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Book of the week: PAINTING TIME by Maylis de Kerangal

'A coming-of-age novel like no other: an atmospheric and highly aesthetic portrayal of love, art and craftmanship from the acclaimed author of Birth of a Bridge and Mend the Living.'

Painting Time was published by MacLehose Press and translated by Jessica Moore.

Behind the ornate doors of 30, rue du Métal in Brussels, twenty students begin their apprenticeship in the art of decorative painting – that art of tricksters and counterfeiters, where each knot in a plank of wood hides a secret and every vein in a slab of marble tells a story. Among these students are Kate, Jonas and Paula Karst. Together, during a relentless year of study, they will learn the techniques of reproducing materials in paint, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, and the intensity of their experience – the long hours in the studio, the late nights, the conversations, arguments, parties, romances – will cement a friendship that lasts long after their formal studies end. For Paula, her initiation into the art of trompe l’œil will take her back through time, from her own childhood memories, to the ancient formations of the materials whose depiction she strives to master. And from the institute in Brussels where her studies begin, to her work on the film sets of Cinecittà, and finally the caves of Lascaux, her experiences will transcend art, gradually revealing something of her own inner world, and the secret, unspoken, unreachable desires of her heart.

About the author:

Maylis de Karangal was born in Le Havre. She studied History and Philosophy in Rouen. Her novel ‘Birth of a Bridge’ was the winner of the Prix Franz Hessel and Prix Médicis in 2010. Her novella ‘Tangente vers l’est’ was the winner of the 2012 Prix Landerneau. In 2014, her fifth novel, ‘Mend the Living’, was published in French to wide acclaim, winning the Grand Prix RTL-Lire award and being declared the Student Choice Novel of the Year by France Culture and ‘Télérama’.

About the translator:

Jessica Moore is an award-winning translator, songwriter and poet. She lives in Montreal.

Read an extract from Painting Time:

Paula karst appears in the stairwell, she’s going

out tonight, you can tell straight away, a perceptible change

in speed from the moment she closed the apartment door,

her breath quicker, heartbeat stronger, long dark coat open

over a white shirt, boots with three-inch heels, and no bag,

everything in her pockets – phone, cigarettes, cash, all of it,

the set of keys that keeps the beat as she walks (quiver of a

snare) – and her hair bouncing on her shoulders, the stair-

case that spirals around her as she hurries down the flights,

swirls all the way to the lobby, where, intercepted at the

last second by the huge mirror, she pulls up short, leans

in to fathom her walleyed irises, smudges the too-thick

eyeshadow with a forefi nger, pinches her pale cheeks, and

presses her lips together to fl ood them with red (indifferent

to the hidden fl irtatiousness in her face, the divergent

strabismus, subtle, but always more pronounced when

evening falls). Before stepping out into the street she

undoes another shirt button – no scarf even though it’s

January outside, winter, la bise noire, but she wants to show

her skin, wants the breath of night wind against the base

of her throat.

Among the twenty-odd students who trained

at the Institut de Peinture (30 bis, rue du Métal in Brussels)

between October 2007 and March 2008, three of them

stayed close, shared contacts and warned each other about

sketchy deals, passed along contracts, helped each other

fi nish rush jobs, and these three – including Paula with

her long black coat and smoky eyes – have a date tonight

in Paris.

It was an occasion not to be missed, an exquisite

planetary conjunction, as rare as the passage of Halley’s

Comet! – they got all worked up online, grandiloquent,

appending their messages with images pulled from astro-

photography sites. And yet, by the end of the afternoon,

each one was imagining the reunion with reluctance: Kate

had just spent the day perched on a stepladder in a lobby

on avenue Foch and would have happily stayed sprawled at

home in front of an episode of “Game of Thrones”, eating

taramasalata with her fi ngers; Jonas would have preferred

to keep working, to get ahead on a tropical jungle fresco he

had to deliver in three days; and Paula, who had just fl own

in that morning from Moscow, was jet-lagged and not so

sure the meeting was a good idea after all. But something

stronger than them propelled them outside at nightfall –

something visceral, a physical desire, the desire to recognize

each other, faces and gestures, timbre of voices, ways of

moving, drinking, smoking, all the things that would be

reconnecting them any minute with the rue du Métal.

Bar thick with people. Clamour of a fairground and dim

light of a church. They arrive on time, all three, a perfect

convergence. Their fi rst movements throw them against

each other, hugs, sluice gates open, and then they wend

their way through the crowd single fi le, welded together,

a unit: Kate, platinum hair with dark roots, 6′1′′, thighs

bulging in ski trousers, motorcycle helmet in the crook of

her elbow and big teeth that make her top lip look too thin;

Jonas, owl eyes and greyish skin, arms like lassos, Yankees

baseball cap; and Paula, who is already looking brighter.

They reach a table in a corner of the room, order two beers

and a Spritz – Kate: I love the colour – and then immedi-

ately begin that continuous pendulum movement between

the bar and the street that sets the night’s cadence for smok-

ers, cigarettes between their lips, fl ames in the hollows of

their hands. The day’s weariness disappears in a snap,

excitement is back, the night busts open, there’s so much to

talk about.

Paula Karst, fresh off the plane, you fi rst! Tell us of your

conquests, describe your exploits! Jonas strikes a match

and his face flutters for a fraction of a second in the light

of the fl ame, skin taking on a coppery glow, and in a fl ash

Paula is back in Moscow, voice husky, back in the huge

studios of Mosfi lm where she spent the autumn, three

months, but instead of panoramic impressions and sweep-

ing narration, instead of a chronological account, she

begins by describing the details of Anna Karenina’s sitting

room, which she had to fi nish painting by candlelight after

a power failure plunged the sets into darkness the night

before the very fi rst day of fi lming; she begins slowly, as

though her words escort the image in a simultaneous trans-

lation, as though language is what allows us to see, and

makes the rooms appear, the cornices and doors, the wood-

work, the shape of the wainscotting and outline of the

baseboards, the delicacy of the stucco, and from there,

the very particular treatment of the shadows that had to

stretch out across the walls; she lists with precision the

range of colours – celadon, pale blue, gold, China White –

and bit by bit she gathers speed, forehead high and cheeks

flaming, launching into the story of that long night of paint-

ing, that mad crunch. She describes the hyped-up producers,

their black parkas and Yeezy sneakers, how they cracked

the whip over the painters in a Russian full of nails and

caresses, reminding them that no amount of delay would be

tolerated, none, but letting them glimpse possible bonuses,

and Paula suddenly understood that she would have to work

all night. She was in a panic thinking about painting in the

dark, convinced that the tints couldn’t possibly turn out

right and that the seams between panels would be visible

once they were under the lights, it was insane – she taps

her temple with her index fi nger while Jonas and Kate

listen, rapt, silent, recognizing in her a desirable madness,

one they are also proud to possess – and she goes on, telling

them how stunned she was to see a handful of students

turn up from the École des Beaux-Arts, hired by the set

decorator as backup, broke and talented, maybe, but liable

to totally botch the job, and that night she was the one who

prepared their palettes, kneeling on the plastic drop sheets

on the fl oor, working by the light of an iPhone torch that

one of them held over the tubes of colours as she mixed

them in proportion, after which she allocated a section

of the set to each of them and showed them which fi nish to

use, moving from one to the next to refi ne a stroke, deepen

a shadow, glaze a white, her movements at once precise

and furtive, as though her galvanized body was carrying

her instinctually toward the person who was hesitating,

veering off course, and fi nally around midnight each one

was at their spot and painting in silence, concentrating,

the atmosphere of the set stretched tight as a trampoline,

coiled, unreal, faces in motion lit by candlelight, eyes

gleaming, pupils jet black; all you could hear was the rasp

of brushes against the wood panels, the whisper of the

soles of shoes against drop sheets, and breathing of all

sorts, including that of a torpid dog curled up in the middle

of it all and then a voice burst out from who knows where,

an exclamation – Бля, смотри, смотри, как здесь красиво!

Look, would you look at that! It’s fucking beautiful! – and

if you listened closely, you could hear the beat of a Russian

rap song playing softly; the studio hummed, filled with

pure human presence, and the tension was palpable until

dawn. Paula worked tirelessly – the deeper into the night,

the more her movements were loose, free, sure; and then

around six in the morning the electricians made their

entrance, solemn, bringing the generators they’d gone to

fetch downtown, someone shouted Fiat lux! in a tenor

voice and everything was lit up again – powerful bulbs

projected a very white light on the set and Anna Karenina’s

grand sitting room appeared in the silvered light of a

winter morning: there it was, it existed; the high windows

were covered with frost and the street with snow, but

inside it was warm, cozy, a majestic fl ame crackling in the

hearth and the scent of coffee floating through the room;

the producers were back now, too, showered, shaved, all

smiles – they opened bottles of vodka and cardboard boxes

containing piles of warm blini sprinkled with cinnamon

and cardamom, handed out cash to the students, grabbed

them by the scruff of the neck with the virile connivance of

mafi a godfathers or yelled English words into voicemail

boxes that vibrated in Los Angeles, London, or Berlin; the

pressure fell but the fever didn’t pass just yet, each of them

looked around and blinked, dazzled by the thousands of

photons that now formed the texture of the air, astonished

by what they had accomplished, more than a little dazed;

Paula turned toward the tricky seams, worried, but no, it

was OK, the colours were good, and then there were shouts,

high fi ves, hugs, and a few tears of exhaustion, some fell

to the ground with their arms fl ung wide while others did

a dance step, Paula kissed one of the extras for a little

longer than necessary (the one with the dark eyes and

strong build), slipped a hand under his sweater onto his

searing hot skin, lingered in his mouth while phones started

to ring again, everyone gathering their things, doing up

their coats, wrapping scarves around their necks, pulling

on gloves or taking out a cigarette; the world outside fi red

up again, but somewhere on this planet, in one of the large

Mosfi lm studios, they were waiting for Anna, now, Anna of

the grey eyes, Anna who was madly in love, yes, it was all

ready, cinema could arrive now, with life along for the ride.

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