BOOK REVIEW / Angst in Paris: 'The Time Before the War' - Thomas Wiseman: Cape, 14.99 pounds
Saturday 16 October 1993
Markus is a young painter who flees to Paris when his native Vienna becomes too dangerous for Jews. He enters a Bohemian world where his friend Max gives in to all the temptations of the flesh. For Markus the 'temptation of the eye' is more of an aesthetic and psychological danger. He recognises that his heightened visual sense isolates him from others and fears it is another form of prostitution.
Both aspects of temptation merge when the beautiful Betty, another Jewish refugee, poses for him. The portrait has been commissioned by her fiance, the wealthy art dealer Kriendler. The work promises money and fame for Markus; the marriage promises safe refuge in America for Betty and her parents. Neither materialises when Markus and Betty betray Kriendler for their secret grand amour.
The secret exposed, they are left unprotected as the Germans occupy Paris, turning it into 'the brothel of Germany', at the farthest extreme from any City of God. As a philosophy student Betty theorised against the Augustinian code of self-denial and in favour of human passion, however doomed. Now she lives out her dissertation in her affair with Markus. But what of her liaison with their unlikely new benefactor, the Nazi aesthete Storch? Is it a matter of survival, or simply lust?
Betty's beauty is finally her downfall. She is snatched by the Nazis to serve their officers as an actual prostitute. Eventually she chooses death in a camp to this dubious privilege, leaving Markus to spend the next 50 years trying to understand it all.
Existential angst, psychoanalytic theory and a liberal scattering of aphorisms from real historical figures diffuse what has become a rather too intellectual affair. We were given little hope that Markus and Betty could win through, but their failure is not inevitable enough for tragedy nor surprising enough for genuine sadness. Instead of historical facts and figures enhancing the fiction, real events and people lose substance through the association.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Renee Zellweger on plastic surgery reports: 'I'm living a fulfilling life and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows'
- 2 Disney announces new female-led film Moana
- 3 Banksy not arrested: Internet duped by fake report claiming artist's identity revealed
- 4 Australian café owner sparks debate after saying 'No' to having unruly children on premises
- 5 Video: Boxer Vido Loncar brutally assaults referee following defeat
Mike Read 'apologises unreservedly' for Ukip Calypso and withdraws it from sale
Disney announces new female-led film Moana
Eight seconds of white noise is top of the Canadian iTunes chart because people love Taylor Swift that much
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - TV review: Sensitive, silly and sensational
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991 with most Brits wanting to stay in'