By – October 17, 2011

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.

Judy Lewis, a for­mer high school Eng­lish teacher, is the founder and coor­di­na­tor of two book dis­cus­son groups in Great Neck, New York.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of W.W. 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?