Life Class, Montreal writer Ann Charney’s fourth novel, tells the story of Nerina, a young woman from Sarajevo who, in response to the violence that swept over the disintegrating Yugoslavia, dreams of a life in America. We follow Nerina on her journey from Venice to Montreal within the contemporary high-art world, a mildly unsavory community that she must learn to negotiate, and the object of Charney’s satire. Life Class belongs to the large and rapidly growing literature of displacement, although the contemporary art world is a far cry from the stinking meat-packing district of Chicago where, in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, earlier Eastern European immigrants made their way.
Nerina is serious, sensible, and capable. She is both a self-starter and a good pupil, and attracts people who teach her how to get on, providing a life class in its first meaning. She gets her start when a college friend, Marco, invites her to Venice and gets her a job at a hairdresser’s, from which she is plucked by Helena, who becomes her fairy godmother. Helena is a Polish Jew who has left her own past behind, which encourages Nerina to do the same: “Just because you’re born in some unlucky place doesn’t mean you have to carry it with you for the rest of your life,” she says.
Helena finds her work with a rich couple, which leads to an amicable marriage of convenience that takes Nerina to a small town in upstate New York and a love affair with Christophe, a conceptual artist. That takes her to her final stop, Montreal. Between those moves, Helena finds a position for Nerina at a Manhattan art gallery owned by her cousin Leo, who, in turn, arranges for her to become the assistant of Meredith Covington, a nasty but highly successful artist. In Montreal, armed with her recently acquired confidence and savvy, she charms her way into a partnership-to-be with the owner of a small art gallery.
At each stage of her journey Nerina has more or less unpleasant encounters, but she never lets her feelings trump her prudence. When Meredith treats her very badly Leo tells her, “Just think of your time with her as valuable experience. It will open doors when you’re ready to move on.” True, but Nerina’s relentless practicality and ability to adapt without apparent emotional cost do not make her a compelling heroine. The most moving moment in Life Class occurs when she is about to leave Manhattan for Montreal with Christophe, and Meredith tries to make her feel guilty about abandoning Edward, Meredith’s dog, who is the most attractive creature in the book. Edward’s sweetness and capacity for attachment rescue Nerina from a terror of dogs that had been triggered by Sarajevo’s feral packs, the emblem of all that Nerina fears and flees. Faced with separation Nerina becomes “jealous as she pictures Edward with her replacement. For a crazy moment she considers taking the dog along on the trip, but she doubts Christophe would agree to it … Edward is no legend in any circle.”
Soon, however, Nerina herself is abandoned by Christophe who wants to focus more seriously on his art, for Nerina is no legend either. To the reader’s dismay, Nerina sees being dumped as an opportunity: “She likes the change, she thinks. For one thing, it makes her want to be more serious about her own future.” Months of intimacy vanish in an instant, but I cannot tell whether Charney finds this a melancholy emblem of a society where ambition trumps love or a hopeful step in Nerina’s gentle ascent. It cannot be both.
Life Class mocks the self-indulgence, pretension and aesthetic emptiness of the current high-art world, whose allure is that it confers status upon even the lowliest of its inhabitants, talented or not. Christophe, neither the best nor worst of them, is an intellectual airhead. “When I was in art school,” he tells Nerina, “I became aware how many artists in the past were known only by a single name—Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio. I decided to follow their example. ‘Aim high’ was my motto.” Or low. His conceptual efforts are no better: “I’ve been looking for a way to use perceptual discrepancies and the fallibilities of memory to examine the way we construct what is real to us. The concept of hybridization struck me as a useful paradigm for the exploration of consciousness and the self.” Helena thinks vis-à-vis Christophe’s installation that “an impenetrable work is as good as a blank canvas, allowing critics to be as creative as they like without interference from the work itself.” We get a taste of that creativity from Theodora -Grimani, a critic who inflates Christophe’s work and herself, by proclaiming that “all art is really a form of memento mori, reminding us we must die. A doctor’s waiting room can be seen as a contemporary version of one of the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa of life.”
Charney shrewdly portrays the current art world as parasitic on art’s past. It battens on the dying authority of the western tradition of elite art, which is represented by the life class (in its second sense) for which Nerina poses in Venice and about which she has not a clue, except that it is hard to hold still for a long time. The teacher tells the class: “You are here to participate in a centuries-old tradition that goes back to the very beginning of art. The nude figure can express every aspect of humanity, from the heroic to the pathetic. Remember, it is the cornerstone of all art.” Was. Venice is now a museum and a tourist advertisement and Helena gradually loses her faith in the redemptive power of art that drew her there.
In the end, however, Nerina falls for the make-believe that keeps the art world afloat. She sees that the party at Christophe’s opening, “with its seamy undercurrent of greed and ambition hidden beneath the camouflage of glamour and the pursuit of beauty, casts even further doubt on Christophe’s aspirations, as well as her own.” But she finds a way to make it all seem right: “And yet, through all of it, life goes on, ordinary and mysterious, revealing the future in random slivers—odd jigsaw pieces with no discernible pattern—as if the human eye were only capable of taking in the unknown one image at a time. By the time Christophe is ready to leave, Nerina has convinced herself she wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Once more I am confused. I do not know whether Charney wants me to be happy that Nerina is on her way to fulfilling her dream of a life in the New World or sad that she has succumbed to the nonsense. Life can, and perhaps even should, leave us perplexed, but novels should not leave us in an emotional limbo.