Why do some works of art last for generations, while others are forgotten?
We like to think the answer has something to do with merit; that what lasts is, simply put, what's best. But as I discovered while reading about the real-life Jewish artists who populate my new novel, "The World to Come," the truth is quite different.
In the case of one group of Jewish writers and artists of the last century, the reason that certain works of art fell into oblivion is not that these artists weren't good enough, but rather because they were quietly, discreetly and forgettably murdered. And unless you are a hard-core researcher of Yiddish literature and culture, I can guarantee that you have never heard of a single one of them, except for the group's sole survivor. His name was Marc Chagall.
My novel was first conceived as a book about an art heist -- specifically, about the theft of a Chagall painting from a museum during a singles cocktail hour. A theft like this actually happened at a museum in New York. In 2001, some poor soul at a museum singles mixer in Manhattan was apparently so frustrated at his failure to get a date that he walked out with a million-dollar Chagall painting instead.
The story was prime fodder for a novelist. But as I began inventing the heist tale surrounding it, I became distracted by something else.
In my academic life, I'm a scholar of Yiddish literature. As I searched for more information about the actual stolen painting, I came across a series of Chagall drawings that had been displayed at the same exhibit, illustrations for a children's book by Der Nister -- one of my favorite Yiddish writers, who, despite his genius, is almost completely unknown to general readers.
I was immediately struck by the hierarchy of art that the museum had reinforced. Chagall, the now world-renowned painter, was the one whose works were worth stealing. Der Nister, meanwhile -- whose subtlety, complexity, comedy, pathos and brilliance would have redefined literature as we know it -- had become less than a footnote, his works not even translated on the gallery wall.
Nor had he fared better in life. Devoting his career to his native Russian Yiddish culture, and even returning to the U.S.S.R. after following Chagall's path to Western Europe, he was arrested in 1949 by the Soviet secret police and ultimately died in a gulag. His last novel's manuscript was lost forever.
As disturbing as the difference is between Chagall and Der Nister's careers, there is one thing that makes their story even worse. They started out as roommates.
In 1919, there was a wave of pogroms across the Soviet Union in which more than 100,000 Jews were killed, so many people that it became necessary to build orphanages to house all of the Jewish children who had lost their parents. One of Chagall's first jobs as a young man was as an art teacher at one of these orphanages, and he writes in his memoirs about his experiences teaching art to children whose experiences had removed them from ordinary life.
What he does not mention in his memoirs, however, is that nearly every person who taught at this particular orphanage was a major Jewish avant-garde artist or writer, and they lived there in faculty housing together. Chagall and Der Nister were housemates, along with their young families, and collaborated on many children's books together.
What happened after that is truly astonishing. With his art unencumbered by the limits of languages requiring translation, and his joyful work largely (though not entirely) free of any obvious animus toward the non-Jewish world that had so brutally provided him with his first students, Chagall succeeded in becoming French and received his ticket to worldwide fame.
The very different destinies of his fellow Soviet Jewish artists, however, cannot be attributed to a mere lack of luck. Der Nister and the other Yiddish writers who had once been part of Chagall's circle largely decided to commit themselves to perpetuating Jewish culture in Yiddish for their audience of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the U.S.S.R.
Their devotion to both their community and their language proved fatal. By 1952, nearly all of them had been murdered by Stalin, who had decided to destroy a culture by executing its artists.
There is no Hollywood ending to this story, no triumph of the human spirit. There isn't even the drama of public violence. These artists' deaths were discreet, in the manner of unexplained disappearances shrouded in propaganda. One renowned Yiddish actor's murder was even disguised as a traffic accident.
Fifty years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there is still no redemption for them. While Chagall's paintings now grace the walls of museums worldwide, his colleagues' works remain forgotten, vanished through a community that, in the intervening 50 years, forgot the language in which these artists' works existed. As I set to work on my novel, I decided to try my best to redeem them.
In real life, the newspapers reported only a stolen Chagall painting. But in my novel, which is told from the point of view of the thief (and in which Chagall and Der Nister are also characters), the works of literature written by Chagall's friends are stolen, too.
They are translated, plagiarized and published under an American writer's name, and the painting's thief and the plagiarist are very intimately linked. To solve the mystery of one theft, the reader also needs to solve the mystery of the other -- and ultimately both the thief and the reader need to make a crucial choice about what in this world is really worth saving. It's a choice that leads, in the end, to the world to come.
What is the world to come? In the Jewish tradition, the phrase usually refers to a messianic age of redemption, an end of days when all wrongs are righted and justice is finally done. One can imagine what such an ending might mean to a forgotten artist. But the world to come in Judaism is also often conflated with life after death.
And there are also rabbinic sources that refer to a life before birth, where people who haven't yet been born study all the secrets of the Torah, only to be forced to forget them upon entry into the world of the living -- a world which, for them, would literally be the world to come. And of course, the phrase "the world to come" might be, even in all the religious references to it, simply literal, meaning merely our own world in the future. In my novel, all of these separate meanings turn out to be much more similar to each other than one might imagine.
The novel is still about an art heist. But as I wrote it, I decided to translate works of Yiddish literature -- excerpts from stories, poems, children's books and even a novel, some of which were written by Chagall's colleagues -- and place them into my book, incorporating them into the plot. If a few readers find and fall in love with these writers again, then I will have given these artists what they have always deserved and what only art and love can give them: a place in the world to come.
Dara Horn's "The World to Come," will be published this month by W.W. Norton.