Discussion Guide: Pictures at an Exhibition

1. Pictures at an Exhibition is framed by the much older Max reflecting on his youth during the war years in Paris. How does this frame affect how the novel is read? Why does Max feel compelled to revisit his memories “determined to find the hidden vein of savagery within them”? [p. 3].

2. Sara Houghteling has obviously gathered a wealth of research for Pictures at an Exhibition. By what means does she manage to weave this information into a compelling fictional narrative? What is the effect of mixing both actual historical figures—like Rose Clément, Hermann Goering, and others—with purely fictional characters?

3. What are the pleasures of reading historical fiction? What might account for the great resurgence of the historical novel in past decade?

4. When he first meets him, Chaim asks Max if he is "lost in the spiritual sense” [p. 108]. Is Max spiritually lost? In what sense is his quest to find his father’s paitings a spiritual quest?

5. Rose tells Max: “I think that you are looking for extraordinary happiness, with me, with these lost paintings, and it is not here. Not in this lifetime. Only aspire, Max, to ordinary happiness” [p. 169]. Is Rose right about Max’s aspirations? Does he find “ordinary happiness” in the end?

6. In what ways is Max’s relationship with his father complicated and difficult? What does Max ultimately hope to accomplish by finding his father’s stolen paintings?

7. By what means is Rose able to lull the Nazis into trusting her? How does she manage to turn herself into a “registry of lost art” [p.151] and thereby help rescue hundreds of paintings after the war?

8. How does learning of his sister affect Max? Why does he consider it a betrayal that his parents and Rose have kept Micheline’s existence and her death a secret from him?

9. Late in the novel, it occurs to Max that “the child believes his parents’ behavior has everything to do with him, always, and that this will then be the source of a life’s worth of misunderstandings” [p. 219]. In what ways is this true of Max? What misunderstandings have resulted from his feeling that his parents’ behavior was always about him?

10. What does the love story—Max’s unrequited love for Rose—add to the novel? Why does Rose repeatedly reject him?

11. What does Pictures at an Exhibition reveal about the inner workings of the art world in Paris before, during, and after World War II? In what ways were art collectors and dealers often complicit in the theft and resale of great artworks during this period?

12. What are the many ways in which the theme of loss gets played out in the novel? What are the major losses that Max suffers?

13. After Max is mugged and beaten on the streets of Paris, he thinks to himself: “My father had been right—the paintings were not to be found—and had turned back as soon as he sensed this, which was almost instantly. I had gone on, blindly. I was a work on paper: weightless, sketchy, all impulse” [p. 210]. Why does Max keep searching “blindly” for his father’s paintings? In what sense is he a “work on paper, weightless, sketchy, all impulse”?

14. What does Pictures at an Exhibition add to our knowledge of World War II?

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