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Dara Horn
The WORLD TO COME is a multi-layered book with a large cast. How do you keep a check on all the characters and not let them take over and career off into narratives of their own?
The short answer is that I didn’t. In fact, my first draft of this novel was about five hundred pages long. In that version, Ben, the thief, was one of five siblings, each of whom had a role in the plot involving the painting, and each of whose lives unraveled in three dimensions. It was too long and too much. I ended up killing off many characters and cutting two hundred pages. The book as it stands has two plots: a contemporary plot, about the theft of a Chagall painting from a museum during a singles’ mixer, and a historical plot, about the life of Chagall and other artists who were part of his circle. The two plots appear only tangentially related at first, but it eventually becomes clear that they are not only inextricable from each other, but actually one story. In that sense, while the book does have a large cast and many stories in it, the momentum of the plot gradually draws all of these characters and their stories together.
The book deals with forgery and plagiarism. As a writer and a scholar, do you think that there is such a thing as uniqueness or are we all, whether we are aware of it or not, drawing on the thoughts of others? Is it all out there in the ether for us to cherry pick? (This isn’t an accusation!).
I don’t feel that it is all “out there” for us to help ourselves to at will. In fact, I believe so strongly in assigning credit that my novel essentially has footnotes—there is an appendix at the end of the book that gives the reader a list of references for the Yiddish stories in the novel as well as other sources. But the novel’s plot—dealing, as you say, with forgery and plagiarism, and also direct art theft in the form of a museum heist—is very much an exploration of what it means to create or own a work of art, and what gives a work of art its value. In modern Western culture, there is an ideal of an artist as a kind of isolated genius who creates his or her works ex nihilo, and the greatest praise an artist can hope for is to be considered “original.” But there’s a somewhat different ideal of creativity in Jewish culture: creativity as a collective effort that develops over the course of generations. In traditional Jewish literature (and much of premodern Western literature too; Shakespeare didn’t come up with his own plots), what makes a creative contribution valuable isn’t really how “original” it is as much as how interestingly unoriginal it is—that is, how innovatively it has incorporated the sources that preceded it, and how well it has succeeded in making that material newly meaningful.
Your book is based on historical fact – the theft of the Chagall painting; the relationship between Chagall and Der Nister; the Russian pogroms and later Stalin’s “disappearances”. Did you ever consider a non-fictionalised version?
Non-fiction versions of these stories already exist, in the historical record (memoirs by Chagall and Der Nister; newly published documents from Soviet archives) as well as in more analytical versions. What interested me were the ways that a novel could explore the more emotional aspects of this history. One of the reasons that these stories attracted me, for example, was how each of them was animated by an element of betrayal—the theft of a painting by a person whom the museum invited in as a guest, for instance; or how people who one accepted as one’s peaceful neighbors one day could go on a spree of torture and murder the next, or how the Soviet Union invited Yiddish writers back to the country as honored cultural contributors and then turned around and executed them. What intrigued me about betrayal was what it requires in the party who is betrayed: in order to be betrayed, you have to have a certain element of generosity in you that would lead you to trust someone whom you shouldn’t have trusted. In examining this problem, one could justifiably conclude that the best way to live in the world would be not to trust anyone at all, but of course it is only trust that makes our relationships with others meaningful and makes life worth living. I wanted to explore how these stories expressed this emotional experience of trust, and the most interesting way to do that was to show how trust functions on the most intimate levels as well as the larger historical ones. There are many love stories in the novel, for instance, but to me the interesting element of a love story isn’t so much love as trust.
We recently attended a reading by the Israeli author Etgar Keret. He was asked by a member of the audience about Israeli humour and quipped that Israeli humour didn’t exist but what does exist is Jewish humour. Would you agree that the final chapter of THE WORLD TO COME (although very moving it is also very funny) falls into this category? And do you think there is an explanation for Jewish humour?
When non-Jews talk about “Jewish humor,” they are usually referring to the kind of humor that most often appears in works written in non-Jewish languages—a kind of self-deprecation that is essentially a defense mechanism for people historically accustomed to dealing with centuries of abuse. (For instance, Woody Allen’s character’s line in Annie Hall after Annie mentions her grandmother’s knitting: “My grandmother didn’t knit, because she was too busy being raped by Cossacks.”) But the kind of humor that I believe you are referring to here (which does appear in the last chapter of my book) is more of a comically casual interaction with grandly imagined impossibilities. I think that this type of humor, while influenced by the legacy of the sheer absurdity of antisemitism, also comes from something more internal to the Jewish tradition, which is the religious expectation of infusing every mundane act of daily life with an awareness of eternity breathing over one’s shoulder. Jewish spirituality isn’t expressed in grand cathedrals as much as through sanctifying the most ordinary aspects of everyday life, whether by choosing one’s food based on divine decree or reciting a blessing in the bathroom to thank God for the health of one’s body. I think that one effect of this tradition’s legacy (whether or not one practices it oneself) is an intense awareness of the ironies of life—both in its daily inanities and in our larger hopes and expectations for the world we live in. In Yiddish literature much of the humor is based on a kind of ongoing argument with God, and the easy mixing of the profane with the sacred isn’t a rebellion against religion as much as it is a reflection of an intimacy with the possibility of holiness—or, as it is perhaps better expressed in a secular context, a life with meaning. To me, Jewish humor is a graceful way of losing an argument with God.
It is an understatement to say that THE WORLD TO COME is about family and heredity and you have written a lot about your own family and your closeness to them. What are your hopes for your own daughter in her “world to come”?
One of the central parts of the novel is a legend from the Talmud which says that before we are born, we are taught all of the secrets of the Torah—by which is meant not merely the five books of Moses, but the secrets of an ethical way of life. In the Talmudic legend, we are taught all of these secrets before we are born, but at the moment of our birth, an angel slaps us across the face and causes us to forget everything we’ve learned, and then after we’re born, we have to spend the rest of our lives trying to remember what we have forgotten. In the novel, this story becomes an embodiment of a larger idea, which is that our families’ legacies haunt our lives even when we are not aware of them, and that as individuals we are made up of all of the people who came before us and all the people who will come after us—an idea that also reflects the reality of genetic inheritance. The novel asks the question of how much of this legacy we can control, and provides various possible answers. I’ve written about my family of origin—my parents and my three siblings—as a kind of creative collective. (My sisters are both published writers, and my brother is a professional artist and an animator for television.) But as I was finishing this novel I was expecting my first child, and I thought a lot about this Talmudic legend at the time and what it suggested about the secrets that babies forget. Of course, after my daughter was born, I discovered that the secrets that babies have really forgotten are the secrets of how to sleep through the night. Novels allow us an opportunity to explore the world in grander terms than real life does, and to control that exploration too. In reality, I now have a six-month-old son in addition to a two-year-old daughter, and while I have attempted to replicate the kind of creative collectivity in which I was raised (we read about ten picture books aloud at every meal, and my daughter loves to make up stories for my son’s amusement), I don’t expect to be the author of my children’s hopes for themselves. I’ve discovered that the most a parent can do is merely to try to demonstrate the best possibilities that life presents us, possibilities that change as life changes. At the moment, my greatest hope for my daughter is that she will not pull out her baby brother’s eyes.
Who are your literary influences and inspirations?
This novel is very much infused with the influence of many Yiddish authors, and the approach that these writers took to their art remains a great influence in my own work. Der Nister was an absurdist writer whose work is truly devastating in its unveiling of the reader’s expectations of being handed a happy or redemptive ending, and many of the other writers who are mentioned or whose works appear in this novel—Dovid Bergelson, I.L. Peretz, Itsik Manger, Mani Leyb, Sholem Aleichem and others—were influential to me in the way that their works integrated an exploration of life’s sublime potential with an extremely honest appraisal of its reality. In translation Yiddish literature is often believed to be “funny,” but to me its most interesting trait is its earnestness, its candor in directly confronting the most profound disappointments in life, without ever forgetting the (often inaccessible, but always acknowledged) possibility of redemption.
Dara Horn

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