It was its setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. I’m a sucker for novels set in my favourite cities: New York, Amsterdam and, in this case, Berlin. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.
In 1923 Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Julius finds himself falling under Matthias Rachmann’s spell, easing the misery of his acrimonious divorce with the balm of Matthias’ esteem. Julius is the author of a bestselling van Gogh biography whose American royalties have protected him from the ravages of rampant inflation. His dearest possession is a painting by the artist which his wife took when she left together with their son. As the relationship between the two men deepens, Matthias seeks Julius’ seal of approval for more artworks until an incident between Julius and a young girl strains it to snapping point. Emmeline is a talented artist who loses herself in Berlin’s decadent partying, eventually finding work as an illustrator in 1927. When she attends the opening of Matthias’ new gallery which proudly boasts a cache of lost van Goghs, she meets an aspiring journalist who scents a scandal and roots it out. By 1933 the Jewish lawyer who defended Matthias watches as Berlin falls into the Nazis’ grip, reluctant to leave yet fearful for his and his wife’s safety. As his work dwindles away he begins to examine Matthias’ case again.
From her Author’s Note it’s clear that Clark’s novel closely follows the trajectory of the Wacker case, reimagining it and fleshing it out through three vividly realized characters from whose perspective she tells her story. Matthias’ duplicity is signaled from the beginning of his carefully fostered relationship with Julius whose public approbation he needs to enact his breathtaking fraud. The art establishment, with its tight-lipped unity in the face of Matthias’ hoodwinking, is smartly skewered and the depiction of Berlin’s streets full of brownshirts emboldened in their ant-Semitic abuse is chilling. Mid-way through I began to wander if Clark would manage to knit her three perspectives together but it works. An absorbing novel which perceptively explores human vanity while depicting a city on the brink of what will become a catastrophe for the world.