Just occasionally, I believe I can read minds – well in a Derren Brownish way – you see by my title of this post, I hope to have manipulated you into thinking you were getting a(nother) post on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; some of you will be thinking but Annabel’s already reviewed that, hasn’t she? They would be correct – see here.
Yes you would be right too – partially – for this post will concern The Goldfinch – but only in passing… for on my shelves the other day I found a book which I had bought years ago, and its subject matter does concern a painting which gets stolen, and a Russian who is initially very much in the Boris mould. This book though was published in 2006, thus it predates The Goldfinch by years. Let me tell you a bit about it…
The World to Come by Dara Horn
The story starts with Benjamin Ziskind, recently divorced. His parents are dead, but he’s still very close to his twin sister Sara who persuaded him to go to a singles cocktails event at the Jewish Museum in New York where there was an exhibition of paintings and drawings from ‘Marc Chagall’s Russian Years’. He was about to leave when he saw a painting and it stopped him in his tracks:
It was a painting of a street. The street was covered with snow, and lined by a short iron fence and little crooked buildings whose rooftops bent and reflected in all directions. Above the street, a man with a beard, pack, hat, and cane hovered in the sky, moving over the houses as if walking – unaware, in murky horizontal profile, that he was actually in flight. The painting was tiny, smaller than a piece of notebook paper. The label next to the painting offered its date as 1914 and its owner as a museum in Russia, titling it Study for “Over Vitebsk.” This intrigued Ben, who despite his mastery of trivia on all topics, including modern art, had never before known this particular painting’s name. All he knew was that it used to hang over the piano in the living room of his parents’ house.
Ben steals the painting. The story of whether he’ll get away with the theft or not forms half of the rest of the story, the other tells how the painting came into the family and what happened to it and them through the generations.
In the second chapter, we meet Boris Kulbak, an orphan in the Jewish Boy’s Colony in Malakhovka just outside Moscow. These orphans are lucky – they have school lessons, and the new art teacher takes a shine to Boris’s painting of a cave-like womb lined with bookcases and stalactites, and in it a fat, pink baby. The teacher offers to trade him one of his own paintings for Boris’s one – and this is how Boris (whose real name was Benjamin), met Marc Chagall, and Chagall’s friend, the author Der Nister (‘The Hidden One’). All are Jewish, but call each other Comrade. Boris/Ben chooses the tiny painting above in trade. All three will eventually escape from Russia making a life for themselves elsewhere, Chagall in Paris, Der Nister in Berlin – but as a Jew, he will struggle to get his stories published.
So back to Ben – who meets his own ‘Boris’ type – Leonid from Chernobyl – in High School. After a rough start, the two become friends and Leonid will marry Sara. The story continues to flit back and forth between the ages, and somewhere amongst all this we meet the other really important character – Rosalie, Ben’s mother – who becomes a famous author of philosophical fables based on Yiddish folktales. Meanwhile, back in the present day, Erica at the museum is onto Ben…
The story was inspired by the real-life theft of said Chagall painting (it was later recovered). Chagall did teach for a time at the orphanage too along with various poets and Yiddish writers, so Horn had a rich vein of historical fact to base this novel upon.
The straight-forward mystery part of this story works really well. She (yes, this Dara is a woman) weaves in and out of the time-line and we begin to see how the past fits into the present and how everything links together. So far, so ‘Goldfinch’ and I really enjoyed it.
Where it didn’t work well for me though were the parts where it went all mystical and dived deep into Yiddish fables of birth and rebirth – the world to come, what happens to souls when you die and all that. Also some of Der Nister’s and Rosalie’s tales were included and these did nothing for me either I’m afraid. Most of this occurred in the last third of the book, confusing matters quite a lot and not giving me the satisying ending I was craving.
The book had multiple rave reviews when it was first published – it was very different then to the literary mysteries that had come before. Now with post-Goldfinch hindsight, and I apologise to the author for comparing it all the way, despite its faults and length I preferred the straight story-telling of Tartt. The World to Come is not short either at just over 400 pages, and parts of it were brilliant – just not enough for me. (6.5/10)
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The World to Come by Dara Horn (2000). Penguin paperback, 416 pages.