The World to Come

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In 1920, while teaching at an orphanage outside Moscow, Marc Chagall trades one of his canvases, a study for “Over Vitebsk,” for an extraordinary painting by twelve-year-old Boris Kulbak. Boris is also encouraged by another teacher, the Yiddish author Pinkhas Kahanovitch, who writes under the pseudonym Der Nister. Eventually, after Boris's murder by Soviet secret police, his daughter, Rosalie, inherits the Chagall painting. Relocated in New Jersey, Rosalie marries a Vietnam veteran named Daniel and gives birth to twins, Ben and Sara. Sara becomes an artist, and Ben, a child prodigy, becomes a writer for a television quiz show. It is he who pilfers a painting in the opening chapter of The World to Come.

Dara Horn's second novel is an endearing concoction of family saga, crime caper, theology, and folk tale. Historical figures—Chagall, who becomes an international artistic celebrity, and Der Nister, who lives in wretched obscurity and dies in 1949 when Joseph Stalin liquidates the Yiddish intelligentsia—mingle with fictional characters who contend with pogroms, state violence, war, terrorism, and the fragility of love. The book is strongest in its evocation of the vanished world of European Jewish writers. Horn celebrates and appropriates the stories of Der Nister and other Yiddish masters, while probing the nature of originality: What constitutes forgery in painting and writing? The World to Come concludes with a clever fable about the soul's preparation for birth; from that novel perspective, it is this precious life that is the world to come.