The Vil­lage Idiot

  • Review
By – December 5, 2022

Those who have fol­lowed the career of Steve Stern will no doubt hear the title of his new nov­el, The Vil­lage Idiot, and pre­pare for a mod­ern Yid­dishkeit folk­tale — some­thing about, say, a present-day Gim­pel in Ten­nessee, where­in some leap of the super­nat­ur­al will afflict the protagonist.

Sor­ry, no. The idiot in ques­tion left the vil­lage long ago. And while idio­cy is in abun­dance in the epony­mous hero, there is also unques­tion­able genius.

Stern’s for­mi­da­ble nov­el is about the real-life artist Chaim Sou­tine, who was born in the Belaru­sian town of Smilav­ičy in 1893 (and whose local nick­name was appar­ent­ly the shtot meshuge­nah,” or vil­lage idiot”) but moved to Paris on the eve of the First World War to become a great artist in an era of unpar­al­leled talent.

And while a straight­for­ward sto­ry about a rel­a­tive­ly well-known his­tor­i­cal fig­ure feels like a depar­ture for Stern (pity the writer who doesn’t try some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent), it’s also pos­si­ble to see how he would have been drawn to a char­ac­ter like Chaim Soutine.

Sou­tine is the shtetl fool whose bril­liance can­not be detect­ed with­in the con­fines of a back­wa­ter, but who comes to full flower in Paris along­side Pablo Picas­so and Marc Cha­gall (both of whom make brief cameos in the book, and both of whom Sou­tine holds in some mea­sure of contempt.)

The Paris of a cen­tu­ry ago — the ter­rain of Ernest Hem­ing­way, F. Scott Fitzger­ald, and Josephine Bak­er — has of course been well trod in every­thing from A Mov­able Feast to Mid­night in Paris. But there is a less remarked-upon aspect of the School of Paris: its dis­tinct strain of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ry. From Bul­gar­ia came Jules Pascin. From Lithua­nia, Jacques Lip­chitz. Cha­gall and Ossip Zad­kine both hailed from Vit­se­bek (in Belarus), and Moi­se Kisling was born in Poland.

These vision­ary minds who rein­vent­ed mod­ern art could have eas­i­ly been the town sofer a gen­er­a­tion ear­li­er; instead, they were carous­ing with each oth­er at Café de la Rotonde.

The sto­ry of a great artist’s life can, like Som­er­set Maugham’s fic­tion­al­ized life of Paul Gau­guin in The Moon and Six­pence, serve as an excel­lent vehi­cle to opine on the nature of art. But with Sou­tine, Stern is more inter­est­ed in the self-pun­ish­ment, self-loathing, and squalor of the artist. Unlike his best friend, Amedeo Modigliani, Sou­tine does not treat him­self to Paris’s var­i­ous louche plea­sures. He rarely drinks. He doesn’t chase after young Parisian mod­els. He speaks in bro­ken, half-com­pre­hen­si­ble phras­es and spits insults at one and all, choos­ing not to spare bene­fac­tors. He doesn’t even bathe.

And yet the rich­ness of his work super­sedes the pover­ty of his hygiene.

Fame and (mod­er­ate) for­tune find Sou­tine, as do a hand­ful of women who ded­i­cate them­selves to his well-being. When Sou­tine comes into this ear­ly mon­ey, his first lav­ish pur­chase is the car­cass of a cow — which he brings back to his stu­dio so that he can attempt his own recre­ation of Rem­brandt van Rijn’s sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry cen­tu­ry paint­ing, The Slaugh­tered Ox.” The car­cass quick­ly rots, and its putrid smell prompts com­plaints from the neigh­bors and a vis­it from Parisian san­i­ta­tion officials.

This is devo­tion that Soutine’s fel­low Jews know well; it is the devo­tion of a zealot. Every­thing is about his art, just as the rab­bis in Smilav­ičy made every­thing about the law (which is not to say that Sou­tine is reli­gious; he is con­temp­tu­ous of his shtetl childhood).

Lit­tle is known about Sou­tine (Stern’s main source is Stan­ley Meisler’s Shock­ing Paris), so Stern has great free­dom to fill in the gaps. But he nev­er­the­less fol­lows the con­tours of Soutine’s life. World his­tor­i­cal events begin to close in on Sou­tine, and even his clois­tered, unlove­ly exis­tence begins to evaporate.

Yet even in his moment of great­est per­il, as his fate looks clear­ly bad, Sou­tine reminds his lover Marie-Berthe Aurenche, And don’t for­get please my easels and oils!” They are the words of the faith­ful. Artist and zealot, two sides of the same coin.

Max Gross is a nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist who lives in For­est Hills. His 2020 nov­el, The Lost Shtetl, won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award

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