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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So why would a nice Jewish girl not write nice Jewish fiction? My last book, Stations West, was about Jewish immigrants in 19th century Oklahoma. It was very “Jewish.” It was so Jewish it was nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize (but not so Jewish that it won). One would expect that my next book would be even more “Jewish.” Yet, on the outside it perhaps doesn’t appear to be.
The book jacket calls my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy “a smart and affecting novel of family and forgery set amidst the rarefied international art world. Elm Howells has a loving family and a distinguished career at an elite Manhattan auction house. But after a tragic loss throws her into an emotional crisis, she pursues a reckless course of action that jeopardizes her personal and professional success. Meanwhile, talented artist Gabriel Connois wearies of remaining at the margins of the capricious Parisian art scene, and, desperate for recognition, he embarks on a scheme that threatens his burgeoning reputation. As these narratives converge, with disastrous consequences, A Nearly Perfect Copy boldly challenges our presumptions about originality and authenticity, loss and replacement, and the perilous pursuit of perfection.”
There is also a subplot involving a famous ceramicist Holocaust survivor and an art dealer seeking reparations for European Jewish families whose art was stolen by the Nazis. But the main protagonists aren’t Jewish. I would argue, though, that it is still a Jewish novel.
Stations West’s characters were outsiders who, through successive generations, never managed to assimilate into American culture. Similarly, Gabriel is a Spanish artist who feels othered by his language and culture. Despite the fact that he’s resided in Paris almost longer than in his native Spain, he views French culture from the outside looking in. The other protagonist, Elm, is likewise alienated, first, because her branch of her illustrious family is out of favor and second because her grief at the death of her son has created a rift between her and reality. She is no longer able to relate to others in her family or at work.
This experience of being simultaneously outside a culture while attempting to assimilate is a particularly Jewish one. The struggle with issues of national identity, of feigning integration in your own country is one that we all deal with every day, and this way of viewing the world—in the case of A Nearly Perfect Copy, a world created by a Jewish author—makes this book in its own way as Jewish as my first novel. Well, almost as Jewish.
People ask me how much research I had to do on art forgery for my new book A Nearly Perfect Copy. The answer is: a lot. Some of it was even necessary. Some of it was just procrastination.
To that end, I wandered into the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris on one hot day, more in search of a bathroom than in search of wisdom. But, reader I found both (and if you’ve been to Paris, you know how valuable a quality public bathroom is).
The exhibits were what you’d expect (Sephardic artifacts, Vichy government deportation narratives, synagogue records, suitcases—Jewish museums always have a lot of suitcases…), but the true gem here is the library. It’s small but comprehensive, and the librarian was exceedingly helpful when I asked for information
I’m not sure I found anything I couldn’t have found in other English language archives, but this pleasant air conditioned afternoon in a quiet and free study space made me think of two things.
First, there are an extraordinary number of Jewish museums. I am in the middle of a project with two friends in which we visit every museum in the five boroughs of New York City (a project that started out interesting and fun and has deteriorated into a duty as we slog through the last 29 museums. You can find a blog about the project here). There are seven Jewish museums out of the 110 museums in New York (eight if you count the Tenement Museum, ten if you count museums founded by Jews). No other ethnicity or culture or religion has as many museums devoted to it (and we’re not even counting memorials, which are not technically museums).
There are of course many reasons for the proliferation of Jewish museums: there is the rich history of the Jewish presence in New York; museums can be seen as a response to the Holocaust’s attempt to wipe out Judaism. But there is also the long history of Jewish involvement in the arts.
A subplot in my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy is the attempt to gain reparations for art stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. These attempts continue in real life, and encounter thorny legal issues. How can a family prove ownership when the records were destroyed? How do you award a painting to what is now dozens of inheritors? What if the current owners acquired the painting by legal means? Who determines the value of the paintings, and what government should be responsible for paying reparations? In my book, characters exploit these complicated ethical issues for their own financial benefit.
Though I ultimately chose not to focus on this battle (other books, fiction and non have done an excellent job of chronicling the theft—particularly from dealer and collector Paul Rosenberg—and the Nazis’ interest in art), it is worth thinking about the Jewish connection to art.
As a writer, I’ve paid scant attention to the images that accompany my work. I’m usually too preoccupied with the phrasing and timing of jokes to fret over the all-important. That’s why one of my websites looks like this. (I hope you didn’t just die of purple.)
I’m not at all trying to downplay the importance of art in storytelling. I’m simply admitting to my own deficit in this department. And I would’ve probably gone on not caring about the visual component to my work had it not been for Margarita Korol, the urban pop artist that who created the vibrant cover to my new book, Heresy on the High Beam.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment. I met Margarita while I was an intern at Tablet, where she creates illustrations that accompany many of the articles. Almost right away, I decided I liked her when I realized she wore earrings as big as mine. Yes, a big pair of hoops is all it takes to secure my friendship.
After my internship was over we met up for coffee at my behest. I had an ideaI wanted to discuss with her and needed her visual expertise. I had just been called “The Anti-Girlfriend” by a guy, a former flame, to which I responded, “Because just like the antichrist, I’m Jewish and I have curly hair?” Next, I did exactly what anyone in my shoes would’ve done—bought the domain and resolved to create a website by the same name.
Well, you might be wondering, what’s art got to do with it? I was wondering thesame thing myself. For some reason, the notion that this site should have a strong visual storytelling component got stuck in my head. It might’ve had something to do with all the graphic novels I was reading at the time.
Thankfully, Margarita was game and we started working on dating comics for the site. I would send her dialogue sets and she would return with comics that far exceeded anything I had imagined when I jotted my thoughts down. She didn’t merely illustrate—she improved the stories with her visuals and sometimes edited my words for the better.
Plus, the collaboration was fun. As a freelance writer, you spend so much time working alone with little input from others that it was wonderful to pool my ideas with another creative person who possesses similar sensibilities.
Obviously, Margarita was the natural choice to create the cover for my essay collection. When asked what went into creating the vibrant image that introduced the text, she responded, “Heresy on the High Beam channeled some of my favorite things: a strong female lead, ethnic struggle, and a Lisa Frank palette.”
She forgot to mention big earrings. I guess that’ll have to wait until our next collaboration.