The Sacred and the Profane

Published December 09, 2005, issue of December 09, 2005.
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Like her prize-winning debut novel, “In the Image” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), Dara Horn’s remarkable second work spans generations, continents and languages. “The World To Come,” which will be published in January 2006 by W.W. Norton, centers on former child prodigy Ben Ziskind and his twin sister, Sara, who live, love, mourn and steal art in contemporary New York. Tracing the mysterious provenance of a Marc Chagall painting, the book also relates the real-life tragedy of the Yiddish writer known as Der Nister (the Hidden One), who was murdered by the Soviets before completing his masterpiece. Horn recently discussed the new book with Josh Lambert, who reviews contemporary Jewish fiction for such publications as the Forward, the San Francisco Chronicle and Canada’s Globe and Mail, among others.

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Josh Lambert: Of all the Yiddish writers you might have chosen, why was it Der Nister who became a major character in “The World To Come”?

Dara Horn: Der Nister’s symbolist stories are the closest I’ve come to the experience of inhabiting someone else’s brain. They are tremendously weird, with staggeringly kaleidoscopic plots that are nonetheless very haunting and, only after much rereading, astoundingly meaningful. Chagall’s most imaginative paintings seem childish by comparison. What’s amazing is that the two of them were once housemates. They lived together in faculty housing at an orphanage for children orphaned by Russian pogroms. But their fates as artists couldn’t have been more different. While Chagall became more and more famous, Der Nister became more and more impoverished and ultimately was persecuted by the Soviet regime, dying in a gulag after his work was largely censored out of existence. The different destinies of these two talents really demonstrate what pains me most about the popular perceptions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. What was lost is not something that can be understood without the language, and what lasts is not necessarily what’s best.

JL: Is the incorporation into the novel of translated texts by Yiddish authors an attempt to recuperate some of those losses? How did you select these texts?

DH: I selected these texts because I liked them. And yes, to recuperate losses, as you put it. I translated or adapted them myself, but in the back of the book I included a list of sources where readers can find them, in the hope that a few might be moved to bring these forgotten writers back to life. (I can dream.) But I also chose them for a meta-fictional reason: All of them are, in one way or another, stories about confronting loss. In Nadir’s “The Man Who Slept Through the End of the World,” loss is played for laughs; in Peretz’s “The Dead Town,” for moralism; in Manger’s “Book of Paradise,” for fantasy; in Mani Leyb’s “Yingl Tsingl Khvat,” for the childish idealism of those who don’t even recognize what they’ve lost. I also wanted to broaden the understanding of what Yiddish literature is, by placing it in a context where it does not immediately appear to be Yiddish literature at all. (To say more would probably ruin the story.)

JL: Speaking of contexts, the book undeniably participates in a Jewish textual tradition. Yet it’s written in English, and much of the action takes place in New Jersey and Manhattan. How fundamental are English language and literature, and American life, to the story you’re telling? Could your protagonists, Ben and Sara, be the same people if they lived in Jewish communities in, say, Buenos Aires or Mexico City?

DH: I’m probably less conscious of how English works in this book than how Hebrew or Yiddish work in it, since English is more medium than subject. And some of the book’s preoccupations that appear to be American are probably more Jewish than American: The role of terrorism in the book, for instance, is something that Jews in Buenos Aires could unfortunately appreciate. But I do think that American history is a fundamental part of this book. Ben and Sara would be quite different people if they lived in Buenos Aires, if only because so much of who they are is shaped by their father, a badly wounded veteran of the Vietnam War. When I was growing up, I found that my school history classes rarely ventured beyond World War II, with the result that I learned very little about the Cold War or Vietnam in school. When I started learning about them on my own, I was fascinated by the kinds of moral choices that made my teachers decide not to bother teaching about this period, and not just the obvious ones. Ben and Sara’s father has very particular motivations that lead him to Vietnam, and they have to do with a kind of moral drive and assumption of others’ generosity that amount to a very horrifying naiveté. I don’t think that’s particularly American, but the earnestness of it probably is — and I think that earnestness, and that assumption of others’ generosity, is an unfortunate trait of Jewish history, too.

JL: I suspect that some of the novel’s readers might be tempted to categorize the book under the rubric of “magical realism.” How do you feel about that categorization?

DH: I think “magical realism” is a term that’s misused a lot. Magical realism in fiction is the mixing of the magical directly with the real; in an otherwise realistically rendered scene, for instance, it suddenly starts raining flowers. This book is mainly realistically written, but it includes scenes and ideas that take place outside of the realm of ordinary life, whether in a world outside of the one the characters live in or in a character’s state of delirium or dream, which is not quite the same thing as playing with reality. But I do think that there is an idea in Judaism of the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the sacred, and that idea was very important in how I created the structure of this book.

“The World To Come” means different things to different people. In the Jewish tradition, of course, it usually refers to a messianic age, which is often conflated with life after death. But there are also passages in Jewish religious literature that refer to a world where people live before their own births — people for whom, I realized, the term “the world to come” would simply refer to the world of the living. And then there’s the literal meaning of the phrase “the world to come” — that is, this world, in the future. In the novel, these meanings turn out to be much more similar to each other than might be expected. I suppose one could call that magical realism, but I prefer to think of it in terms of the division between profane and holy, and how the two interact in the real world.

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