Art Class in the Rubble- A War Novel Eyes Beauty

Would you give your life for art? Almost certainly not. When the bombs start to fall, fine aesthetic distinctions shatter. But let’s say you survive, and let’s say that afterwards, in the rubble, you stumble across a beautiful object miraculously intact—a lush landscape painting, for instance, a work redolent of peace and plenty and the fat luxury of high culture. What price would you put on that painting? Would you kill for it?

Adam Thorpe, a British novelist and poet who lives in France, has imagined a scenario that gives real human weight to abstract questions about the value of art. The Rules of Perspective is one of those rare novels that will make you think and feel in equal measure: It tickles the brain and batters the heart.

One morning in early April 1945, the art museum of a provincial German town is shelled by advancing American troops; down in the vaults, four members of the staff are sheltered along with the remnants of the museum’s collection. The acting director, Heinrich Hoffer, has left behind his wife and two young daughters to perform what he says is his clear duty: “to stay with the paintings in the vaults.” It’s not that he’s a “good German,” just following orders; Herr Hoffer is genuinely devoted to art, “a priest of the sacred temple of culture.”

Later that same day, Cpl. Neal Parry leads a patrol of American soldiers through the blasted town. Poking about in the smoldering ruins of the firebombed museum, he discovers four corpses (“deads,” he calls them) and, among the scorched canvases, a small, undamaged painting. Its effect on him is immediate and visceral:

“He wanted to sob a little.

“Trees and pools and rocks.

“This is a helluva painting. He wanted to go screaming about it. This is first of all old and second worth more than I can know and it is nice as a girl is nice when you aren’t being too specific.

“His heart was beating a great deal, and up in his throat.”

To Parry, who works in advertising back home in West Virginia and dreams of becoming a painter (he’s taken art classes), the undamaged painting is not just a blessed glimpse of beauty; it’s also a “nice item of salvage”—if he can get it home, he can sell it and fund a cultured life. Art appreciation, the “purity of true artistic inspiration,” gives way to something coarser, something crooked, something a lot like greed, though he tries to convince himself that he’s only salvaging the painting “for art’s sake.”

There are two alternating narratives in The Rules of Perspective: Neal Parry’s actions after his forage in the museum debris; and the final doomed hours of Heinrich Hoffer and his three colleagues—the bodies Parry discovers in the museum vaults, “four deads … seated against the wall in their last position like the plaster deads of Pompeii.” Parry’s story is mostly concerned with the present, the grit of a soldier’s day in the lethal chaos of war. The details of his background and of his six months in Patton’s Third Army as it races from Normandy to the Ardennes and then across the Rhine are only briefly sketched. Hoffer’s story unfurls more deliberately, dense with flashback and art talk: It’s the story, in effect, of an aesthete’s life in Nazi Germany.

A third strand, tenuous and a touch confusing, consists of the notebook jottings of a person in hiding or perhaps imprisoned; the identity and whereabouts of this person remain a mystery almost to the end of the novel.

Here’s what makes this complicated and hugely ambitious book work: The unmistakable, sad, funny, miserable humanity of the paired protagonists, Parry and Hoffer. They are craven and noble in roughly equal parts, cowardly one minute and heroic the next.

Hoffer is blandly anti-Semitic. Though only peripherally aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, he knows enough to worry about what “vengeful Jews” might do after the war. He despises vulgarian Nazis: “The Party,” he thinks, “was the most stupid part of oneself made enormous.” He loathes “what the National Socialists had done to Germanness.” And yet his only act of rebellion has been to hide certain works of art that would have been labeled “degenerate” by the Party. It’s impossible to admire Hoffer for more than a few seconds at a time: He’s prissy, boring, weak—his colleagues call him “Ingrid” behind his back. It’s also impossible not to feel some sympathy for him and his scrupulous devotion to the works of art in his care. Here he is, trying to reassure himself even as the shells rain down:

“The point, he thought, is not to lose faith. The pictures will hang again from the picture rails. German culture will be restored. Its essence is depth and spirit: Such things cannot be shattered by bombs …. The French will understand this, in their calculating, sharp way. Even the British, with their purely mercantile instincts, will understand this in the hour of victory. He was not so sure about the Americans. He somehow saw them as a force, quite shallow, that would flow over and depart, leaving only a litter of gifts: chewing gum and Coca-Cola and chocolate bars.”

Neal Parry, who’s convincingly American—pragmatic to a fault—is Hoffer’s luckier twin: Parry hasn’t been warped by 12 years of Nazi rule. And he knows something the war has taught him: “Only warmth is sacred.”

The Rules of Perspective is surprisingly suspenseful, considering that the charred bodies of four of the main characters are discovered in the first few pages. There’s a subplot involving a Van Gogh painting, a few shootouts and even some desperate sex in the rubble. But what makes the novel fascinating is the supple exploration of the principal theme. The value of art is appraised from every angle, all in the context of a backwater museum and a few men who either care for or covet (or both) certain canvasses in its soon-to-be-extinct collection—and all against the backdrop of a cataclysm so horrendous that it should make high culture laughable.

Who cares about connoisseurship when the 88’s are whistling overhead? Is a masterpiece still a masterpiece in the midst of genocide? War blots out art for a time, but art—the desire to make it, the desire to behold it—always bleeds back into the picture.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.