Interwar Berlin: the economy is in ruins, businesses are collapsing, and fortunes are being made and lost. People fear for their livelihood, and for Jews and homosexuals the stakes are even higher. At the same time Berlin is a place of unrivalled hedonism and fevered passions, a place to live in the moment, without regard to the future. It is inevitable that an atmosphere of suspicion should prevail: who is telling the truth, who might betray you, who can you trust?
It is against this background that Clare Clark has set her novel In the Full Light of the Sun. Told from the point of view of Julius, a middle-aged art critic; Emmeline, a young bisexual artist; and Frank, a Jewish lawyer, the story is connected by the mysterious art dealer, Matthias. At times the presence of Matthias seems benign, at others sinister and Svengali-like. And there is always the shadow of his brother Gregor…
Although the work is fiction, it draws upon a real-life scandal that shocked the Berlin art world. The action centres around the discovery of a number of previously unknown works by Van Gogh. At first they are authenticated, but later they are declared to be forgeries. Questions abound. Are they genuine or not? Was Matthias, the dealer, aware of the uncertainty? If they are fakes, who is the artist?
Of course the big question is: who knows where the truth lies, and how can we ever be certain? It is this question that is at the centre of the novel. The story begins with the collapse of Julius’ marriage, and moves through scenes of lies, betrayal and the abuse of trust. But love, friendship and family ties continue to flourish, sometimes in surprising ways.
Art is a central motif. The language of art permeates the description of places – “in the chiaroscuro candlelight” – and of people – “sleepy Modigliani eyes”. The unbridled passion of Van Gogh contrasts with the emotional repression of Julius, his biographer. We are left wondering which is the more alive – the people or the art.
Ultimately, as Julius says, “art is a lie that helps us see the truth”. But unless, in the words of Van Gogh, we stand “in the full light of the sun”, part of that truth will remain hidden from us. An excellent and thought-provoking novel.
In the Full Light of the Sun, by Clare Clark. Virago, 2019, £16.99, hb, 424 pp, 9780349010823 (Also avoilable on Kindle)