The Forger
Paul Watkins
Picador, $25 (cloth)

In Paul Watkins' ambitious new novel, The Forger, a young American artist named David Halifax arrives by train in Paris in the fateful summer of 1939. France is poised on the brink of German invasion. War is in the air. Halifax wants to paint masterpieces, and he’s finally arrived in the sacred city of his calling. As he walks through the station, one of his suitcases falls open. Paintbrushes and tubes of paint come tumbling out. He scrambles to retrieve them, and a gendarme in a black uniform approaches. In time-honored fashion, echoing a thousand other Philistines, in a thousand other works of fiction, from the era of Hugo and Balzac to the present day, in movies, TV shows, and operas, the cop pronounces a sentence on the bohemian. "Just what we need," he says. "Another artist."

It’s one of the better moments in the book, a fine beginning that does two things at once. On the one hand, Watkins acknowledges with a wry sense of humor that we have been with this person, in this city, in this very place, many times before. On the other, by letting us know that he knows, he promises us that this time around he is going to bring a fresh eye to this overly familiar place and time.

Halifax has come to Paris on a grant from something called the Levasseur Committee, a mysterious group that provided a boat ride across the Atlantic, a lump sum for expenses, and a few months worth of lessons from an odd genius named Alexander Pankratov. As Halifax settles into this new life, we meet its demimonde: Fleury, the shady art dealer; Valya, the beguiling, unapproachable nude model; Balard and Marie Claire, fellow artists who are conducting an extramarital affair; Ivan, the crusty owner of the old Legionnaire’s café frequented by this crowd; and, of course, the dyspeptic landlady, Madame LaRoche.

Paris, too, is a character, and early on, Watkins gives the city a concise sense of place, as when he writes about Halifax’s place on the Rue Descalzi:

There were indoor sounds…. Water dripping. Muffled conversation in the room across the hall. Someone sloshing in a bath downstairs…. It was dark outside now. From down in the street came sounds of laughter. Breaths of music reached me high up in my dingy apartment, which smelled of old cooked meat and coal tar soap and the faint sourness of milk. In my newness here, I could pick up each odor of the place.

But what begins as another fable of the struggling Left Bank artist soon becomes the tale of a man asked to sacrifice the individuality of his art for the greater good of saving masterpieces from the Nazis. In his second life, a well-kept secret, Pankratov is a forger, and with the Germans blitzkrieging across the continent, the misunderstood genius must put his expertise to urgent use.

"Pankratov told me that a group had been formed to deal with the safekeeping of works of art in the event of Germany invading France," the narrator relates. "The Germans were planning to establish an ‘art capital’ of Europe in the Austrian city of Linz. Plans for a museum there had already been approved by Hitler. The Germans were going to remove as many works of art as they wanted from the countries they invaded and then sell off or destroy the rest."

Instead of becoming an artist, Halifax follows in Pankratov’s footsteps and becomes a forger.

There are other surprises. It won’t be giving too much away to say that no one is quite what they seem. Valya, the model, has Fascist leanings. The affair between Balard and Marie Claire ends when the latter gives her lover up to the French draft board. And Fleury, the dealer, has more scruples than one would expect from a man who pawns the protagonist’s sketches off as Gaugins to untutored collectors.

Watkins is attempting more here than just a gripping story about one of the more fascinating chapters of World War II history, the looting of Europe’s art treasures by the cultural czars of the Third Reich. He is trying in the same breath to reinvent the idea of the American in Paris, and in the process, to ask large, difficult questions about what exactly constitutes the difference between the forger and the artist.

Unfortunately, despite a few twists, some nicely upset expectations, and passages of utterly gorgeous writing, the author doesn’t quite pull off his conceits. Ever since his debut ten years ago, Watkins has been compared favorably to Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, and much of his work deserves those comparisons. His superb early novelNight Over Day Over Night and his more recent The Story of My Disappearance are both marvels of tension and intrigue.

By comparison, The Forger is strangely slack. We are told in the first line of the book that it is the summer of 1939. Any student of history knows that the Germans will be arriving soon, but it takes the author some eighty pages to get us to the end of August and the outbreak of war, when the novel’s real action begins.

Instead of placing us smack in the middle of a Europe aquake, Watkins lets us meander in the streets of Paris, and these early scenes feel uncomfortably close to cliché. Pankratov, for one, behaves too much like Lermontov, the over-the-top, near campy genius of dance in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s cinematic ode to High Art,The Red Shoes. With his bad temper, his overwrought contempt for his student’s work, and his reputation as a "genius," he feels more like a pastiche of Svengali than a real human being.

The problem with the book, however, lies ultimately with Halifax, the narrator. We know early on that his father spent time in Paris but died in the Great War. We know that he comes from Narragansett, where his French-Canadian mother runs a boarding house. We know that he wants more than anything to be an artist, if for no other reason than to discover, or create, the deep connection between himself and the lost parent. We are told these things, but do not feel their presence as elements in the character of the narrator, word for word, sentence for sentence. We do not see much of the narrator’s inner life at all, and when we do, that inner life doesn’t feel alive, doesn’t feel as if it is coming from within a genuine nature. Rather, it feels explained, as if the author were worried that we didn’t get the message the first time around.

"I was thinking that all my life, I had been fighting against a current," Halifax tells us on the day that he decides to take up the forger’s brush, "Like water. Water deep under the ground that I struggled through even though I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t beat it, and I knew I couldn’t beat it, but I didn’t know what else to do except keep struggling against it. Today was the first time that I felt as if I’d quit struggling."

This comes after more than one hundred pages in the company of Halifax, and we should know by now that he had always felt himself to be a forger, rather than a great original. We should feel the relief and the anguish in this moment of confession. But we don’t. What we get, in Halifax, is a counterfeit of emotion and the trappings of a backstory, neither of which, finally, constitute a character.

It’s a shame, because the novel has sublime moments, as when Pankratov talks about how he escaped from the Bolsheviks:

The horses ran across the ice until they reached the trench and then they all fell into the water. The horses coming behind had no chance to stop. Some reared up and fell and crushed their riders. Other riders skidded on their backs, on their bellies, howling as they slid into the water in their heavy greatcoats, weighed down with swords and rifles and bandoliers of ammunition. They went under as well. Seventeen men and horses went into the lake. The torches went out one after another. The horses and men were screaming.

This is great, haunting stuff, worthy of Curzio Malaparte, even Isaac Babel, buried too deep within a somnolent, uneasy novel.