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Original Essays | August 21, 2014 1 comment
Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
Mysteries in Plain Sightby Dara Horn
We dread this question because we know that readers are hoping we will relate some sort of mystical epiphany that we attained after years of meditation, or at the very least, an encounter with an elderly uncle who shared family secrets on his deathbed before swearing us to secrecy. And we writers will often oblige and invent a crowd-pleasing moment of revelation, or worse yet, refuse to answer by invoking the vow of silence we made to our uncle of blessed (and imaginary) memory. But I am prepared to reveal my arcane and mysterious source. My novel, The World to Come, is about an art heist specifically, about the theft of a Chagall painting from a museum during a singles' cocktail hour. I came up with this idea after seeing it on the front page of the New York Times.
In June of 2001, a painting by Marc Chagall a study for a work entitled Over Vitebsk went missing after a singles' mixer at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. It was a small painting, only about the size of a piece of notebook paper, and as the article I read explained, it could have easily been slipped under the shirt or jacket of the thief, presumably some lovelorn single who felt that a million-dollar painting was fair compensation for failing to get anyone's phone number. In a sequence of events that would never be convincing in fiction, the painting was recovered several months later in a mail room in Kansas. The thief was never caught.
It's the kind of story that any novelist would probably have noticed. But the story also caught my eye for more personal reasons. In my day job, I'm a student of Yiddish literature. Since it's a language that's spoken mainly (though far from exclusively) by dead people, it's very rare that my life as a nerd converges with the news. But when I read about this theft, I thought of how many of the authors I admire had had their works illustrated by Chagall, and I started wondering how he had known them. And when I investigated, I discovered that he had met most of them during the very unusual and very little-known start of his career.
In 1919, there was a wave of pogroms in Russia in which over 100,000 people were killed so many people that it was necessary to create orphanages for all the children who had lost their families. One of Chagall's first jobs when he was a young man was as an art teacher at one of these orphanages, and he writes in his memoirs about how astonished he was by how these children, as he put it, "threw themselves at colors like wild beasts at meat." As a writer, I was very moved by this idea of art as a kind of nourishing redemption. But as I learned more about this orphanage, I discovered something fascinating: nearly every person who taught at this particular orphanage was a major avant-garde artist or writer, and many of them lived there in faculty housing together, collaborating on everything from theater sets to children's books.
What happened after that, though, is truly amazing. Chagall became French, and now his paintings hang in museums around the world, in opera houses, in college dorm rooms, and are printed on Hallmark cards. Meanwhile, by 1952, nearly everyone else who had taught at this particular orphanage had been executed by Stalin, who had decided to destroy a culture by murdering Jewish writers and artists. Stalin was quite successful at this, because now almost no one has heard of any of these major talents. The more I read, the more the juxtaposition of Chagall's career with those of his murdered colleagues haunted me. We like to think that time will tell the value of an artist's work. But the more I learned about this circle of artists, the more I realized what kind of choices separated Chagall from his friends and the less I liked Chagall, as I realized that what lasts isn't necessarily what's best.
In the real-life art heist in New York, it took almost an entire day before anyone noticed that the painting was missing. But the stories written by Chagall's friends, I realized, have been missing for fifty years without anyone noticing. In my novel, those forgotten works of literature are stolen too they're plagiarized and published under an American writer's name, and the painting's thief and the plagiarist are very intimately linked. To solve the mystery of one theft, you have to also solve the mystery of the other and the thief ultimately has to make an impossible choice about what in this world is really worth saving.
That question of what's worth saving determines what paintings hang in museums, and I think it also determines a great deal of what our own lives look like. It seems like a vast cultural decision, the casting away of one artist and the canonizing of another, but it actually begins as a very personal choice, when we each privately decide what's worth reading, seeing, remembering, and keeping. And it is only those things that we choose to keep that are allowed to extend across generations and survive us. This is true for works of art, but I think it is also true for every element of our private lives and it is this choice of what's worth saving that connects us to other people, and becomes the only real link between the living and the dead.
The novel begins as an art heist, but at the end of the story, the mystery takes the reader to an imagined place between generations, where those who have died meet those who haven't yet been born. The title of the book is The World to Come not referring to life after death, but rather to life before birth, where regret is replaced by possibility. When I was writing the book, I was expecting my first child, and I began thinking about a certain legend in the Jewish tradition: before we are born, we are each taught all of the secrets of the world, but just before our births, an angel puts a finger to our lips and says, "Don't tell the secrets." And at that moment, we forget everything we learned, and then we have to spend our entire lives trying to remember. At the end of my novel, there's a glimpse of this world before birth, where everyone is studying these secrets.
Of course, after my daughter was born a few months ago, I discovered that the secrets that babies have really forgotten are actually just the secrets of how to sleep through the night. But the story I created is about the power of the possible, about the capacity to see the world not only for what it is, but for what it might be. It might be possible that somewhere hidden within a baby's midnight crying is a longing for a lost world. It might be possible that there are secrets to the world we live in that lie just beyond what we can see. And it might be possible, too, that those secrets aren't revealed through the obscure epiphanies that readers imagine writers to have, but rather through the everyday mysteries that are hidden in everyone's plain sight perhaps, even, on the front page of the newspaper.