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 heaven…an 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.