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A Stolen Painting Becomes a Journey Back in Time in <i>The World to Come</i>


Dara Horn is an American literary scholar and award winning novelist, and her second book is both an act of the imagination and a tribute to Jewish literary history. The World to Come is about a modern day art theft, but the author weaves into her narrative tales by the Yiddish writers she's come to revere as a student at Harvard University, where she's earning a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. The result is a work of fiction that is winning Dara Horn growing acclaim as part of a new generation of young Jewish American writers who look to the past to explore questions of history, memory and tradition.

The World to Come begins when a young man named Benjamin Ziskind attends a party for singles at a New York museum, and walks out with a painting by the Russian-born artist Marc Chagall. A former child prodigy who now writes for a television quiz show, Benjamin is convinced the painting he has stolen once belonged to his own family. The story that follows loops back in forth in time, from the early days of the Soviet Union to the Vietnam War and the late twentieth century waves of Russian Jewish immigration to the United States. Dara Horn says she got the idea for her book after reading about a painting that really was stolen from a New York museum several years ago.

"After I read the story in the paper I started wondering what kind of person would do that," she says. "But it interested me for more personal reasons, too. I started thinking about all the Yiddish writers I had studied who had works illustrated by Chagall, and I discovered that he had met almost all of them during the very little known and very unusual start of his own career. In 1919, there was a wave of pogroms across Russia in which over 100,000 people were killed, so many people that it was necessary to create orphanages to house 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 nearly every person who taught at this particular orphanage was a major avant garde artist or writer. So my novel does begin as a contemporary story with this art heist, but then there's this story that takes place a good 80 years prior, in which Chagall is a primary character and another character is a Yiddish writer named Der Nister, which means 'The Hidden One.' And this was a real writer. Chagall went to the West and of course became world famous. Der Nister ultimately was put in a Soviet gulag, where he died in 1950. And part of the mystery of the book is solving not only the mysteries involving the theft but also the way the two stories are related. And ultimately they do come together."

The contemporary story revolves around Benjamin and his twin sister, Sara, an artist. Together they concoct a plan to create a forgery of the stolen painting, which they plan to return to the museum. At the same time, they are unraveling the story behind the original painting, which may itself be a forgery. Exploring the fates of several generations of artists and writers-the successful and the doomed -- gave Dara Horn a chance to look at the enduring power of art itself-what survives, what is lost, and why:

"That's really a question that was very compelling to me as I was writing the book, and that's the question of what's worth saving? I think we often think the way certain paintings end up in museums or the artists we end up canonizing--that it's always based on merit," she points out, adding, "And I'm not convinced that's true. I think that there's a lot of chance involved in what's worth saving. I also think there are a lot of historical circumstances that conspire against a person. We like to think that time will tell the value of an artist's work, but there are so many other factors that we can't say that what lasts is what is best. All we can say is that we don't know, and we always have to keep looking and to see what may have been overlooked."

Like Benjamin in her novel, Dara Horn says writing The World to Come was in some ways an effort to right old wrongs, and give what has been lost a chance to live again. To create her story, she drew heavily on the Yiddish and Hebrew literature that has been the focus of her academic life. "It's a language not many people speak any more," the author explains. "So much of that culture has been lost. And what does remain tends to be made into kitsch or faux nostalgia. So I've taken stories from Yiddish literature, and I've interspersed them into the novel in translations which I've done myself. I wanted to show this is a very multi-faceted literature. It isn't just about a little Eastern European town with boy with a goat or Fiddler on the Roof. I wanted to show it was a wider literary culture with all kinds of voices and tones and different genres and ranges."

Some of the stories included in the book are there because they were favorites of the author. But she says many share a common theme. "All of them are stories that deal with loss, and deal with the question of loss in different ways," she explains. "For example, one of the stories I've translated that appears in the book is by the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, called The Dead Town, which is about a town where all the inhabitants are dead. There's a fracas over the ownership of a cemetery. The cemetery has to be sold off, and then the dead people all get mad and come up out of their graves and go back to their homes. But what's interesting is that the living don't notice that the dead have returned. They just go about their lives as usual, and the storyteller concludes that no one in our town has ever really died because no one in our town has ever really lived. And it raises this question that we think life and death are something beyond our grasp, but what is within our grasp is how we live our lives."

While she now juggles her writing and academic careers, Dara Horn says her literary interests came first. "Since I was a child, I've always kept journals and diaries. And I actually started publishing as a journalist even as a teenager. I started writing for magazines. The academic angle came much later," she notes. "I was trying to decide what to do after college, and I realized that if I didn't become a journalist there were many people who would become journalists. But if I didn't study Yiddish literature or Hebrew literature, there were not many other people who would study these languages."

The happy outcome of her decision is that she can now integrate both vocations, says Dara Horn, who has taught at Harvard and Sarah Lawrence College. "I am able to bring the perspective of a working novelist to teaching literature," she explains, "and I am also able to bring a knowledge of literature that perhaps not everyone has access to into my fiction writing."

The World to Come was published by W. W. Norton and Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110.

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