An old man lives in Quebec City deals in Old Master's paintings-he has a secret past.
| T h e R a b b i t o f R u e S a i n t P a u l
By Rachel Zweig. [8628-word count]
A heavy wooden door swung open allowing the sweet aroma of French tobacco to float into the cold, fresh, zephyrs of April. The jangle of a tiny brass bell announced the arrival of a local art dealer named Henri, a willowy, middle-aged man with bright, silver locks of hair that flowed as if his hair belonged on the head of a woman. Henri traded in the works of the Old Masters and had stopped off at The Provoinseul Gallery to confirm a concert engagement later that week with Monsieur Provoinseul.
Monsieur Provoinseul sat at an old desk in the corner of the room; the sharp stain of a gallery light sketched his profile. Sieur de Provoinseul whispered in Henry’s ear:
“The sale will not go through. The buyer had cold feet and told me so.” He then told Henri that he had sent the manuscripts and the donor was registered as confidential.
Nathaniel Provoinseul was an elderly man with a mystical charm. His face wore age the way quality leather carries age, without looking jaded. His gray and whiskered pencil-thin moustache appeared as though his face would be naked without it. A maroon cravat covered the veins and tendons of his neck- hoary harbingers of age- with a pair of thin, wire spectacles perched delicately upon his nose. He lived above the gallery in a modest apartment and knew all the shopkeepers in the area. It was a community of like-minded traders, artisans and café owners.
The gallery was located on the cobblestone Rue Saint Paul, in the old lower section of Québec City. The shop front, dark maroon and easily forgotten, had presented nothing for the passerby to recognize the dealings that took place through the unassuming old door with layers of paint brushed up against the glass. The inconspicuous appearance seemed at odds with the value of the art inside; almost as if some cautious intention had premeditatedly been employed to deceive the passerby.
The old man sat at his desk with a Gauloise cigarette squeezed between his cracked lips. He struck a match and a crackling orange glow spread throughout the room with the bouquet of sulfur. He crumpled the blue Gauloise packet in his fist before placing it gently in the glass ashtray. His tailored dark blue suit, neatly pressed, sanctioned the patent leather shoes that reflected the spot light trained on the old tattered painting to the left of his desk; a portrait of a Russian priest, an old-believer, in the style of Repin - The old man bared a strange likeness to the picture- A plume of smoke radiated from his cigarette almost iridescent in it acridity.
Two old paintings without frames sat in the store-front window. A Seurat-style pointillist picture with ripped and flaking canvas sat in one corner and in the other corner a well-worn landscape in need of cleaning.
All the buildings on Rue Saint Paul were part of the old city dating back four centuries. War and pestilence had flooded this city at the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River. The four hundred year history of North America, from the Gulf of Mexico to the walls of Québec’s Citadel had passed by while the stone blocks of blue-gray granite spoke of the lives of those intrepid explorers and immigrants from Europe. The history of North America might be revealed within the lives of the men and women who built this city and the community that now held fast to tradition. Monsieur Provoinseul loved Quebec City. He loved history and loved the credence of the gray granite, the confidence that it gave to living for the moment, doing what ever was necessary to fulfill ones dream, ones purpose; for only the granite was blessed with an ageless existence.
Monsieur Provoinseul, was in his late seventies and at a time in his life where he had earned the right to sit in his gallery during the day and admire his paintings, read at his favorite table in the Comédie Humaine Café on the corner of Rue Saint Paul and listen to music at night. Every evening, after dinner, he listened to a recording of Mozart’s Requiem, not the full work, just the Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, Rex, and Confutatis; it was a matter of respect. Monsieur Provoinseul was a important art dealer and esteemed community member of Quebec and had been since the late forties when he emigrated from France.
Not long after arriving in Quebec City he married a strikingly attractive woman. Muriel Lescarbot descended from a long line of wealthy Catholic industrialists who possessed little appreciation for art, while she held a great passion for all that burst fourth in its name. It took little persuasion on the part of a charming, young Nathaniel Provoinseul before Muriel said yes to marriage in Québec’s historic Nôtre-Dame Cathedral. With Muriel’s family connections and the Parisian relationships that Monsieur Provoinseul maintained, it was not long before they established a small art studio. They rented space to painters and started trading in late nineteenth century landscapes, rare music manuscripts and antiquarian books; however, Monsieur Provoinseul’s passion was Old Masters paintings. Madame Provoinseul developed a passion for art history and became a historian at Laval University; on the side she framed pictures in the shop. They embarked upon a cozy life together in the old city perched on the hill above the St. Lawrence.
In the decades since Nathaniel Provoinseul emigrated from France to Quebec, he had been honored with many prestigious awards and titles of recognition. He received an honorary degree from Laval University for his arts community support. From the Université du Québec he was honored for his work in maintaining international relations with France and Canada’s Anglo population; when French Nationalism threatened to tear apart the social fabric. He held a firm commitment to the lawful notion that Québec Francophones could be both proud Québécois and strong Canadians, and he proudly became a Canadian citizen as soon as possible. And for his contribution to French-Canadian culture in the nineteen seventies he was awarded the Medal of Honor. His role in the cultural life of Quebec was even talked about in high schools. There was no higher regard a foreign born individual could aspire to in the province of Quebec.
Muriel gave birth to a daughter, Nadja, who grew up to study fine arts and law, eventually becoming an art teacher; something she also grew to hate. Nadia was a striking beauty with unblemished, warm, olive skin and a defiant, but no less charming personality. She married an Algerian nationalist named Charles (real name Abdul), a communist who grew up in the shadow and the mystique of Albert Camus and came from the same suburb, Belcourt. Nadja and Charles joined the communist party in the late sixties and held accountable each and every tyranny the modern world hurled at them. She was typical of the period in that she rebelled and rebelled and then rebelled some more; she shaved her head in protest at the Vietnam War and joined the construction workers union to educate the masses. She bit through the chains that held most people in their place. However, her drive to engage an irrational world in dialogue usually ended in her yelling abuse at someone.
The Provoinseul family spent time in Algiers in the late fifties and Nadja, as a young child, held onto the scent of the Casbah with its ancient origins. She was lured to return as a young adult and spend winters in Algiers, where she met Charles. She matured into a semi-serious academic and fell for the lure of the Old Masters as her parents did. Old paintings and the human condition were her passions. Eventually, in the early seventies she worked on a doctoral dissertation on the politics of art in totalitarian régimes; how these régimes used art as a pacifying tool, particularly the Nazis. She focused mainly on the stolen art controversy. Nadja’s thesis revolved around the hypocrisy that during war, one man who kills hundreds or even thousands of people in a killing spree, during the life of the war, is not considered, by a supposed rational society, a serial killer, a murderer? In fact he is considered a hero! Then, she argued, why is art that was stolen during the same war, considered theft? Her rationale was that if families are trying to reclaim their art and jewelry from galleries, national institutes and Swiss banks, why shouldn’t families whose parents were murdered take legal action against that country’s leader? Why shouldn’t the parents of a conscripted son, killed in Vietnam, hold the government accountable for participation in his death?
She argued that the leader of a particular country today did not kill people, literally, the same as the director of a museum or bank did not steal the art. But only the gallery or bank should be held accountable? She argued that this was not merely a legal point, but also a public morality issue. She delivered an acerbic lecture, a tirade at her colleagues when they called her unpatriotic. She shouted that the executioner is a reviled figure in history; but today’s executioners, if they are part of the military industrial complex, are not reviled, they are heroes!
Unsurprisingly she made few friends in the academic world. Even so, she was passionate about her subject; dissertations were not known for their prudence or their ability to make friends. She found it alarming that in the Law faculty of Laval University, the Jewish faculty members objected the strongest with the standard and provincial label of anti-Semite; this nearly saw her professor veto her project. She believed that if she was of Jewish origins, then her thesis would have been simply a moral, academic challenge and not labeled as anti-Semitic. She laughed in the face of such prejudice from the enlightened world of academia.
Nadja, however, had a pension for trouble. She matured in the late sixties and her parental ties to Algiers and the war of independence only heightened her liberal world view. So it was that her father Nathaniel and mother Muriel, two respected Quebec citizens and scholars found much to disagree with, particularly when she married Charles; they both took to the communist party and supported the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) after Algeria’s independence in 1962. Charles even played a role in the coup of 1965 that toppled Ahmed Ben Bella the autocratic first President. And Nadja, well, all men were in love with her as she possessed that strange allure that makes poultry out of mature men; it was probably that she often wore nothing under her dress. A communist and a flirt, a confluence that was born to cause trouble.
One evening, a week later, Monsieur and Madame Provoinseul attended the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, an evening in early summer, when large cumulous clouds turned orange overhead as a Wagnerian leitmotiv; a foreboding pronouncement he wondered. Monsieur Provoinseul’s friend Henri came by to give them a ride to the Grand Théâtre in Sainte-Foy. On the journey Henri told him he had received a letter from the man in Paris who doubled his offer for the Caravaggio. The work was Caravaggio’s last painting titled ‘The Guilt of Man’ and was painted the evening before he died; July 18, 1610, on the beach at Port'Ercole, Tuscany.
The controversial work rendered in red, black and gray, scholars had determined, was his last painting, his last statement to the world, an answer to those in the church who would punish him for being human. The painting denounced man as the superior creature on earth and was seen as a capitulation to the cult of the animal, an ancient world-view, a heretical view that believed animals to be superior creatures and that man was no more than an elaborate mistake; that man was more of an animal than the beasts of the forest. The painting depicted The Last Supper, with animals in the place of humans. A lion sat at the table instead of Christ. The Madonna and Child were positioned to Christ’s left, depicted as a female cat caressing her kitten as a lion prepared to cleave the kitten’s head with its paw. St. Sebastian, however, pierced with arrows, he was all too human. Caravaggio hurled this insult at the establishment, at the church and merchants who wanted him in prison. He was an angry man to be sure, always in fights; he saw the world the way it was and that was enough to release the animal in a principled man.
The painting had a well documented provenance in one sense. It had never been in a gallery or shown to the public. The Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, one of Caravaggio’s patrons saved the work from certain destruction after Caravaggio’s death. As a man of art and commerce the Marchese knew the worth of controversial things and kept the painting in his vault and when he died his family kept the work for several more generations, eventually selling it to Samuel Gutzmann of Vienna. The Gutzmann family kept it for safe keeping, wrapped in animal skin, in a synagogue in Vienna, and then in 1799 it was transferred to the Gutzmann’s bank. They did not want the painting exposed to the world as they had decided- as the moral conscious for all Christians and Jews- that it was an abomination against their mutual God. They were, however, civilized enough not to destroy the work. For centuries the art world pondered the whereabouts of the last Caravaggio and like many other lost works, they simply had to wait for it to surface.
Nadja had been making contacts around the world as she investigated the Nazi’s corrupt psychology behind war and art. It was late one evening; she was disentangling her life from the constraints of academia with Puccini and a Bloody Mary, when she decided to open the latest edition of the magazine ‘Art- Yesterday & Today’. She glanced at a story about Paris, Algiers and the Vichy regime, and a painter she admired, Artemisia Gentileschi. It didn’t seem much at the time. It was 1942 and a Jewish, Viennese family had been buying time with paintings and rare manuscripts in the hope of not being deported. The Marmesteiner family collected Old Masters, early lithographs and engravings. Nadja read about the conduit from Vienna to Paris that the family’s works had taken; she knew all the standard procedures whereby the household would have to submit an inventory to the authorities and then it would be confiscated. In this case as with many, the descendants claim their family sold items to the Nazis, but couldn’t find the receipts. Nadja always doubted this story line. If the Nazis were confiscating and deporting you why would they buy your art first? The lack of common sense annoyed her. Bribing was the more appropriate term, bribing them for your release? This she knew was a common thread that held most yarns together; it was not the interesting aspect however.
The article mentioned two pictures she was familiar with, the last Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ (1620’s). During the early seventies the work spoke to Nadja’s emancipated womanhood. The biblical story in which Judith seduces and murders the warring Holofernes with his own sword was a dark call to order for some women.
The art works were shipped by the Gestapo’s transport organization, Vugesta, and then stored until they were auctioned at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna in June, 1943. This equally was not news; it was the standard method of pilfering. The story took a more fascinating turn when she read that the Gestapo transported them to a monastery in Gwiggen, near the Austrian border with Switzerland. Nuns were to hide them until the end of the war; not that the Catholic Church was helping the Nazis of course; she snorted with contempt. They were doing what everyone did at that time; whatever you had to, to get by, to save your skin, to appease the bastards. It was the denial that upset Nadia; the denial that the Catholic Church, with its historic intolerance toward other religions, should side with whomever was the greater tyrant. The bully wins! It’s an old, old story she thought, that nations are still relying upon. She had no ill feeling toward the Church, it was simply common sense, the world is the way it is and she attempted to catalogue her own world-view; she would have done the same thing she told herself.
In 1945 French Foreign Legion troops overran the monastery and emptied its hoard. ‘Not one of over 400 pieces of art has every surfaced from the large collection hidden at Gwiggen’, the article read. Nadja sat at her desk and looked at an old painting on her wall, she sipped her Bloody Mary. The picture was not signed and the paint was dull and soiled with time. The canvas flaked at the edges where an ornate frame once held it safe; but this, Nadja liked about the work; it had no provenance that she knew about. It was old and had lived a hard life. She stared at it and wondered... where had it been? How many different homes had it been in? How many nationalities, continents had it been on? The dirty and soiled image, she remembered looked like a desert oasis. It looked like Algeria? She questioned. Her mind made a peculiar connection; an image appeared in her mind from her adolescent remembrances.
The French Foreign Legion had its headquarters in Algeria until 1962... Her parents wintered there in the fifties... she held fond memories of the Arab cultural influence, so much so that she married a French-Algerian Arab. Why was this standing out in her mind? She pondered. She looked back at the magazine and re-read the passage, ‘Not one of over 400 [...] has every surfaced.’
The next day her father called her on the telephone. Had she heard of the forgery of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving ‘Melencolia I’? He asked. She told him no and he asked if she would stop by the shop with her catalogue of 16th century engravings acquired during her research. And then, with artless tack, she asked him what he did in Algeria in the fifties. It dawned on her that she had no idea; her memories are of a holiday atmosphere in a warm climate, nothing more significant than that; similar to the tattered picture above her desk. He was shocked at her query and dismissively told her with a jovial snort, that it was her mother’s idea. What? She thought. And then he said goodbye and hung up.
Her father picked up the telephone immediately and called Henri. He told him to call the buyer in Paris and tell him that he did not know the whereabouts of the Caravaggio, but he would look into acquiring it. Soon after speaking to Nadja, Monsieur Provoinseul had a twinge of anxiety over what she said concerning his work in Algeria, but he put it out of his mind.
That next day the Provoinseul’s attended a toast in their honor at the Frontenac Hotel; Quebec City’s premier establishment. The Canadian Jewish Scholarship Fund recognized their efforts of support. He also received the Medal of France. This was a French/Canadian deal that he knew little about; even so, they both felt the need to patronize these faceless groups even though he was too old to care.
Later that week, Nadja visited her parents for dinner at their apartment above the shop and during her visit, as she helped her mother clean the stairs she found an old satchel in the cupboard under the stairwell. Muriel paid it little mind and ignored Nadja when she opened it and discovered old newspaper clippings. Nadja set it aside with the idea of taking it home with her.
In her parent’s cozy little apartment with the odor of old furniture polish in the air and a far off view of the St. Lawrence River, an old painting, worn, torn and frayed hung in the lounge room. It was obviously an amateurish work in a cheap frame; it could not have been more than forty years old and definitely not an Old Master, she knew that. Nadja finally asked, after growing up with the picture, why such a formulaic scene of Montmartre should hold such importance for them. Her parents fobbed off her inquiry with a provincial shrug.
At the end of the evening Nada took the old satchel home without so much as a second glance from her father. She started to leaf through the clippings from the French paper, the Paris-Soir and noticed stories about the Nazi occupation, the Vichy regime and how wealthy families lost their art works.
In the old satchel she found several photographs of her father, yet, disturbingly he had a different name, Steinberger not Provoinseul- She said out loud. “Jewish?” And furthermore, someone had scrawled in pen the words, ‘l’Lapin’, ‘The Rabbit’ next to the photo. It was quite obviously her father, she could not be mistaken. And why would he have clippings of someone called Nathaniel Steinberger? She knew that it was standard practice for many European Jews to change their name when going into exile before or after the war, particularly if they had traumatic experiences with anti-Semitism. She read some of the yellowed pages that recorded the sad days of the Nazi control of France, when the seat of the collaborationist French government had been moved to the provincial town of Vichy after the Nazis took Northern France.
She saw photos of her father standing next to a blue Bugatti racing car in the driveway of a palatial mansion. She never imagined her father as a dandy. Another clipping spoke of the dismissal of all Jews after the Vichy government took control. Another one proclaimed the edict that Jews could not teach French children in public schools. She read one example after another off the horrors of the occupation and collaboration. By far the aspect that shook her the most was the name; was her father Jewish? Was she? The spirit of a strange irritation brushed her being; the way people describe someone walking across their grave. She felt like she had just discovered her grave, her plot of earth, where she belonged.
The following day she read about the Chopin manuscripts that were finally returned after decades, to the Bibliothèque Nationale, they were returned by an anonymous donor. She ventured over to her parents shop and found her father sitting at his old desk. The weather was warm for early summer in Quebec and the shop door was propped open with an old book. As soon as she entered she sensed the lingering acrid scent of Gauloises. Nathaniel seemed anxious, he politely asked if she could stay a few minutes as he needed to meet someone at the café- to save him from shutting when he expected a package that day, he told her.
Nadja sat at her father’s desk and with the flair and impertinence of an adolescent girl she opened each draw, as if she was again a nosy eleven-year-old on a quest to find something exotic; more out of boredom really. The most interesting draw was locked but a key surreptitiously sat inside an old, unused inkwell. She tried it and the draw opened. In it she found an old copy of the Talmud; it was a rare version dating back to the 1520’s. She knew of the printer, Daniel Bomberg from Venice. The Babylonian Talmud, the authoritative text had only been reprinted once since the 1520’s. This was, however, not all it appeared to be. The apparent foolishness that a rare art dealer should stow away an extraordinary manuscript in nothing more than an oak desk had a more disquieting purpose .
Nadja was having trouble with the coincidence of these happenings as she called them – she didn’t know what to think of the incidents; her father’s name, the expensive car, the Talmud, the stories of occupied France, the photos. It seemed in her wild imagination that her father had a mysterious past; she also imagined that she was very naïve and then her inner voice said ‘no’, that was no imagination, she was naïve, nevertheless, her father still had a mysterious past.
Then she heard the joyful resonance of the bells from the Notre-Dame Cathedral ring out across the city. It must have been 11:00 the time when her father walked up the street to the Comédie Humaine Café for lunch. By the time his friends arrived for lunch it was approaching midday and he had consumed several cappuccinos, written his diary entry for that day, and examined Ezra Pound’s ‘The Pisan Cantos’, the most difficult poetic work he had ever tried to understand. This was a routine he kept to even in winter. His resolve was to examine as much of the great poetry of the past as he could. The older he became the greater his passion to understand, to unearth what he thought the purpose of life should be; lest he loose sight of man’s curse, as he called it; the ability to circumvent reason and humanity in the name of self-preservation.
It was in early 1939 when Nathaniel worked as a journalist for several small town papers. He was based in Paris and wrote stories about local art, culture; music, painting, and literature and he even wrote wine reviews that would find their translation in Italian, English and German travel magazines. Within a year his enthusiasm to develop a career had transformed into a type of devotion and fanaticism that could not be held back, under any circumstances. He was passionate about painting and would do almost anything to further his agenda- which was to manage his own gallery and deal in the greatest art masterpieces.
In June 1940, Nazi Germany occupied the Northern two-thirds of France, and Marshal Henri Pétain, 84 years old, recalled from retirement, became the Nazi puppet in the new Vichy Government. The same year Nathaniel became sub-editor for the Paris-Soir; a French national symbol. Despite the collaborationist government’s racial laws requiring the firing of all Jews, the paper maintained its circulation; it took a soft line on the occupation with little criticism, but they did talk, furtively, in terms subtly nationalistic. The Nazis’ with respect for the importance of the Paris-Soir, printed their own edition, it was the ‘ersatz daily’ they called it; just to keep ideologies on the same track. The difference between the two editions could be read in the details if one possessed good political sense.
The Vichy Government had authorized Prime Minister Pétain to draft a new constitution whereby he became head of state and actively cooperated with the Nazis in their plans for European domination. In Paris, Nathaniel’s circle of friends feared the worst. When Germany annexed all of France at the end of 1940, and Pierre Laval became deputy prime minister the axe fell and took off the head of parliamentary democracy and many libertarian values. People started to disappear left, right and center and then some. No one spoke of this in mixed company. As a Jewish French national, however, Nathaniel had the ear of a frightened city.
Laval adopted a policy of total collaboration by rounding up French, Spanish, and Eastern European Jews for transport to Germany as laborers to work in German industries. At this time Nathaniel Steinberger was living in a hotel that was formally a bordello with crude paintings of naked women still gracing the walls. The rooms had the charm of a Matisse painting- from his Fauvist period; bright and clearly gaudy - Nathaniel loved it. The daily life of the hotel and the domestic scenes he witnessed reminded him of Vermeer’s portraits. Everywhere, in the minutia of life he saw the world of the Old Masters. In the innocent faces of the maids, the sensuality of the prostitutes that frequented the lobby, the hats of high society, and the squalor of the servant class. He lived in a world of his own making. His love of art new no bounds and he lived for such things.
Nathaniel reported on the art world and when he was asked by his superior at the newspaper to assure the Jewish community that the Vichy government was not all that they had heard he stepped up. His paper had been a supporter of the arts community and held egalitarian and educated opinions, common enlightenment values that grasped the Modernism that was sweeping Europe. The right-wing Vichy regime, however, shared the values of their masters and found offensive the theories of Modernism and Nathaniel was instructed, via editorial privilege to help the Jewish elements of society come to terms with the new world of National Socialism, Germanic style. As a correspondent he ingratiated himself with many of the wealthy Jewish families. He was assured by the authorities that his knowledge of their wealth would see him through. It was the modus-operandi of the Germans to use selected Jewish individuals in an effort to maintain order in their own Jewish communities. When the big stick failed or intimidated the masses into fleeing, you needed to use more subtle techniques. The Germans, who now ran France, knew that to maintain order and to prevent the masses from hiding like frightened rabbits, they should use collaborators.
Jean Prouvost, a tall, sallow-faced man with a large hook nose was an open collaborator, and would later become High Commissionaire of Propaganda. He offered Nathaniel a job as art-correspondent for his publishing empire even though Nathaniel had not the experience of many other candidates. Prouvost, a media tycoon by any other name, knew his readership and understood that the Jewish community needed to be led to their own demise if that would assure him a future in the fascist world that grew in the land of wine and liberty. Nathaniel had many friends in the Jewish neighborhoods of Paris and the commerce of a large city, so with eyes half closed, he took the chance that Jean Prouvost presented. He knew everyone, from the chestnut roasters and shoeshine boys to the wealthy industrialists who owned the inheritance of centuries of European art and culture and displayed it on their walls and in their vaults. It seemed that Jean Prouvost found the charm in Nathaniel character, the charm that bewildered everyone. Nathaniel accepted an invitation to visit the palace of Versailles with Jean Prouvost, who asked Nathaniel to write a piece on the necessity of absolute monarchy in the modern world. Nathaniel had no idea what he meant. He accepted, however, as he would travel to Versailles in a Bugatti racing car. It was a work of art in itself. The blue metal-work charmed anyone with a sense of the style.
The Lipinski family library held a collection of early music. Their daughter, an aspiring pianist whom Nathaniel had met at a Chopin recital one evening, seemed to have sugar eyes for the young and handsome Nathaniel. They struck up a friendship; she was smitten with his gentle, warm and inviting demeanor. The Lipinski family felt likewise, treating him with a flurry of maternal instincts. Their daughter was talented but a little too homely for Nathaniel’s taste. One day after being invited to the ministry of culture and sighting the merciless nature of the administration, he realized that they wanted more from him than news stories and his warm reassurance. He knew that the government was transporting people to Germany as forced labor but he reasoned that as long as he showed his value to the bureaucrats in the fascist administration he would not be sent away. It was not long after, that the Lipinski family was asked to give account of its art treasures. Nathaniel assured the family that their art would be taken away for safe keeping and their co-operation would bode well for their future.
Nathaniel was asked by Laval to engage the directors of many of the museums and galleries in the city and alleviate their fears. Even though the Jewish directors, if they were foreign, had been fired and sent away, those in charge still had much to fear; particularly their Modernist collections. They feared that the 20th century art that did not please the Reich’s Führer would be rounded up and disposed of as degenerate art, while the Old Masters were taken, or gifted to the new museum that the Führer was building in Linz. Some of the top galleries and Museums in Paris had trusted their collections to Nathaniel’s assurance, an assurance that the works would be hidden away if the Nazis came knocking. The galleries had no inkling that he was taking their paintings on behalf of the Nazi regime. He would select a dozen or so of his favorite Old Masters and give the list to Herr von Schirach, but he would keep the ones he liked, as his reward for supporting Laval, Petain and the Vichy government. He saw nothing wrong with that arrangement, particularly the part where he would be allowed to leave France at the end of the war. It was all part of the bartering that went on in a time of war and he held that extraordinary times involved sacrifices and difficult choices. He knew that was the coward’s excuse, but maybe he was a coward after all, he thought. He wasn’t without self doubt.
He maintained his role as a journalist, as a cover. And so, when compiling a story, on the great art patron and founder of the Gutzmann Bank, he met Benjamin Gutzmann, the grandson. Benjamin Gutzmann owned an art collection worth approximately four hundred million dollars at the time of appraisal. He lived in Paris and headed the French/Anglo banking interests. The story that ran in the Paris-Soir that week was how certain individuals in the Jewish community, the Gutzmann family in particular, were creating private schools where Jewish students and teachers could come together, thereby circumventing the new laws that outlawed Jewish individuals in the public service and education. This practice was allowed and his story highlighted the ingenuity of the Jewish community to care for their own. The story lasted long enough to be used as a pacifying ploy so Nathaniel could ingratiate himself with the family and encourage them to swap much of their art for exile in Switzerland where most of their money had been transferred just before the Nazis entered Paris
The demise of the Gutzmann family was set in motion almost ten years earlier. They were a well known Jewish banking family in Europe, with origins in Vienna and the Hapsburg Empire. It was only natural they side with the Monarchy and financially supported the fascist groups in Vienna in the twenties and thirties. The Gutzmann family’s banking empire endorsed all efforts for the Monarchy’s restoration. The family financed some of the great terrors during the Siepel/Dollfuss regimes in Austria. They funded the Heimwehr, an extreme right-wing, private military organization financed also by the Credit Anstalt Bank and Rudolp Steiglitz. The Heimwehr, under the direction of President Dollfuss’ Christian Social Party overthrew Parliament in 1934 and instigated the bloody violence on the streets when 1000 civilians were killed standing up for the great social democracy of the First Austrian Republic. The confluence of these Jewish financial interests who preferred active anti-Semitism to the Socialism of ‘Red Vienna’- a purposeful choice they made- would be a cross worth bearing Nathaniel argued. The riots in the streets of Vienna in 1934 famously waved Hitler in, all the way to the Heldenplatz four years later.
Nathaniel concluded that these people had no God on their side; at least not the God he looked up to. It was well known at the time that some powerful families could not be trusted to side with a New Testament and benevolent God. Nathaniel believed in nothing if not the right to choose, to make decisions based upon your best interest; this self-interest after all was the rationale that came with the Enlightenment world-view; a rational Western culture? He asked himself. Modernism took both the magnificence of Art and the daring politics of utilitarianism under its wing and challenged all that prayed at it’s alter. Nathaniel gutted the Gutzmann family like a stinking fish; he had no sympathy for the ruling elite who sided with the fascist, pro-monarchist rule solely for profit. His position in the barbarism of war differed, he supposed, as he was a sole individual of little worth bargaining for his survival; the Gutzmanns and their kind had for two decades previously, supported the rise of right-wing nationalism across Europe as well as the Third Reich and their eventual control of Europe. Nathaniel had been caught in a web of their making. And so with vile hatred in his mouth he charmed the family out of everything they possessed. When they realized what was to become of them they fell too their knees and pleaded with Nathaniel for their life. They offered him huge sums of money; to no avail, he had taken what he wanted, their Old Masters. He wondered if Caravaggio was correct when he postulated that man was more of an animal that the beasts of the forest.
As Nathaniel walked the frightened streets of Paris, with people appearing and then vanishing like frightened cats, he understood the excuse that ‘extraordinary times involved sacrifices and difficult choices’. He stated this to a woman in the news room, telling her that this ‘hymn’, as he called it, was the war-mongers trumpet call for their own social-Darwinist blood-lust; she laughed and then realized that Nathaniel was not passing polite conversation in lieu of a weather prediction. Just then, Charles De Gaulle came on the radio from London. He was broadcasting a speech on the importance of patriots taking a stand against the occupation, he asked all people to stop work for five minutes as a symbol of their support for ‘Free France’, the movement he founded in exile. When another young woman in the news room stopped typing and took a small mirror from her bag to re-apply her makeup. Nathaniel told her that the news room was no place for feminine vanity and that she should be wary of moles reporting her behavior to the authorities.
“I have similar sympathies Mademoiselle,” He said. “However, the sooner the Germans establish their role here the sooner they will see that our cultures are distinct and cannot possibly be entwined harmoniously.” The woman stared at Nathaniel, saying nothing; she continued to paint her lips a deep red. The following day the woman’s desk was occupied by another typist. A co-worker told her colleagues that the woman had been called for by the local police chief.
Six months later Nathaniel had cleaned out the ostentatious wealth of many of the privileged families of Paris. His next assignment was to assist with the documentation of works in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the National Library in Paris. One copy of every book and manuscript published in France since 1537 resided there. He was in heaven. His eyes feasted upon more masterpieces than he could believe. His instructions from Laval’s office were to coordinate the works to be shared with the Nazis’ museum in Linz. He helped move music manuscripts, delicate as they were, to safe harbors; his hotel room. In the evening he would employ a friend in the business of framing, to buy cheap paintings from the starving painters of Montmartre and hide the rare manuscripts behind the canvas. As these were unknown artists, they would not raise suspicions when he sent them off. When he found it necessary to keep one of the Old Masters, he would employ one of the remaining Jewish painters from Montmartre to paint over the Caravaggio, or Vermeer, or Degas or Rembrandt, with some gaudy street scene of Montmartre; beloved by dull-witted tourists, he joked. He found it more expedient sometimes to place another canvas over the existing one and that way he could place rare music manuscripts behind the canvas and get two treasures for the work of one. When the painting was securely out of the country he would have the painting restored.
Nathaniel took his new found partisanship to the bars and cafes and offered other citizens, the less wealthy, with as much as a pig’s whisper of Judaism in their past, the opportunity to flee the regime that had enveloped France. He set up an enterprise whereby he employed a forger to draw up papers that identified the individual as being born in the province of Quebec, Canada. The deal he made with Laval and Prouvost was that he could leave the country after he had helped rationalize the Jewish population in Paris. The ingenious part, he imagined, the part he didn’t tell Laval, was that he planned to have a forger create Canadian citizenship papers for other French Jews and trade them for their paintings and manuscripts. It eventually became necessary to inform the authorities of the whereabouts of Jewish accomplices so he would not leave behind any trace of guilt or a loose mouth, after all, he argued, it was every man and woman for themselves; it had come too that.
One day he read in Combat, an underground paper printed by the Resistance, an article about affluent families having their treasures embezzled by someone nicknamed The Rabbit. The culprit, “Came in, took what he wanted, and scampered off.”, Madame Wallenstein said. She described him as calm, adorable, and cuddly and that he “scampered off” with their art; so she called him The Rabbit; L’ Lapin. Nathaniel took great pleasure in this description. Unfortunately, Madame Wallenstein apartment soon became vacant.
Stories started to circulate in the Jewish enclaves that remained of someone offering papers to immigrate to Canada. He found himself in the dark cafes of Paris late into the night when smoke and the taste of absinthe turned people into wild satyrs. In this seedy world he arranged, in exchange for false documents, the transfer of art out of the country to Quebec City. He had the imprimatur of the Deputy Prime Minister, Laval, so shipping items out of the country became an official activity with the stamp of Vichy approval. (After the war Laval would be executed in Fresnes Prison, in Paris, for collaborating with the Nazis.)
Generally, no one knew of the consequences for deportation, at that time. They thought the deportees were simply going to labor camps, nothing to envy for sure, however, labor camps were synonymous with 19th century industrial capitalism- a familiar beast- but he reasoned that the Industrial Revolution itself, was no more than one large labor camp with the collectivization of dispersed trades- He proudly argued with colleagues that such collectivization of trades allowed individuals who controlled them, to hoard vast wealth, from which they controlled more and more working people. This control/hoarding loop was the badge of honor that capitalist economists wore to appease contemporary industrial slavery; the creation of wealth excused and appeased the slavery that created it- the end justifies the means? Nathaniel saw this behavior in Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar; the four major fascist states of Europe all supported by Western Democratic countries in one way or another. This was fascism funded by the corporate state; all four countries were capitalist economies, driven by an economic ideology, not a socially benevolent dogma or creed. The Aryan supremacy dogma, which only existed in the Third Reich, was born of the economics of control. Jewish people have a history of understanding systems of organization as their Torah, a complex ordering of the world, which they studied meticulously, proved. In Nathaniel’s understanding of the world, Jewish people were usually the best at whatever they set their minds too; they were the greatest artists, thinkers, writers and musicians. Jealousy is a wicked thing when the downtrodden rise to present themselves in their true light.
He viewed his role as congruent to the greedy industrialists who sent 12 year old boys down mines- exploitation was the key-word for contemporary Western culture he told himself late at night when he strained to read by the dull lamp at his bed side. He held to Social-Darwinist theory and the history of Europe to that point spoke of little else; he slept well.
So it went that Nathaniel wove for himself a complicated rationale for the behavior of man; the behavior of the Nazis and the Vichy government that ultimately dictated his actions.
Nathaniel was no simple-minded pawn, he possessed a sense of humanism, as convoluted as it was, toward the whole damn mess universally known as Western civilization; his humanism, nevertheless, was tinged with the existential fear of the great void, the great undifferentiated sameness, the futility of life- what else should I do?
That line echoed inside his head.
One day in 1943 Nathaniel was asked to go to Algiers to report on De Gaulle’s political movement ‘Free France’ and their relationship with the Resistance and to check up on a shipment of art that had arrived from Austria. He was really only interested in the art; the politics he reasoned was too murky and dangerous to get involved with, although he privately sided with De Gaulle. He maintained an unassuming relationship with Combat, the Resistance paper and when he traveled to Algiers the paper introduced him to some of their operatives, including the aspiring writer Albert Camus. They discussed the future of France and the politics of De Gaulle’s ideas. Nathaniel had found by that stage a delicate balance in his relationship with opposing forces; between the Resistance and the Nationalists forces in the Foreign Legion who not only seized art treasures from other countries, they also stood for France’s colonial domination of the Algerian natives. Before he left Paris he found a copy of Albert Camus’ philosophic essay titled, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. Camus’ views on life, liberty and the foolishness of existence found resonance with Nathaniel.
‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy [...]And if it is true as Nietzche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply .’
The opening paragraph of his essay spoke to Nathaniel clearly and gave him sustenance; the ethereal world of the oil painting took on a heroic role. Only in the oil painting, he believed, can one find order, clarity, meaning, and eternal life. The real world of the flesh is chaotic, obscure, and indifferent and offers only suffering and death.
He was taken to the Legion’s headquarters to assess the works.
Canus’ fundamental question reverberated in his mind as he rifled through the recent acquisitions that the French Foreign Legion had delivered. They conveyed a shipment from an obscure monastery in Austria, and Nathaniel found several of his favorite paintings; the most prized was Carravaggio’s last work. He knew that Herr Posse, Hitler’s art director, would not care for it, so he took it for safe keeping and had it painted over with a street scene of Montmartre.
While in Algiers his apartment block was raided and a pro-Vichy paper got wind of his efforts to pacify the Jewish community. At this stage in the war many foreign Jews had been deported but relatively few French Jews. Nathaniel had been doing his job of keeping the French-Jewish nationals from rioting and then being sent away, but when certain well known paintings were found in his apartment the connection to ‘L’Lapin’ was made; he heard that he was under investigation so, while he was in Algiers, Nathaniel Steinberger took a fishing boat to Spain and from there he made his way to Quebec City.
Years later Nathaniel Provoinseul would return to Algiers with his wife Muriel and their young daughter. He loved the city so much that the family returned every two years until the violence became too much. Following an attack on a small town in 1955, by the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), 123 people were killed. The French military hunted and killed in retaliation, upwards of 12,000 Algerians. The French detained and tortured large numbers of guerrilla suspects, many of whom died under interrogation. The outcry, in Algeria, against Europeans sent the fear of God through Nathaniel and Muriel. The French constructed an electric fence between Algeria and Tunisia, backed up with artillery to stop the FLN who had created a base in newly-independent Tunisia. By May 1958, the hero of ‘Free-France’ during the Nazi occupation, Charles de Gaulle, sent in 400,000 reinforcements in a final attempt to quell the rebellion and cement French colonial power; all to no avail, the native Arab-Berbers defeated the colonial oppressor. It was too late to save Nathaniel’s love of the ancient city. He vowed never to return. Even after winning independence in 1962, he remained in Quebec City.
The post man knocked at the partly-opened door and broke Nadja’s introspection. He had instructions for Nathaniel Provoinseul to pick up a parcel at the post office. When her father returned Nadja asked why the family had wintered in Algiers, he simply told her he held fond memories of the city and as a young man in a foreign culture, he felt he was at the base of the steps of Parnassus.
Just then Henri arrived and asked Monsieur Provoinseul why he was not at the Café for lunch. He told Henri that he would be along directly. Nadja told her father that she had read about the French Foreign Legion in Algiers during World War II and the Nazi treasures. She expected him to express some fright or alarm. Instead he told her that Mankind is an inexplicable creature and easily manipulated. Nadja expressed a sense of resentment toward France for collaborating with the Nazis. And then she questioned her father’s role as a journalist in Paris in those days. Nathaniel said nothing, his old face expressed the harlequin assemblage of the contradictions that come with a life well lived. He sat in his old chair that welcomed him like a trusted friend. She told him in no vague tongue, as the privilege of youth allows that she hated France and in the past year she had lost all respect for her heritage. She asked how he could visit Algeria in the 1950’s when France was terrorizing the nation. She put to him the irony, that France should convey upon him the illustrious Medal of Honor, when if her understanding of history was anything to stand by, France not only collaborated with the Nazis, but was abused the same way a young child is abused at the hands of incompetent parents, and then grows up, a decade later, to terrorizes with brutal oppression the native Algerians in their own country. The abused child grows up to be the abuser she told him; it is text-book child-psychology. And then she asked where the honor in that resided.
Nathaniel apologized to his daughter and said, “If you prick me do I not bleed? Man is neither good nor bad; he is born with instincts and abilities.” Monsieur Provoinseul reached for his pack of Gauloises, the pack crumpled loudly in his hand as he placed it in his neatly tailored suit. He took the old book away from the door and left for lunch at the Comédie Humaine Café as he had done for the past fifteen years.