The First Page of: Pictures at an Exhibition, by Sara Houghteling


The first page of Sara Houghteling’s debut novel follows; find out if we plan to keep reading after the jump.

In the twilight of my life, I began to question if my childhood was a time of almost absurd languor, or if the violence that would strike us later had lurked there all along. I revisited certain of these memories, determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them: the sticky hand, the scattered nuts, the gap- toothed girl grasping a firecracker, a cap floating on the Seine, flayed legs swinging between a pair of crutches, the tailor and his mouthful of pins. Some of these were immediately ominous, while others only later revealed themselves as such. However, whether or not another boy living my life would agree, I cannot say.

Of the humble beginnings from which my father built his fame, I knew only a few details. My grandfather, Abraham Berenzon, born in 1865, had inherited an artists’ supply store. He sold tinctures, oil, canvases, palettes and palette knives, miniver brushes made from squirrel fur, purple- labeled bottles of turpentine, and easels, which my father described as stacked like a pile of bones. The shop was wedged between a cobbler’s and a dressmaker’s. Artists paid in paintings when they could not pay their bills. And as Renoir, Pissarro, and Courbet were far better with paint than with money, the family built up a collection.

When the value of a painting exceeded the price of its paint, Abraham sold it and invested the money with the Count Moïses de Camondo, a Jew from Istanbul with an Italian title and a counting-house that he named the Bank of Constantinople. Both men loved art, and they were fast friends. By 1900, Abraham could purchase an apartment on rue Lafitte, near Notre- Dame-de-Lorette, in a neighborhood known as the Florence of Paris. Soon afterward, Moïses de Camondo recommended that my grandfather invest in the railroads. Coffers opened by the beauty of paint were lined with the spoils of steel, steam, and iron, and my grandfather did not have to sell any more of his paintings.

* Excerpted from Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling Copyright © 2009 by Sara Houghteling. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Our take: That right there is the way to start a novel. The imagery is vivid and cinematic — list-like descriptions, when used correctly, take on the sense of a good montage (minus the goofy soundtrack a la CSI or Spider-Man 2). By the time we get to the easels as “piles of bones,” we’re standing in Abraham’s store surrounded by art supplies, but are suddenly reminded of the violence implied in the first paragraph. And the third paragraph contains a whole novel in itself, which, we must admit, renders the narrator’s claim that he knows “only a few details” of his father’s “humble beginnings,” which don’t sound terribly humble after all. But isn’t an unreliable narrator the best kind?