BOOK REVIEW / Angst in Paris: 'The Time Before the War' - Thomas Wiseman: Cape, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AND WHAT a time it was. A time of psychoanalysis in Vienna, existentialism in Paris, experimentation in art throughout Europe. The period immediately preceding the Second World War was also a prime time and opportunity for temptation, which is where Markus and Betty - and St Augustine - come in.

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.