Paris, appears in the novel as ‘a short, stocky, grey-haired man in his mid-fifties’; the real Abetz was in his thirties at the time. More important, in the climax of the novel, David works on a forgery of Vermeer’s The Astronomer as the Allied troops push closer to Paris. The original has been hidden by the Resistance in a castle in Normandy, and David must see it in order to produce a reasonably convincing counterfeit. In truth, the picture was neither hidden nor copied. The Astronomer was actually confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in 1940 from Baron Edouard de Rothschild.

The inaccuracy is telling. For one thing it is deliberate – Watkins acknowledges the confiscation at the end of the book – unlike other errors. The specious concealment and forgery of The Astronomer allows the novel to propagate the myth of an organised, widespread and active Resistance that sought to stymie the Nazis throughout the war. The reality, especially in the Parisian art market, was rather different. Old masters were exchanged for avant-garde paintings, but largely for the sake of the dealer and his profits rather than to safeguard art. Most of the paintings that the Nazis used for these swaps were stolen from Jewish collectors. The importance of the Edouard de Rothschild collection meant that it was not broken up and could be returned after the war, but the situation for other, less prominent individuals was different, and many of the purloined pieces remain with public galleries which are often reluctant to return them, or concealed in private collections. The Forger transforms the German looting of France into a heroic struggle against the Nazis centred on an American, and, in so doing, ignores the postwar failure of many institutions and individuals to investigate and return stolen artworks. This is its greatest forgery.