November 11, 2010
The art and mystery of the Ketubah
“The Marriage Artist” by Andrew Winer (Holt, $26.00) opens with a shocking scene — a young woman and her suspected lover are found dead on a New York sidewalk. Was it a crime committed by the woman’s jealous husband? A lover’s quarrel that ended in a murder and then a suicide? Or perhaps a double-suicide?
So, from the very first page, the novel presents itself as a mystery, a romance and a ghost story, and the author is adept at weaving all of these narrative threads into a single compelling tale. But what stamps “The Marriage Artist” as something especially memorable is the author’s use of the ketubah — the traditional Jewish marriage contract, a work of art as well as a legal instrument — as a symbol for the “mysterious repetitions” that are present in every marriage, whether it turns out to be happy or sad, fruitful or blighted.
A man named Josef Pick, whom we first encounter as a boy in Vienna in the turbulent 1920s, is “the Mozart of Marriage Contracts,” an artist who composes and illuminates the ketubot with uncanny genius. “Love may be pure, but marriage is not,” says Josef’s grandfather, who is also his mentor. And so, the old man explains, “the most crucial ingredient – in any ketubah worth its sale – is mystery.”
A parallel narrative focuses on Daniel Lichtmann, an art critic in contemporary New York, and his wife, Aleksandra, whose death we witness on the opening page. He has mysteries of his own to solve, most of which focus on the artist whose career he has championed and who ends up a corpse on the sidewalk next to his dead wife. Daniel’s odyssey carries him across both time and space as when he follows the clues from New York to Southern California.
“Daniel felt like some brooding German émigré who had just arrived, fresh from Hitler’s Reich, amid the palm tree-packed Pacific Palisades,” writes Winer. “But even the Palisades and the rest of Los Angeles had its share of sorrow.”
As the author flashes back and forth in time, we descend through the circles of hell that can consume a human life. “This Jew insists he is to be married to a woman with a visa to Palestine – but he could not produce her name for us!” says a Gestapo officer who encounters Josef and the woman he has arranged to marry at their first meeting. “I would have to put this Jew on last night’s train to Dachau if I wasn’t so curious to see his bride-whore – because only a whore would marry a man who didn’t know her name!”
Inevitably, the two narratives will intersect, and we are drawn through Winer’s extraordinarily rich and artful book as if it were a thriller. And, in fact, there are moments of horror and heartbreak in “The Marriage Artist” if only because the author has imagined some of the ways in which men and women in contemporary America are linked to those who endured the nightmare of history during the Holocaust. “Jewish America — it clings to the ghosts of six million Jews so it will not feel alone,” observes one of almost spectral figures who lead Daniel toward the truth he seeks.
At the heart of the matter, then, “The Marriage Artist” is a meditation on human relationships. We are shown more than one troubled family in intimate detail, and Winer confronts us with the demands and disappointments that afflict husband and wife as well as parent and child, the toxicity of sexual infidelity and even deeper forms of betrayal. Thus, for example, the death of his wife — and the death of his marriage — reduces Daniel to despair.
“Perfect understanding of another person was a delusion, he had come to believe; the struggle to attain it was sheer vanity, the result of self-love gone awry: a person felt they were so worthy of another’s perfect understanding of them that they would do anything – marry, take lovers, divorce, and fight and fight and fight – to bring someone else to it,” writes Winer. “What a waste of life!”
Yet the despair is ultimately transmuted into something like redemption. At a stunning moment, Daniel comes upon yet another ketubah, and by then he has discovered what he needs to know in order to recognize its significance: “t was the triumph of love, or rather of love’s innocence (and this was the biggest surprise – how had the artist done it?), that made the piece sublime.” Exactly what Daniel has discovered, of course, is something that should not be explained in a review because it is the reward that awaits the reader.
At one point in “The Marriage Artist,” Josef Pick looks back at the turning point in his young life when he first picked up the calligrapher’s pen. “Hardly more than a decade later, when everything he knows will be gone forever – this life of his, the people in this room, Vienna itself really – he will look back on this moment and marvel at how randomly a life gets made,” writes Winer. “His life will seem as if it could not have been any other way.”
Precisely the same words can be used to describe how a novel like “The Marriage Artist” gets made.