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.”
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.
Second, 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.
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Recently, 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.
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I’ve often been asked both by journalists and by my readers why my novel The Elixir of Immortality tells the story of the family of Baruch Spinoza. My usual reply is that it’s simply because of my lifelong interest in that Jewish philosopher who lived in seventeenth-century Holland.
I don’t really remember how I first became aware ofSpinoza. I do know that I ran across him at a fairly early age, probably because of my curiosity about philosophy in general and my teenage tendency to ponder existential issues.
No one who has read Bertrand Russell’s great work A History of Western Philosophy (1946) could fail to be impressed by the opening words of the Englishman’s chapter about him: “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him but ethically he is supreme.”
Russell’s work showed me that important philosophers tended to come into conflict with the theological or ecclesiastical establishments and, more often than not, with the political authorities as well. Spinoza was no exception. One might suppose that the very word ‘philosophy’ was tantamount to the struggle for independent thought as opposed to the passive acceptance of dogma. A true philosopher always takes risks that endanger his own life and security. Spinoza learned that lesson the hard way. The Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated and expelled him, and even today Orthodox Jews regard him with suspicion. Continue reading