What drove you to make Marc Chagall so central to The World to Come?
The book is about the theft of a Chagall painting from a museum during a singles’ cocktail hour; it really happened at a temporary exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. In the same exhibit, there were some illustrations Chagall had done for a children’s book by Der Nister, who is one of my favorite Yiddish authors. I realized that Chagall had illustrated books for many of my favorite writers, and I began wondering how he had known them. I discovered that one of Chagall’s first jobs when he was a young man was as an art teacher in an orphanage in Russia for Jewish boys who had been orphaned by the pogroms—and Der Nister had been one of his housemates in faculty housing there, as had several other Yiddish writers.
It eventually dawned on me that Chagall was nearly the only person in this circle of artists to die a natural death; almost all of the others (including Der Nister) were murdered in various ways under the Stalinist regime. Chagall was atypical of this circle in that his work was not tied to a language that needed translation, and he became famous because of his work’s potential for universalism. The others all made the choice to commit themselves to Jewish life in the Soviet Union, and they paid for that choice with their lives. Yet it is Chagall whose works are so often used as a shorthand for a “lost world,” while the Yiddish writers’ works are almost entirely forgotten. The discrepancy disturbed me so much that I wanted to explore it.
You’re a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard. How did you get so interested in Yiddish?
I am a fourth-generation American. I learned Yiddish in college. Learning Yiddish opened an entire world to me, one so vast and luminous that I can’t believe how few people know about it.
My doctorate is about the idea of morality as a motivator of plot in works of fiction, using texts from Hebrew and Yiddish literature as case studies. And of course Yiddish literature plays an enormous role in my novel. One of the authors in my dissertation, Der Nister, is also a character in the novel. And I translated many works of Yiddish literature and incorporated them into the novel—most of them are taken directly from the syllabus of a Yiddish literature course I taught, which is also not a coincidence.
And I imagine it is also not a coincidence that the titles of both of your novels come from important ideas in Judaism.
Literature in Jewish languages has almost always been built on a kind of layering of texts. In languages like Hebrew and Yiddish, even secular literature often has references to ancient religious works built into it. I wanted to try to bring this possibility into English literature, and the titles are just one example of that. In the Image is from Genesis, where we are told that man is made in the image of God, but the main character in that novel is a person who has a massive slide collection he has assembled from his travels around the world, and the title suggests that one of the ways in which we resemble the divine image is in our eagerness to preserve what we know we cannot keep forever. The World to Come is a phrase that means several things too. In Judaism it refers to an age of redemption, which is often conflated with life after death. But of course it also literally just means the future—this world, to come. In the novel, there is an implication that these meanings might be more similar to each other than we think.
In The World to Come, the characters struggle again and again with authenticity in life and in art. Why does this matter so much?
Forgeries of all kinds come up frequently in the book—art forgery, plagiarism of literary works, and so on—with a disturbing lack of consequences. I think that when something is nearly forgotten—whether a person, a historical moment, or a work of art—there is often free reign to distort and abuse its memory, and I wanted to explore the implications of those distortions.
But there is a deeper human element to the forgeries in the book too, which connects them to a larger question that the book explores; trust and betrayal. Over and over in this novel, people arc betrayed by those they trust. I was interested in the idea of betrayal (in forgeries of all kinds, whether artistic or emotional) because of the goodness and faith it requires on the part of the victim: it’s a situation where kindness and generosity are actually what make aggression or exploitation possible, and I was curious about the ethical implications of that. When is kindness really kindness, and when is it dangerous naivete? How do we weigh our eagerness to trust the world against its eagerness to deceive or destroy us? These are questions for everyone, but of course they have a particular resonance in Jewish history.
Does a novelist have an obligation to be faithful to history?
I do think it is important to be faithful to history, even when writing fiction. Even though fiction is “made up,” we all consider it important that it be “emotionally true”—that is, that the emotions the characters experience are plausible and convincing. And that just isn’t possible in historical fiction when the historical context is inaccurate. Imagine that two centuries from now, a renowned writer decides to write a historical novel about the boom years of the turn of our current century. Let’s say it’s a novel set on Wall Street, a social satire about big money and dot-com frenzy and rampant materialistic glee, where all the characters are carefree and profligate, and all the action takes place in New York’s financial district. Now imagine that the novel’s action takes place in October of 2001. It is impossible for such a novel to be “emotionally truthful” when the author ignores the historical reality of the time—and in fact such a novel would be insulting to those who really suffered through the events of that autumn. This example may seem extreme, but I’ve read many novels about blissful life in European shtetls in the 1920s and early ’30s, nearly all of which ignore the historical fact that shtetl life had been totally decimated by World War One and the Russian-Polish War of 1919. I don’t think you can have “emotional truth” without real truth. People don’t live in bubbles, and they didn’t live in bubbles in the past either.
I think that the way we choose to remember the past affects the way we live our own lives, what we value and what we decide is worth saving. History is a sequence or a web of events, but a sequence of events alone is not a story. What makes something a story is the set of values that the storyteller uses to draw connections between events. To me, that is the exciting part of historical fiction: the ability to imagine what is obscured from us in real life, which is how the past causes the future.
This book focuses on past and future generations, on orphaned children and the absence—and presence—of parents. In the acknowledgments, you credit your own parents very graciously. shtetls in the
Parents and children are our world’s only evidence that there is life after death. In the novel, there’s a point where a child asks her mother whether she believes in reincarnation. The mother says she doesn’t, but offers another possibility of an afterlife: she tells her daughter that those who have died are in the same place as those who haven’t yet been born, and each person’s task after death is to choose the traits assigned to their descendants. That may seem like some kind of bizarre fantasy, but it’s also the reality of genetics: our ancestors’ dry bones live forever within us. And aside from genetics, it is also the reality of learning, as parents make choices about what aspects of their own lives they wish to give to their children—and it’s those choices that fascinate me.
You’ve just recently become a mother yourself. Did this affect the novel?
There is an important part of The World to Come which is about a baby (or more accurately, a soul) before its own birth. It’s true that my first child was born a few months ago, but the publishing industry moves on a geologic time scale, and when I was writing this book I wasn’t even thinking about becoming pregnant. But my sister was pregnant with her first child, and I began thinking about the legend in the Talmud in which each person is taught all the secrets of the Torah before birth, only to be forced to forget it all upon being born. In the novel there is a scene in this world before birth where everyone is studying these secrets. Of course, once the baby was born, I realized that the secrets that babies have really forgotten are just the secrets of how to sleep though the night!