Author Archives: Nina Siegal

Nina Siegal

About Nina Siegal

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. Her most recent novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available.

Novels and the Art of the Mauritshuis

Last night, I had the great honor of reading from my new novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) inside the museum that holds the 1632 Rembrandt masterpiece that inspired it: “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”

anatomy-lesson-rembrandt
The occasion was the opening of the renovated Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, a jewel-box museum with a small (with just 800 artworks) but extraordinary collection of Dutch and Flemish Golden Age paintings. Its holdings also include Vermeer’s “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” and Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” two paintings that have been the inspiration for two highly successful novels.

Lately, a lot of people have been asking me why one museum contains so many works of art that have been explored through recent works of literature. It’s a good question, and one I’ve been mulling for a while.

First, a disclaimer: Until I first visited the Mauritshuis in 2006 to start doing research for my own novel, I didn’t know that “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” was housed in the same museum, even though I was aware of Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name. And I didn’t hear about Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, until my agent was shopping my book and her publisher rejected mine on the grounds that “two such deserving novels shouldn’t be competing on the same list.” I took that as a great compliment – and it’s one of my favorite rejection letters ever.

No, back in 2006, I used to visit the Mauritshuis about once a month, traveling down to the Hague from Amsterdam, sitting with the painting for about an hour a time, looking, thinking, listening to art patrons and docents talk about the painting, scribbling notes in a small Rembrandt notebook I’d bought in the gift shop downstairs – basically just soaking in the work. It was a work I loved before I came here, of course, and I had been looking at it in reproduction for a long time. My father purchased a 9×11 inch poster in the same gift shop downstairs in 1965, just after he finished medical school, and he hung it in his study. That’s where, as I child, I looked at it quite often.

Seeing the real work in person was something else entirely. First, I was awed by the size of it – nine figures on a canvas, all life-size. In that intimate gallery setting, you really feel as if you’re in the dissection chamber, in and among the surgeons. Looking at a dead body that’s right there before you. The faces of the live men are vivid, colorful, ruddy-cheeked. The dead man is pale, but fleshy, a human being too.

anatomy-lessonSecond, I was amazed by how much I could discover by just sitting with it in that gallery, observing. It’s the kind of painting that’s almost like a great jazz recording, which you can listen to again and again and always discover something new. I found inspiration sitting there, sometimes when I was carrying around emotions and thoughts from my own life, a few times in moments when I was too tired to even look anymore.

One morning, I was particularly sad because a man I’d fallen in love with in Amsterdam was going off to travel, and was leaving me. I looked at the dead man in the painting, stripped almost bare, his body pallid and naked, and I thought: someone loved that man, too, and he left her. First, he left her through wandering – he was a thief and a vagabond – and then he left her for good. It was the start of one of the key narratives of my book.

For the last two years, the Mauritshuis has been closed for expansion and renovation, and in the meantime “my” painting has been exhibited at various museums, including the Gemeentemuseum, another gorgeous museum also in The Hague. I went to visit it there two months ago, and felt like it was a bit far away from me, although I could still walk up to it and see it up close. The gallery spaces were just much larger, and in the broader context with many more works surrounding it, it just felt less intimate.

Last night, before I read from my novel, I snuck back upstairs to the gallery to see “my” painting in the room where I’d visited with it so many times before. It felt like visiting a dear friend. It occurred to me then that perhaps the reason the Mauritshuis’ collection has inspired works of literature is that when you’re in the museum you feel a kind of personal intimacy with the paintings that’s rare in larger museums – perhaps Chevalier and Tartt felt that too.

For me, that moment of being alone in the room with “The Anatomy Lesson,” eight years later, now with the novel finished, was a kind of homecoming, the circle finally complete.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Asher Lev as a Model for Rembrandt

my-name-is-asher-levAfter reading the penultimate draft of my latest novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a trusted reader and one of my closest friends from the Iowa Writers Workshop, author Josh Rolnick, suggested I take a moment to read Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev.

At first, I couldn’t quite imagine how a novel about a Hasidic Jew in twentieth century New York City would relate to my story, which centers around the creation of Rembrandt’s first masterpiece, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” set on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632. But Josh has never steered me wrong in the past, so I followed his advice.

Potok’s 1972 novel tells the life story of a young Orthodox Jew with prodigious artistic talent growing up in a cloistered Hasidic community in Brooklyn, who finds himself torn between his family’s expectations and his artistic calling. The more he follows the path that seems to be his destiny, the more he finds himself in serious conflict with his father and alienated from his community. In the end, Lev paints an image that makes it impossible for him to ever return home again: a crucifixion.

After reading the book, I could see certain immediate parallels with my own novel. In Potok’s novel, Lev invokes Christian iconography to explore a non-Christian theme: Jewish suffering in general, and in particular the suffering of his own mother, Rivkeh, who has been at the center of the emotional tug-of-war between father and son. (Marc Chagall also painted a crucifixion scene, by the way, “White Crucifixion” (1938), which is widely regarded as a representation of the suffering of the Jewish people). In my novel, Rembrandt brings Christian iconography into a totally secular setting: the intellectual and medical arena of the anatomy theater.

Rather than a crucifixion scene, Rembrandt painted a secular group portrait of surgeons, barbers, and apprentices at a dissection as though they were disciples standing around the dead Jesus. That’s one interpretation, of course. It’s also possible to read the dead man in Rembrandt’s masterpiece as a kind of Lazarus in the tomb. Scholars over the years have suggested both. In either case, Rembrandt has employed biblical imagery in a context where it would’ve been considered highly provocative, if not scandalous.

Rembrandt doesn’t appear to have been much of a churchgoer, but he was clearly a reader of the bible, and he painted scenes out of both the Old and New Testaments. More importantly, like Asher Lev, he was a student of art history, and western painting begins, of course, with Christian imagery: crucifixion, Madonna-and-child, last suppers, ascensions, descents from the cross… A painter can’t be a master, even today, unless he or she is familiar with this imagery. For Rembrandt in the seventeenth century and for a painter worth his salt in twentieth century New York, invoking classical western art traditions in this way was more about painting than religion.

But this may not have been the main reason Josh suggested I read My Name is Asher Lev. What he was offering me, by way of Potok, was a model for a narrative arc that would help me take my novel to the next, and higher level. That is to say, a way to have the novel explore how a man comes to break through his personal and cultural barriers to create a work of art that is both of himself and beyond himself – i.e., in some way universal.

That was the fundamental shift that my novel needed to contain, and after reading Asher Lev I was able to go back to The Anatomy Lesson with fresh eyes, and a clearer perspective on the larger narrative arc that my novel needed to take. I was grateful to Josh for the suggestion, and to Chaim Potok for showing me the way.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

On Being Jewish in Amsterdam

anatomy-lessonRecently, a journalist who was interviewing me asked me to describe what it felt like to be a Jewish New Yorker living in Amsterdam. She put it this way: “Is it okay for you there?” As it happens, the interviewer was a Dutch Jewish woman who had moved to New York, where, she confessed to me, she felt a lot more “at home.” “It’s hard to be Jewish in Amsterdam,” she said.

It was interesting to me that she put it that way. So many of the Dutch people I’ve met here are always saying what an open, tolerant, international city Amsterdam is, and how Jews have always been so welcome here. But the truth is, I’ve never been able to say that I’ve felt “at home” as a Jewish person in Amsterdam, though I have been living here for the last eight years and in many other ways I do feel at home.

I came here in 2006 to begin research for my second novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014), which takes place in this city on way day in 1632, and tells the imagined story behind Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. I rented my first apartment in the part of the city where Rembrandt used to live, which is known as the Jodenbuurt, or Jewish quarter. The Rembrandt House Museum, in Rembrandt’s former home, is on the Jodenbreestraat, or Jewish Broadway.

Ever since the sixteenth century this quarter of the city, outside of the Centrum, had been a sanctuary for Jews fleeing persecution first from Portugal and Spain, and later from Central and Eastern Europe. For a long time, scholars used to insist that Rembrandt was a friend to the Jews because he lived in this neighborhood and painted portraits of a famous Amsterdam rabbi and several Old Testament scenes here, but more recently that history has been called into question.

This is the neighborhood where Baruch Spinoza lived and worked. There are five synagogues in that neighborhood on a single block, including the awe-inspiring seventeenth-century Portuguese Synagogue, and four other synagogues that now comprise the Amsterdam Jewish Museum, a temple to a tragic history.

Amsterdam was indeed once known as city that was welcoming to Jews, who were granted citizenship as early as 1616; for years the city was known as “Mokum” the Hebrew word for “place.” And of course everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, Amsterdam’s most famous Jew, who was also a German Jew whose family moved here to get away from the Nazis – unsuccessfully, of course.

Some people still call it Mokum, and the Dutch national soccer team, Ajax, is still (in rather poor taste I think) still known as “the Jews.” But most of the Jews are gone now. About 90 percent of the Jewish population of the Netherlands perished in WWII, the highest percentage loss of a national population in all of Europe, according to the Columbia Guide to the Holocaust.

The Jewish community, such as it is, is now centered in the southern part of the city, and walking through Rembrandt’s old neighborhood feels like walking through a ghost town, with many of the Jewish buildings denuded of their former cultural purpose, or turned to memorials. Lots of the buildings in the district are new, too, and that’s because after the Jewish families were rounded up here, their homes were looted and ransacked to the extent that even the lumber was stripped from their walls and floors by desperate Amsterdammers during the Hunger Winter of 1944 and 45. They were in such a bad state that they had to be torn down.

Strangely, the experience of living and working in that neighborhood made me feel more Jewish than I had ever felt growing up in New York and Great Neck, in two very busy Jewish communities, surrounded by Jews. I have always called myself a “secular, cultural Jew,” who feels connected to Jewish life, but doesn’t practice any form of observance. I have no Dutch ancestry, as far as I know, but my mother’s side of the family was from Hungary and Ukraine. Most of my mother’s relatives in Hungary died in Auschwitz; my grandfather survived three concentration camps, and was liberated from Mauthausen. Those were the two camps where most of the Dutch Jews were killed as well.

Surrounded by a completely destroyed Jewish community, I started to feel the power and weight of an absence I had only ever imagined or read about in books. In place of a vibrant Jewish community holding services in the beautiful local temples, there were historical artifacts documenting those disappeared customs and people. Where there used to be a lively Jewish theater, filled with actors, musicians and laughter, there is now an empty shell of a building filled with a memorial wall and a single burning flame.

Over time, being in the Jodenbuurt engendered in me a deep sense of longing for a community I never knew. It made me long, too, for the community of easy Jewishness that I’d left behind in New York, where there were still people simply being alive, being Jews.

In answer to the interviewer’s question, I had to confess that somehow being here in Amsterdam helped me connect with some part of the reality of being a Jewish person. Not to connect to the culture that I had come to know as Jewish culture, but to come into contact with the element of our history that is absence, disappearance, and devastation. That is still very real here in Amsterdam, as it is in other parts of Europe, too, even if there are few people who want to talk about it anymore today.

None of that made it into the Rembrandt novel, but it will be part of my next book, a project I’m beginning to embark on now.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy