Painting a family’s story over four generations: Dara Horn triumphs in ‘The World to Come’

May 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 27, 2014

Dara Horn’s wonderful 2006 novel, The World to Come, is the tale of four generations of a family and two artists whom their progenitor met in the Soviet Union in 1920.

The tale begins in the present day when a man steals a Marc Chagall painting. The thief is a twin whose mother died recently; at around the same time, he was divorced by his unfaithful wife after an 11-month marriage. The dual blow, which follows the painful death of his father when he was 11 years old, has left the intelligent but shrimpy and uncharismatic man bereft.

Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead, that he was a citizen of a necropolis. While his parents were living, Ben had thought about them only when it made sense to think about them, when he was talking to them, or talking about them, or planning something involving them. But now they were always here, reminding him of their presence at every moment. He saw them in the streets, always from behind, or turning a corner, his father sitting in the bright yellow taxi next to his, shifting in his seat as the cab screeched away in the opposite direction, his mother — dead six months now, though it felt like one long night — hurrying along the sidewalk on a Sunday morning, turning into a store just when Ben had come close enough to see her face. It was a relief that Ben could close his office door.

Benjamin Ziskind takes “Study for ‘Over Vitebsk’” when it is left completely unattended during a cocktail reception at a New York City museum. (In real life, that painting actually was stolen in just those circumstances.) The theft is impulsive, a crime of opportunity, but Ziskind also views it as an act of redress. The Chagall study had long been in the family; he thinks of it as having been stolen, for reasons that aren’t revealed until the book is nearly over.

Horn, an American writer who earned a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Harvard, moves about in space and time, telling her tale from the perspective of several family members. Besides Benjamin, key characters include his twin sister Sara, a painter; their father, Daniel, who loses a leg after a horrific ambush in Vietnam; the twins’ maternal grandfather, Boris Kulbak, a Soviet Jewish orphan who trains to become an engineer; and one unborn child, whom we meet as he is being prepared for birth — that is, for life in the world to come.

A handful of chapters take up the viewpoint of people whose lives intersect with the Kulbak-Ziskind clan, including a lonely curator named Erica Frank, who is charged with recovering the stolen Chagall; the painter himself, who gave 11-year-old Boris the purloined painting in 1920; and Yiddish writer Pinkhas Kahanovitch, nicknamed Der Nister, or the Hidden One, who lives and teaches with Chagall at a Jewish orphanage outside Moscow.

Some of Horn’s passages depict dreams; others describe the sensation of kissing in the pitch black; still others chronicle the unborn child’s education. The “not-yet,” as such souls are called,

was slightly repulsed by the lab involving the dissection of lies, a gory procedure in which he and a partner had to slice through layers of smooth skinlike surfaces and pin them back to reveal the innards, which mostly consisted of disgusting rotting guts of self-loafing and fear. (Some not-yets had asked for permission to sit out the dissections, claiming that it was against their religious beliefs. Permission was never granted.)

Horn’s book is inspired by the true-life theft of “Study for ‘Over Vitebsk,’” and she includes numerous factual details about Chagall, Kahanovitch and their community of Soviet Jewish artist-activists. (Although The World to Come’s provenance for the stolen Chagall is fictitious, the painter and Kahanovitch actually lived together at the Jewish Boys’ Colony at Malakhovka, Horn reveals in her author’s note.) The novel also incorporates several different Yiddish tales, such as a poem about a boy who is offered one of two possible gifts — either an incredibly fast horse or a magical ring that can summon snow.

He didn’t think too hard, of course:
“I’ll take the ring AND take the horse.”

Given all these disparate elements, The World to Come probably shouldn’t work. That it does is a testament both to the poignancy of the source material (the gifted Kahanovitch had a tragic life in the repressive U.S.S.R.) and to the power of Horn’s writing. Take, for instance, this description of Daniel Ziskind patrolling the Vietnamese wilderness at dawn:

Daylight glistened on the jungle floor. In the long new shafts of light, Daniel saw spiderwebs stretched between the trees, large enough to trap a person — vast nets that vibrated with each of his footsteps, transparent but for the tiny raindrops clinging to their woven tapestries of threads. Daniel tore them down reluctantly, afraid of leaving a trail.

Or take this passage in which Sara contemplates the colors of her experiences after emerging from underground, which is how she conceives of the months she spent mourning her father’s death:

[B]eyond the cave stood an entire world of years. Indigo years, yellow years, orange years, years that blossomed like roses and years that froze like snow and years that dissolved like sand, weeks that rooted themselves and grew and rose and towered out of the earth, and months and months of hard pebble days that bit into sensitive soles and callused them for good.

In lively and entertaining fashion, Horn chronicles some of the key Soviet Jewish and Jewish-American hardships and triumphs that took place over an 80-year sweep of history. The result is a novel that should appeal to any person with an interest in 20th-century history — or simply in the human experience. I will definitely read some of Horn’s other work.


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