The World to Come

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246

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.

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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.

The World to Come

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646

In her second novel, following an impressive debut with In the Image (2002), Dara Horn blends history, folk tales, theology, family saga, fantasy, and crime caper in an endearing exploration of art, love, immortality, and authenticity. In the opening chapter of The World to Come, recently divorced, thirty-year-old Benjamin Siskind reluctantly attends a singles’ mixer at the Museum of Hebraic Art in New York. He notices a Marc Chagall work, a study for “Over Vitebsk,” hanging on the wall and, realizing that it once belonged to his mother, snatches it and takes it home. Erica Frank, a curator at the museum, tracks the theft to Ben, and during her efforts to get him to return the stolen painting, the two fall in love.

To explain how Ben’s mother, Rosalie, happened to own a valuable piece by Chagall, the novel tracks back to Russia in 1920. While teaching at the Jewish Boys’ Colony in Malakhovka outside Moscow, Chagall trades one of his canvases for an extraordinary painting by a precocious eleven-year-old orphan named 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 to New Jersey, Rosalie marries a Vietnam War 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 called American Genius. It is he who steals the Chagall painting from the museum in New York. Sara marries Leonid Shcharansky, a Ukrainian émigré who had bullied Ben in high school before becoming his best friend. She is pregnant at the time that her brother becomes an art thief.

Horn mingles historical figuresChagall, who becomes an international artistic celebrity, one of the most popular painters of the twentieth century, and Der Nister, who lives in wretched oblivion and dies in 1949 when Soviet premier Joseph Stalin liquidates the Yiddish intelligentsiawith 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 Eastern European Jewish writers, whom Horn, a scholar of Yiddish, clearly reveres. She celebrates and appropriates the stories of Der Nister, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Nachman of Bratslav, Itsik Manger, and other masters of Yiddish fiction. She provides a compelling portrait of Der Nister, struggling against poverty and persecution to produce his distinctively enigmatic fiction, even while his suave old friend Chagall cultivates fame and fortune in the West.

However, The World to Come also provides a detailed and chilling account of combat in the jungles of Vietnam during the 1960’s. After joining the U.S. army in order to finance his college education, Lance Corporal Daniel Ziskind is assigned to help build roads near Da Nang. In agony, his right leg impaled on the bamboo spikes of a trap set by the Viet Cong, Daniel recalls his adolescence in rural New Jersey, where a mutual fascination with Yiddish literature intensifies his romance with young Rosalie Kulbak. His imagination also wanders through the world to come, a wondrous realm in which human souls congregate before birth and after death.

The center of the novel is present-day Manhattan, where Ben steals a painting, Erica pursues Ben, and the two conspire to return the work, undetected, to its place on the wall of her museum. However, they are not exactly returning the painting but rather a copy of it forged by Ben’s twin sister, Sara. Furthermore, Ben learns that the painting hanging in the museum might itself have been a forgery.

The World to Come concludes with a clever extended fable about the soul’s preparation for birth. During his nine months of gestation before entering mortal existence, Daniel Ziskind Shcharansky, the imminent child of Sara and Leonid, isalong with all the other persons-in-waiting, the human “not-yets”provided with a thorough education in the secrets of the universe. He is given extensive lectures and allowed to gorge himself on a vast supply of books.

Daniel’s experience in this celestial world to come seems an endless feast, and, when the time comes for him to be born, he is reluctant to abandon his prenatal paradise. Yet, explains his mentor, he has been inhabiting an imitation existence, a mere forgery of life after birth: “This whole world to come is just an imitation of the real one.” Which comes first: The world to come inhabited by the not-yets or the world that comes after they are born? The novel’s title turns on a teasing inversion; what is called “the world to come” might actually be just a preparation for the real world. It is this precious world that the reader inhabits that is, in fact, the world to come. “The real world to come is down belowthe world, in the future, as you create it,” Daniel is told. “The world, to come.” The novel’s title places the reader at the surface of the looking glass, unsure which side constitutes the primary world and which its phantom world to come. Which is the original and which the imitation?

At the beginning of The World to Come, Ben is brooding over his mother’s recent death. He soon learns of his sister Sara’s pregnancy. Filled with images of crypts, wombs, caves, secret tunnels, and hidden rooms, the novel plays with the question of whether birth is a culmination or a commencement. Ambiguity over whether this realm or that realm is “the world to come” helps Horn probe the nature of originality. What constitutes forgery in painting, writing, and being? Which is the prototype and which is the facsimile?

It is possible that the stolen Chagall painting on which the plot of the novel hinges is not only a copy but a copy of a copy. When Chagall gives his painting to the young Boris Kulbak, does it cease to be his painting? Ben’s assurance that the study for “Over Vitebsk” had, for more than eighty years, been the heirloom of his troubled family impels him to take possession of the work when he sees it hanging on the wall of the Museum of Hebraic Art. The novel implicitly questions the belief in private ownershipin any but a legal senseof any work of art.

Aside from an anti-Semitic soldier named Tim who bullies Daniel Ziskind during his service in Vietnam, the only thoroughly unsympathetic character in The World to Come is a downstairs neighbor in Moscow who befriends Boris Kulbak during the final months of his life. His name is Sergei Popov, and he confides to Boris that he works in the state museum appraising objects’ authenticity. In yet another instance in the novel of forgery, he turns out to be as much of a counterfeit as any of the bogus works that find their way into a museum. After ingratiating himself into Boris’s confidence, Sergei, in truth an agent of the Soviet secret police, betrays him. Accusing Boris of treasonous activity, he brings about his execution.

Another variation on the theme of fraud is Chagall himself. Envying and deploring Chagall’s worldly success, while his own literary career seems mired in misery and obscurity, Der Nister senses that Chagall represents another instance of simulation. The Jewish painter has made himself into the parody of a grand artiste, a cosmopolitan figure with no convictions who is willing to say and do whatever is necessary to court acclaim.

He is like the children’s books that Ben’s mother, Rosalie, became known for writing. Erica’s initial admiration for them vanishes when she discovers that each volume is a blatant case of plagiarism, its story stolen from the texts of Yiddish authors, including Der Nister. The final picture book that was attributed to Rosalie Kulbak is titled The World to Come, and its contents were lifted from the work of Sholom Aleichem. Filled with verbatim excerpts from stories by the Yiddish masters, Dara Horn’s own book called The World to Come is itself, then, in a sense an elaborate counterfeit. Yet it is one that is redeemed from fraud by the way it acknowledges its literary debts and the debts that everyone owes to others.

Leo Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina (1875-1877) with a pronouncement about kinship: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Horn also begins her novel with an assertion about families: “There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone.” The World to Come is, at heart, a family saga that traces four generations of the Kulbak-Ziskind linefrom Boris to Rosalie to Ben to not-yet-born Daniel. Each begins life as a child prodigy, and each is in some way a facsimile of those who came before, as if the network of family relationships is a reminder that nobody has meaning alone, that no one is original. Like books and paintings, each individual is patterned after and implicated in those who have come before.

Horn describes harried, ailing Der Nister at work on his culminating project, a fictional trilogy whose final volume he never lived to write. He called it “The Family Crisis,” and its title might well have been pirated for second service on the cover of Horn’s book about the tribulations of the Kulbak clan. Her book, however, concludes with an auspicious birth, as if family crisis does not preclude fecundity. If a family crisis has been besetting American Jewish fiction, with the passing of Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Saul Bellow and the exhaustion of its familiar themes of immigration and assimilation, Horn, still in her twenties, has arrived to refresh and recoup a rich tradition.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54

Booklist 102, no. 2 (September 15, 2005): 32.

The Christian Science Monitor, January 20, 2006, p. 12.

Commentary 121, no. 3 (March, 2006): 76-80.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 859 (January 20, 2006): 74.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 18 (September 15, 2005): 994.

Library Journal 130, no. 17 (October 15, 2005): 45.

Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2006, p. R7.

New York 39, no. 2 (January 16, 2006): 56-57.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (March 19, 2006): 27.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 42 (October 24, 2005): 34-35.

The Washington Post, January 22, 2006, p. T06.

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