Maylis de Kerangal: The World Through the Eyes of Illusion

Following on from Birth of a Bridge and The Heart, Maylis de Kerangal has written Painting Time – set to be published in English on April 20 – depicting the journey of a young French painter specialized in trompe-l’oeil techniques. The result is a coming-of-age novel driven by bright writing, exploring the often-thin line between art and artisanry.
Maylis de Kerangal.

These three could create a whole world. Studying at the Institut de Peinture in Brussels, Paula, Jonas, and Kate learned to make fascinating trompe-l’oeil illusions that reproduce the appearance of minerals, plants, and animals. Over the course of a year, they inhaled the scents of paint and turpentine, pushed their aching bodies to the brink, and collapsed together in the evenings after eating tasteless sandwiches. Like a team of athletes, they sprinted together to graduation, painting day and night in the cramped apartment where Paula and Jonas lived. They chose each other, combining their personal singularities. Paula has different colored eyes and a slight squint, and was raised by a conventional Parisian couple. Jonas is secret and talented, never seen without his baseball cap. Kate is a tall, stocky, shabby girl covered in tattoos, who paid for her studies by working as a bouncer at a club in Glasgow.

Painting Time opens on their fleeting reunion in Paris after moving to the four corners of Europe to work on successive projects. An electric desire brings Paula and Jonas back together for a brief, frozen instant under a streetlight, as a flashback of their year at school together replays. Written in three parts, this new novel follows Paula Karst from the age of 20 to 25, portraying her first, almost epiphanic discoveries of cave art. Just like in Birth of a Bridge, The Heart, and The Cook, Maylis de Kerangal offers a precise observation of a profession, its gestures and techniques, drawing on a vocabulary that makes language even more vast. Her sentences stretch out like long tracking or sequence shots when, for example, Paula walks through Cinecittà Studios, the temple of cinema and illusion in Italy.

Underpinned by a love that goes against dreams of freedom yet that begs to be indulged, the novel is written within two timeframes: In the present of youth lived at breakneck speed, and in the long layers of time that connect Paula and Jonas to those who painted the first caves. By plunging into the heart of creation in its most sensual and material dimension, Maylis de Kerangal may well be using this latest work to question her own writing.


Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from French by Jessica Moore, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 20, 2021. 240 pages, 27 dollars.

Article published in the April 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.