Paula Karst, a young woman from Paris, whose parents once though she was bound for art school, enrolls in a Belgian school for decorative painters. Decorative painting is not like painting-painting; Painting Time is not a novel about the creative process or the ineffable genius of painters. Decorative painting is a craft, a laborious process in which the painter tries to reproduce the look and texture of marble, wood, stone. If it is done right, the painter, far from having made a statement of self-expression, finds themselves erased in the work. To reproduce the world, to make a simulacrum of it, one must know it thoroughly, as when the brilliantly talented painter and Paula's lover Jonas takes her to the quarry where the valuable marble she must copy for her school assignment has been mined for many years. To duplicate it, Paula must follow exactly the methods outlined by her instructors (there is no creative license here), but also, she has to consider the long and fantastical history of the marble itself, laid by the passing of a great ocean and its plants, then laying hidden for millennia until broken apart by Renaissance-era merchants. This is what is meant by the title Painting Time.
Painting Time is split into three parts: first, Paula's experiences at the decorative painting school, where she lives with Jonas and comes to know her friend Kate. The second outlines Paula's initial career as a set designer for the historic Italian movie studio Cinecitta, and the third a job she takes on reproducing the famous Lascaux cave paintings. The middle part, the movie studio part, layers new and interesting questions over the first section: what does it mean to reproduce the fantasy world of movies, rather than something real? But this section is meandering, I thought, especially with de Kerangal's winding sentences, that routinely go on so long that you lose track of the grammar of the sentence's beginning, and a little saggy. It's the final section that really brings the novel together. The famous Lascaux caves are no longer open to the public, but Paula's project is the last in a series of replicas that are even more popular than the original. And yet Paula must copy them without having seen them. She immerses herself in the World War II-era story of the caves' discovery, in a way trying to collapse many layers of time--prehistoric, historic, present--but the imagination required makes one wonder about the distinction between artistic genius and the workmanlike labor of craft.
Paula has heterochromia and strabismus: her eyes are two different colors, and pointed in slightly different directions. This condition is part of her unique appeal to some, including Jonas and Kate, and a romantic liaison with a man who is provocatively only called "the charlatan." In a novel about a painter-painter you might see it as a symbol of genius, a unique way of looking at the world. It might be that, here, too, and an illustration of Paula's split self, discarding more bourgeois dreams of "artistic" painting for this different path. But thinking of that title again, it seems to me an image of eyes that cross time, that point toward the present and the past, which fold, but perhaps not completely, into a single image. One eye on the real and one eye on the reproduction, but with a blurred line between that complicates one's notions of what is real and what is fake.