The World to Come by Dara Horn
The World to Come
by Dara Horn
Norton. 320 pp. $24.95
One might not expect a first novel by a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at Harvard to come out in paperback a year after publication, as Dara Horn’s In the Image did in 2003, complete with a “Reading Group Guide” that featured an interview with the author and a series of “Discussion Questions.” Nor might one expect the author to say of her novel in that interview, “I wanted to create a different style for American Jewish literature.” Such a level of ambition, and of having one’s ambitions taken so seriously, is rare for someone so young, even in an American literary culture in which youth opens many doors.
The “different style” that Dara Horn wished to create in In the Image was defined in the interview as “connected to the Jewish literary tradition of constant reference to an ancient text,” and a list under “Suggested Further Reading” named some of the texts the novel draws on. These included the book of Job; Yiddish and Hebrew stories by I.L. Peretz, Nahman of Bratslav, S.Y. Abramovitch, Sholem Aleichem, and Hayyim Nahman Bialik; S.Y. Agnon’s Hebrew novel A Guest For the Night; the daily Yiddish Forward’s Bintel Brief; and Yiddish poems by H. Leivick and Jacob Glatstein. If this suggested a highly intricate work of fiction whose readers had to exert themselves to keep in mind its different stories, characters, images, motifs, and the connections among them, it suggested correctly.
Now Dara Horn’s second novel, The World to Come, has appeared, and it is as intricate as the first. Under “Suggested Further Reading,” one might begin with the novels and stories of the Yiddish writer Pinhas Kahanovitch (“Der Nister”); a biography of Marc Chagall; Yiddish stories by Itsik Manger and Sholem Aleichem; the Peretz and Nahman of Bratslav stories from In the Image; a Jewish legend that first occurs in the talmudic tractate of Nidah and in the Midrash Tanhuma; and perhaps, for good measure, one or two Platonic dialogues, starting with the Phaedo and Book VII of The Republic. And yet The World to Come can also be read pleasurably without “further reading” of any kind, although not without having to keep a great deal else in mind.
Here, in order of appearance, is some of the great deal else:
- New York, the present. Benjamin and Sara Ziskind are a twin brother and sister in their late twenties. Sara is a painter, married to the Russian Jewish immigrant Leonid Shcharansky, and Benjamin writes the questions for a Jeopardy!-like quiz show. Both their mother Rosalie, an author and illustrator of children’s books, and their father Daniel, a lawyer and Vietnam-war amputee, are dead. While attending a Chagall exhibit at a Jewish museum, Ben sees a small painting of a Jew walking in air above the rooftops of a Russian shtetl and recognizes it as having once belonged to his family. Alone in the room, he steals it on an impulse and takes it home beneath his coat.
- Russia, 1920. Boris Kulbak is an orphan in a Jewish boys’ home near Moscow. His new art teacher, a friend of the young Yiddish writer Der Nister, is Comrade Chagall—who, struck with a painting by Boris, offers to trade him a Chagall for a Kulbak. Boris’s painting, of a baby in the womb, was inspired by a legend told him by his dead mother about how every unborn baby has an angel that teaches it “all the secrets of the universe” and then strikes it above its upper lip before birth, making a dent there and causing it to forget all it has learned. Chagall’s painting is of a Jew walking in air above the rooftops of a Russian shtetl.
- About 1910. Der Nister travels to Warsaw to pay a call on his literary idol, I.L. Peretz. Alluding to another legend, Peretz tells him: “When the hour arrives for us to proceed to the next world, there will be two bridges to it, one made of iron and one made of paper. The wicked will run to the iron bridge, but it will collapse under their weight. The righteous will cross the paper bridge, and it will support them all. Paper is the only eternal bridge. Your purpose as a writer is to achieve one task, and one task only: to build a paper bridge to the world to come.” A few years later, Der Nister writes a story about such a bridge.
- The present. Erica Frank, an attractive young assistant curator at the Jewish museum, is put on the case of the stolen Chagall. She finds Benjamin Ziskind’s name in the museum’s registry book and contacts him. Ben is short, thin, extremely short-sighted, somewhat ungainly from having to wear a therapeutic brace in childhood, and recently divorced, but Erica is drawn to him. Later that day, it comes to her attention that the painting’s original owner was Rosalie Ziskind, an author she had read and loved as a child.
- About 1985. Sara, a small girl, accompanies her mother to an art dealer who is selling the Chagall painting for the family. On their way, Rosalie tells her: “I believe that when people die, they go to the same place as all the people who haven’t yet been born. That’s why it’s called the world to come, because that’s where they make the new souls for the future. And the reward when good people die . . . is that they get to help make the people in their families who haven’t been born yet.” At the dealer’s, they are introduced to a Russian art buyer, Sergei Popov. Rosalie feels physically ill and leaves with Sara at once. The painting stays with the dealer.
- The mid-1920’s. Der Nister is living in poverty with his wife and daughter in Berlin. He thinks of a Jewish folktale: before a child is born, a hand scoops him up and “take[s] him on a tour all over the world, from morning until evening, showing him everything he will see [in his life]. . . . And the child is frightened—not of dying, but of living. He is so frightened that he refuses to be born, spitting on the hand until it smacks him across the face, removes his memory, and casts him out.”
- 1956. Daniel Ziskind is a twelve-year-old, living in New Jersey. One day he goes for a walk in the woods and comes across a waif-like girl who speaks only Yiddish, a language he knows from home. Her name is Reyzele and she and her mother have just arrived from Russia. The two of them become friends, then teenage lovers; they read Yiddish stories together—Peretz, Der Nister—and eventually marry.
- About 1965. Daniel, now a soldier in Vietnam, steps on a booby trap in a Vietcong cave. Between “bouts of vomiting and wrenching convulsions,” he remembers “a story by some Greek philosopher about a cave. In the story, people were trapped in a cave, chained to a rock. One of them managed to leave the cave, going outside and seeing the sun and the trees and the whole rest of the world, and then he went back inside the cave to tell the people there about everything they were missing. But the ones inside couldn’t understand what he meant.”
- The present. Erica confronts Ben: she knows he has stolen the painting and offers to give him a chance to return it. Ben tells Sara. Sara shows Ben an old letter she has found in which the art dealer informs their mother that the Chagall painting is a fake and advises her to let Sergei Popov keep it. Ben goes home, falls asleep, and dreams that “the world to come that his parents had always talked about was not an afterlife at all, but simply this world, come—the future world, your own future, that you were creating for yourself with every choice you made in it.”
- The present. Erica discovers that Rosalie Ziskind plagiarized the stories of her children’s books from Yiddish writers: Peretz, Der Nister, Itzik Manger. (The Manger story is about a soul that tricks the angel of forgetfulness and enters the world remembering everything it has learned.) Ben says, in Rosalie’s defense, “My mother rescued all these stories that were buried in library vaults and that no one would ever read again.” He confides to Erica that his mother forged the Chagall painting, too. Erica does not believe this and reveals to Ben a secret code on the back of the canvas that can prove the painting is real. She and Ben are falling in love.
- Moscow, 1949. Soviet Russia’s Yiddish writers are being liquidated by Stalin. Der Nister, old and weary, lies in bed with the woman he now lives with. He “move[s] his hand across her breast, her hair, her face, until his finger land[s] in the deep dent above her lips, just below her nose. The impression of an angel.” The secret police arrive and arrest him. As he is taken off, he has a vision of his dead daughter: he and she are flying above the rooftops of a Russian shtetl, “crossing the paper bridge he had built from the earth to the sky.”
- The present. Sara is pregnant. She and Ben discover that the painting has the secret code: it is real after all. The art dealer and the Russian buyer have defrauded them. Sara expertly forges another copy of the painting for Ben to return to Erica and they keep the original.
- Moscow, 1951. Boris Kulbak, a married engineer with a daughter named Raisya (her Yiddish name is Reyzele) befriends his downstairs neighbor, a museum curator named Sergei Popov. He tells Popov about his wartime activity for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, now on the Soviet blacklist. Popov is a secret-police agent. One day Kulbak is arrested by him and taken away to his death in front of Raisya.
- The present. Ben, Sara, and Leonid visit the Jewish museum to see Sara’s forgery, now hanging “again” on the wall. A terrorist bomb goes off. Sara and Leonid stagger out with the crowd. Ben fights his way through smoke, devastation, and blood to get to Erica’s basement office. He reaches the door and calls her name. Then, we are told, “he opened the door and entered the world to come.”
- The present. Daniel Ziskind Shcharansky, Sara’s child, is being prepared for life on earth by his mentors in the world to come. Among them are a bathhouse attendant named Boris, a waiter named Daniel, and a bargirl named Rosalie. He bathes in Paradise’s pools of different emotions, consumes meals consisting of masterpieces of art, and for drink is served great literature. The waiter takes him to see the “Tree of Life” by traversing a bridge built of human mistakes, which are “a very durable building material.” When it is time for baby Daniel to be born,
Something strange ran its hands over his back, a sudden chill. He looked over his shoulder and saw his wings detached from his body, blasted into bones and feathers swiveling in the cyclones of cold wind. He screamed.
“Listen to me, Daniel,” Rosalie said. . . . She waved an arm behind her, at the paradise beyond the bridge. “This whole world to come is just an imitation of the real one.”
“A forgery, if you will,” [the waiter] said, winking at Rosalie. . . . “The real world to come is down below—the world, in the future, as you create it,” Rosalie said.
* * * *
And then his grandfather Daniel pressed a finger to his lips.
You needn’t worry that I’ve given away the plot of The World to Come. There’s lots more.
There is also much to be said for this novel. Dara Horn is skillful with words. She is serious about writing “Jewish literature,” and she knows her Jewish sources and treats them sensitively. Good at describing people and places, she is also good at dialogue. And she has the ability to construct a complex story from a large number of components and to build an utterly coherent whole out of them. The World to Come is architecturally complicated, but as architecture it “works” beautifully.
And yet I put this book down feeling troubled.
It is of course perfectly legitimate to take an ancient and a charming Jewish legend about prenatal learning-and-forgetting of Torah and expand it into the central conceit of a novel. Nor is the idea behind the legend merely charming. It is related to the feeling of some people, perhaps originating in the eerie phenomenon of déjà vu, that they come from an “elsewhere” in which they have known and seen things no longer remembered, and to the Platonic doctrine of reminiscence that holds that we know and recognize certain truths in this world because we have been born with preexistent knowledge. (Quite possibly, the original midrash in Tanhuma was influenced by this Platonic notion.) Our souls are older than our bodies and have already been to school.
This is an idea that a novelist can do a lot with—and Dara Horn does. Moving back and forth in time and space, she traces the path taken by the legend as it progresses through her characters, starting with Boris Kulbak, who has heard it from his mother and passed it on to his daughter, who passes it on in her own variation to her two children, one of whom has a baby in her womb. It runs through the book like a thread that keeps us from losing our way, serving as a realistic balance to the fanciful final chapter about the education of the unborn Daniel’s soul. There are, the novel tells us, two ways of thinking of the manifold ways in which we mysteriously resemble those who have come before us: one by exploring the biographical lines of transmission, and one by turning them into myth.
It is the question of transmission that links the “Torah in the womb” theme of The World to Come to the motif of forgery and plagiarism. Because all of us enter this world with innumerable traits and predispositions that we owe to others, we are all “plagiarisms” to one degree or another—as are, also, all works of art, there being no artist who is not deeply influenced by his predecessors (and perhaps no genuine Jewish writer who has not been affected by great Jewish texts). The difference between the plagiarized and the authentic is that the authentic inwardly appropriates its sources and acknowledges its debts to them; the freedom to be oneself depends on understanding where one’s room for maneuver lies, which in turn depends on understanding what has made one who one is.
In this sense, there would appear to be a perfect match in The World to Come between form and content, since in a formal sense, too, the novel balances between the borrowed and the original, utilizing preexistent texts and stories to forge a new story of its own. Like In the Image, it comes with an appendix, an author’s note, in which Dara Horn informs the reader of her sources: the angelic mentors, as it were, of her novel’s prenatal life.
What, then, troubles me? It is this.
The World to Come, whose punning title leaves us guessing whether Benjamin Ziskind has gone to his death trying to save Erica, or on the contrary has rescued her and begun a new life with her, has a clear message: legends aside, we live only once. Although we do not get to pick the aptitudes, inclinations, and abilities that we are born with, we alone decide what to do with them. We make our own choices and we make each choice a single time, because no choice ever repeats itself.
But the characters in Dara Horn’s novel do not cause us to feel they have any choice or freedom at all. The structure of the novel is so tight, its complicated plotting so meticulous, that there is no room in it for deviation; were it at any point to take a different direction because one of its characters decided to act otherwise, the entirety would be thrown out of alignment. To revert to the metaphor of architecture, it is as if the author had constructed a labyrinthine building with a very large number of rooms and then given each tenant precise instructions on what room to be in at every moment.
It is common among novelists, in discussing their craft, to report that the characters they have created occasionally do things, or pursue courses of action, that they were never intended to do or pursue. Whether characters ever quite run away from authors in such a fashion, or whether this is just a whimsical way of saying that authors sometimes surprise themselves, is moot; but the illusion that a character can act like this and has an autonomous existence that may defy his creator’s stage directions is crucial if a novel is to have imagined people who seem to us to be making real choices. It is this illusion that Dara Horn, even as she seeks to build “a paper bridge to the world to come,” has failed to create. In this respect, form and content are not matched well by her at all.
Perhaps the problem lies even deeper. Dara Horn has now—admirably, it must be said—written two novels that seriously aspire to be a new kind of American Jewish literature by following “a Jewish literary tradition of constant reference to . . . ancient text[s].” Readers of certain genres of Jewish literature, like medieval Hebrew poetry, know how extreme this kind of intertextuality, or “tessellation,” as it is sometimes called, can be, leading at times to poems in which every line has some biblical phrase or allusion.
This kind of writing, which appeals to a postmodernist sensibility with a predilection for detecting influence everywhere, has not always been appreciated in the past as much as it is today, and it indeed has its literary charms. And yet one has to be blunt about it: it is also terribly confining. Even the greatest medieval Hebrew poets suffer from overindulgence in it. In their “constant reference to ancient texts,” they frequently end up less themselves than they might have been.
Intertextuality can be reverberative, twisting and untwisting the long chains of expression in which we are the latest link. But it can also be subjugating, resulting in a writer not being given enough space, just as a writer may not give a character enough space. And space for her talent, if it is not to run aground on the preciousness of fable, is what Dara Horn needs. She may find more of it close to home than in ancient texts.