The World to Come
Reviewed by Kari Heil
Dara Horn’s 2006 novel, The World to Come, is the second book I’ve read this summer about a very famous painting being stolen. I think it’s the better of the two, so I’m recommending that if you read only one novel about a stolen masterwork, read The World to Come.
The main reason I recommend The World to Come is that I love reading books that push me to learn about a certain period in history or delve into interesting specialized knowledge, and The World to Come is that kind of book. As I read it, I learned a bit about Russian history, Jewish mysticism and folk tales, and the life and work of the painter Marc Chagall. I learned directly from Horn’s treatment of these subjects in her novel, but I also was excited to look things up and gather a little more information from outside sources, too. Horn’s book is fiction, but it uses history, culture, and art to help tell an intricate story.
The World to Come revolves around one particular Chagall painting, “Study for ‘Over Vitebsk’” (1914). It’s only 8 x 10 inches, and it’s called a study because Chagall used it as a kind of preparation for making a larger work. The study shows an old man as a figure in profile, with a cap on his head, a cane in one hand, and a sack on his shoulder. He is suspended (but not really flying) over a seemingly deserted, desolate town in winter. It sounds weird, but it’s also haunting, mysterious and poignant.
The painting actually was stolen from the Jewish Museum in Manhattan during a cocktail party back in 2001. A ransom note said it would be returned when there was peace in the Middle East. Strangely, no one had ever heard of the group responsible for the note. Even stranger, the painting was discovered, undamaged, eight and a half months later in a package in a post office sorting room in Topeka, Kansas. It was authenticated by experts and returned to the museum and then to its owner, a private collector in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Horn’s book reimagines the theft of the painting and provides a long and involved backstory to explain why her character, Ben Ziskind, steals it. Her fictionalized version omits the Middle East politics altogether and replaces that element of the real theft with details about Ben’s parents, his mother’s immigration to the United States from Russia as a child, his father’s service in Vietnam as a very young man. Horn describes Ben’s childhood scoliosis, his unlikely friendship with a smarter-than-average bully, and how Ben’s twin sister, Sara, became an artist at age 11 as she dealt with their father’s death.
To shape her novel’s complex plot, Horn also relies on various elements of Chagall’s life, philosophy, and artistic vision and those of his contemporary and sometimes collaborator, a Yiddish writer called Der Nister (the Hidden One). They are historical figures who really knew one another and worked together, but they also are characters in the story of how Ben’s family is connected to the stolen painting. Horn devotes several sections of the novel to giving life and pathos to the character of Der Nister as a writer and a father. Though I may not be typical of all readers, my sympathy lay with him more than any other character in Horn’s novel.
Some of the surreal stories written by the historical Der Nister play significant roles in Horn’s book, appearing repeatedly in different iterations and settings and helping to explain the title and some of the book’s central ideas. In Horn’s book and in Der Nister’s stories, the world to come can be either life or death, depending on how we look at it. For a soul near the end of life on earth, the world to come is heaven. But in Jewish tradition (from what I can gather), heaven also is where new souls are prepared to enter life on earth. For a person not yet born, the world to come is this world, this earthly life.
In a really trippy section of Horn’s book, new souls, “not-yets,” including Sara Ziskind’s unborn baby, hang out in heaven and learn from “already-weres” (their forebears) about art, literature, friendship, family, love, and choices – everything important in life. When they leave the womb and enter this world, according to Jewish folk wisdom, babies forget everything they learned before they were born, in the world to come. Honestly, I’m not sure how much of this is Horn’s invention or her interpretation of Yiddish folklore and how much is straight-up Der Nister, but it’s really fascinating and beautiful.
The World to Come is a hard book to describe, but a good book to read. Just what bridges the gap between this world and the world to come, how a person passes from one to the next, is a mystery Der Nister and Horn both explore in their stories.
A couple of my favorite ideas from the Dara Horn/Marc Chagall/Der Nister mash-up might begin to offer a kind of answer: stories and their created worlds are like wombs, hiding places, places for growth and nurture, and maybe words can build a bridge to the world to come. Maybe stories, more than any other artifact from the past, give meaning to the lives of those who came before us.
For the Kiddos
A while ago, we thought we might help the kids learn all the states and their capitals while traveling across the country this summer. We didn’t do that. Instead, when we got to my parents’ place in Wisconsin, we checked out a book at the local library to get the kids thinking about the 50 states in the union. The book, which is also available at our very own children’s library in Gallup, is called The Scrambled States of America Talent Show (2008), by Laurie Keller. It is very, very silly – as in personified states singing duets and doing juggling acts and getting stage fright. But the ridiculous antics of the wacky state characters do make our kids more aware of the states’ names and shapes, how they fit together on the map, and something interesting or important (or trivial, but well known) about each one. In all seriousness, this funny book includes loads of perfectly correct and useful information about the states. And there are lots of goofy word bubbles to read in addition to the main narrative text, so that’s super fun.