Fishman dicusses Dara Horn novel


The haunting and mystery-laden novel by Dara Horn, The World to Come, in which a stolen famous painting by Marc Chagall is a major element was the subject of a book talk by Naomi Fishman last week at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library, which was attended by 70 people.

For Fishman, who has a master’s degree in Jewish Studies, it was the twelfth book discussion which she has led at the Brodsky Library, covering a wide range of Jewish authors.

Fishman said that she admired Dara Horn’s first novel In the Image, and had enjoyed hearing her talk at the Greater St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. Horn, who was born in New Jersey in 1977, and who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, including Hebrew and Yiddish literature, was a member of a large family, which traveled quite a bit, including a trip to Vietnam, just as the family members depicted in The World to Come, Fishman pointed out.

The novel tells the story of a famous painting by the Russian Jewish modernist Marc Chagall, valued at $l million, which is stolen from a museum during a cocktail reception, by Benjamin Ziskind, the “nerdy genius nebbish, Woody Allen-like character,” Fishman remarked.

Ziskind believes that the painting once hung in his parents’ living room. The novel interweaves stories of the famous Yiddish novelists, poets and artists who flourished in Russia and the Soviet Union, who were eventually murdered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in an infamous purge of Yiddish intellectuals in August 1952.

The Chagall painting, which serves as a kind of unifying metaphor in the novel, according to Fishman is titled “Over Vitebsk,” painted between 1915 and 1920, by the Belarus-born painter, who eventually fled Russia for Paris, where he flourished until he died in 1985.

The painting shows a Jewish man in a tall hat and long coat, carrying an umbrella, and floating, Peter Pan-like over the Russian town of Vitebsk.

“Painters like Chagall and writers like Horn are similar to Albert Einstein, in that they ‘see’ the real truth behind the screen of the surface world,” Fishman said.

She added that Horn got the idea for the novel when an article appeared about an actual theft of a Chagall painting from a museum cocktail reception. A note came to the museum from the Bronx saying the painting would be returned when there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians; eventually the painting showed up at a post office.

For Fishman, the period in which she read Dara Horn’s novel was also personally challenging and very busy. “My father had died at the end of November. I had planned a trip along the Aegean Sea, and another trip with just my son to Prague and Berlin. We saw museums in both cities which attempted to show the way Jews in those countries used to live before they were destroyed.”

Fishman’s travels to Greece and to the Jewish museums in Prague and Berlin reinforced themes in Dara Horn’s book which deal with what constitutes reality and how does one determine if one’s life has meaning.

Fishman pointed out an episode in the book in which the character Boris asked his second wife if her late daughter’s life had meaning. “Her life meant everything,” was Lena’s reply. In both of Horn’s novels, In the Image and in The World to Come, the importance of making good choices with one’s life was a major theme. “There is the image of the ‘Dead Town’ in the world to come in which people did not make any choices, which sapped their lives of meaning,” Fishman said.

“I also see themes in common between Horn’s writing and Plato’s philosophy,” Fishman said. “Both of them explore what is the real truth, how do you determine the real truth and how do you conduct yourself in life, making the right choices to give it meaning. Trust is the key; when trust is betrayed, individuals and society fall apart.”

Summarizing, Fishman said, “The meaning of life has to do with building relationships of trust. Horn discusses the Jewish orphanage in Russia in which great Yiddish writers like Der Nister and artists like Chagall were kept for their protection after a pogrom in 1919.

Horn was upset that of this group only Chagall was able to achieve his deserved recognition; Stalin killed most of the rest in 1952. “Horn in her work tries to bring these people back to life. Ideally, the worldly of this world and the world to come must be one and the same,” Fishman said.

Fishman points out that when Ben agrees to return the Chagall painting to the museum, he at first considers having his sister do a perfect fake of the work so he could keep the original. When Ben makes the choice to do the right thing and return the real painting, he is fulfilling Horn’s criterion for giving one’s life meaning through making the right choices.

Other elements pointed out by Fishman in The World to Come are several characters who are physically or emotionally scarred, including Ben, who has scoliosis; Daniel who loses a leg in Vietnam, and Boris who witnessed his mother’s womb being cut open and the unborn child removed and killed.

“Chagall, like Einstein, painted not just what he looked at but what he actually saw,” Fishman said. “This brings to mind Plato’s Allegory of the Caves, which encourages us to ask what is real and what only appears to be real.”

The repeated theme of betrayal of trust is exemplified in the novel, according to Fishman among several characters: Daniel in Vietnam is betrayed by an apparent friend; Boris and Rosalie are betrayed; Ben was betrayed, perhaps by his wife and by Leonard, the Russian Jew with whom he was ‘twinned’ for his bar mitzvah.

“So, how do we know the truth?” asked Fishman. “There is the Jewish legend that a child in its mother’s womb learns the entire Torah right before he is born, and as soon as the child is smacked after delivery, it forgets everything. There is also the belief that not everyone does forget everything. My four-year-old grandson told me he knew everything, and so I asked him how to spell ‘horse.’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said I thought he said he knew everything and he replied. ‘I knew it, but I forgot.'”