The World to Come

W. W> Norton & Company  2006


In The World to Come, Dara Horn has deftly interwoven the story of a stolen painting with the story of a Jewish family. Benjamin Ziskind, a former child prodigy who writes questions for a TV quiz show, is newly divorced and still mourning the recent death of his mother. The novel begins with Benjamin’s theft of a small Chagall painting from a New York museum and then moves to Soviet Russia in the 1920s where his grandfather Boris receives art instruction from Chagall at a school for orphaned Jewish boys. There we meet the Yiddish writer Der Nister, whose spirit informs this novel.

Horn is a scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Early in the story, Benjamin, who speaks Yiddish, thinks to himself that the language is unique in having “a world of the dead built into it, a true fear of absolute trust that the other world is not separate from this one...” The words aptly describe the novel itself, which is both bravely expressive of faith and vividly evocative of Jewish life in Europe and Russia. Ben’s Russian-born mother, Rosalie, an author and illustrator of children’s books, had published a book of Yiddish folk tales.

The tales constitute the shared heritage of the Ziskind family. Horn devotes much attention to portraying each family member, in separate flashbacks, in childhood. Each is revealed as variously curious, imaginative, fearful, needing love, needing to make sense of the world. Folktales embedded in the text dramatize these essential concerns in simple and symbolic form.

Several brief chapters reveal the obscure life of Der Nister. In abject poverty and obsessed with his art, stricken by the death of his beloved daughter, the author’s life unfolds in tragic counterpoint to the brilliant success of his compatriot Chagall. These chapters add depth to the novel. Footnotes attributing the folktales and historical notes at the end of the text satisfy the reader’s questions.

Discussion Questions

From: WW Norton 

1. This book is about an art heist, or at least it starts out that way. What does Ben's theft suggest about ownership? Does anyone really own a work of art?

2. The novel incorporates the lives of two real artists, Marc Chagall and Der Nister. Are these portrayals fair? What are the limits of the artistic imagination—that is, what are the limitations of each of these artists as they appear here, and what are the limitations of the book's portrayals of these artists?

3. Members of the Ziskind family seem to be deeply or even spiritually connected to one another. What kind of potential do families have in this novel, and what is required for them to live up to it?

4. Throughout the book, there are references to various ways that life mirrors art, which in itself is created from the experience or observation of life. Which takes precedence in the novel, art or reality? Which one defines what it means to be alive for these characters?

5. Much of the novel's plot is built upon historical events that are rarely explored outside of scholarly circles, such as the pogroms of 1919 or the Stalinist purge of Jewish cultural leaders. How much of this history were you aware of prior to reading the book? Are there reasons why certain historical events (World War II, for instance) are frequently revisited in novels and movies, while others, like these, have been popularly forgotten?

6. The novel's plot is rife with forgeries as well as other forms of deception, ranging from the forged painting to the plagiarized children's books to Cung Thien Minh posing as a loyal interpreter to Sergei Popov pretending to be a friendly neighbor. What do these various deceptions have in common? For a deception to work, what is required of the deceiver, and what is required of the deceived?

7. The Rosalie Ziskind stories throughout the book are all adapted from Yiddish sources. What connections do these stories have to each other, or to the novel's main plot? Are there common themes among them?

8. A central question in the novel is one of trust. How does trust define the relationships between the characters, whether friends, relatives, lovers, or enemies?

9. Is there a life after death in this novel? For whom? How?

10. What happens to Ben and Erica at the end of the story?

11. What is the world to come?

Have You Read...