He wishes the past had begun no earlier than an afternoon four years ago when he departed the third-class car at the Gare de l’Est. His first encounter with the pandemonium of the Parisian streets had unnerved him and caused him to duck back into the station, though there was no comfort in its milling crowd. Seeking sanctuary, he ignored the address in his pocket and accosted passersby with the single French phrase he’d learned, “Où est le Louvre?” Their answers were incomprehensible. But following some homing instinct, he schlepped his rope-strung suitcase through passages and arcades; he stumbled past mannequins in emporium windows, along an avenue of ivory-white houses with wrought-iron balconies that might have lined a boulevard in paradise — and there it was.
Understand, Soutine had never before been face-to-face with a masterpiece. He’d only seen cheap reproductions and faded plates in the books of the small academy library in Vilna. Now, in those baroque, quarter-mile-long corridors, he came upon, unannounced,
Titian’s Entombment and El Greco’s writhing, attenuated Christ on the Cross; he approached without fanfare Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath and — God help him! — the Dutchman’s magisterial Slaughtered Ox. He viewed Corot’s Lady in Blue, the cascading folds of whose gown made him forget even to look for the Mona Lisa; and a portrait in oil by Jean Fouquet of Charles VII, whose unhappy eyes penetrated his vitals like a cobbler’s awl. He felt he might be close to a seizure and hugged the walls, frightened of the uniformed guards staring suspiciously at the threadbare Jew. He wanted to hide in the privy until the museum closed, then haunt the galleries by himself all night long, or for eternity.
It was only by virtue of some cosmic error, Chaim decided, that the likes of him was allowed to enter such a place. Shaken to his toes from a surfeit of bliss, his ulcer flared, his left eyelid fluttered like an insect’s wing. He had upon him only the meager pin money donated by a sympathetic doctor in Vilna. Nevertheless, for the first time in his life he hailed a motor-cab and gave the driver the scrap of paper with the scrawled destination: 2 passage de Dantzig, Montparnasse. This was the address of la Ruche, the Beehive, the octagonal artists’ phalanstery fabricated out of a disassembled pavilion from the 1889 Universal Exposition. The same world’s fair for which the Eiffel Tower had been built. The eccentric structure, whose cupola towered above the surrounding rooftops, had been financed by the beneficent sculptor Alfred Boucher, who lived with his pet donkey in an outbuilding on the overgrown grounds. The Beehive itself housed a disorderly warren of studios thronged with a ragtag assortment of gifted immigrants who had swapped the poverty of inhospitable nations for the more romantic poverty of the City of Light.
No one there was especially happy to see Soutine. His reputation for being a temperamental nudzhe had preceded him among the Russians, some of whom had been his fellow students in Lithuania. They informed him that the swarming tenement was full up. The good-natured sculptor Miestchaninoff, however, agreed for some imaginary fee to share his studio, at least until the yokel from Smilovitchi was on his feet. A decade would pass before that was the case.
Fanatically private despite their close quarters, Chaim hung a burlap curtain over his designated corner of the wedge-shaped studio. It was a blind corner unilluminated by the tall windows that gave onto the roof of the Vaugirard slaughterhouse, whose stench pervaded the apartments night and day. (Its butchers, with an inherent disdain for artists, would raid the Beehive’s garden at night, lopping off the heads of sculptures with brickbats.) He painted in his long johns to preserve his only suit of clothes, itself already much the worse for wear. As always he worked in fits and starts, attacking the canvas during the fits like a berserker. In Vilna his teachers had tried to wean him from his unschooled early efforts. They’d humbled him with the examples of the Old Masters, stunned him into an apoplexy with images from Dürer and della Francesca. They hampered him with the rules of symmetry and linear perspective. Housebroken, he’d settled for attempting sober nature mortes in the manner of the Dutch, or two-dimensional, tempura portraits like those preserved on the walls of Byzantium. Still tentative during those first months in Paris, he painted in muted pigments: burnt sienna, yellow ocher, Van Dyke brown, and on audacious days a tincture of Prussian blue. But that was before he met Modigliani.
He hadn’t been looking for a friend. He had even avoided his compatriots Kikoïne and Krémègne, with whom he’d studied and starved in Vilna. The electrifying air of Paris was a shock to his system after the prevailing gloom of the Russian Pale. Reclusive by nature, since arriving in the city Chaim had gone virtually to ground. He might have attained some fluency in the language of his somber pigments, but with other people he could be inarticulate to the point of moronic. Moreover, when not painting he was occupied with the business of survival. He’d spent the remainder of the Vilna doctor’s subsidy on a tutor who’d abandoned him with only the rudiments of a pidgin French he would never master. To assuage his lifelong hunger, he took odd jobs. He appeared for the sunrise shape-ups at the sites of public works, humped crates at the Gare Montparnasse, hoisted baskets of produce at les Halles. It was labor that aggravated the chronic inflammation of his intestines and left him disabled for days.
While he resolved each time to resist the Italian’s calls to waywardness, he nearly always responded like one in thrall to some hypnotic suggestion.
With the pittance he earned, he purchased the fruit, fish, and fowl that became the subjects of his compositions. He painted them with a watering mouth, convinced that his empty stomach heightened his concentration. Then ravenous, he would devour his subjects. On the evening he made the acquaintance of Modigliani, he was painting a brace of herrings dangling from a chianti bottle. He was involved in daubing a dollop of red to the neck of the sap-green bottle, a pale red the color of a robin’s breast with which he was dissatisfied. That’s when the curtain was yanked aside by Jacques Lipchitz, who whispered to Amedeo Modigliani, “The Litvak Soutine.”
They hadn’t known he was there. The two artists had come to visit Oscar Miestchaninoff, who was absent from his studio. They had poked about in the meantime, inspecting the sculptor’s sleek marble heads. Curious to see more, Lipchitz drew aside the hanging burlap to reveal the immigrant in his paint-dappled gatkes.
As Chaim, in his absorption, was oblivious to their presence, they stood there watching his rapt activity. “The shtot meshugenah,
‘the village idiot,’ they called him back in Hotzeplotz or wherever he comes from,” Lipchitz confided to the Italian. But when he started to drop the curtain, Modi grabbed it, still interested in observing the painter at work. Lipchitz looked from Modigliani to the grubby shtetl refugee, wondering what he was so fascinated by.
They might have turned and departed unnoticed had not the bluff Miestchaninoff hailed them upon entering his studio: “Landsmen!” At that Chaim turned from his easel and was outraged.
He spat three times in anger at their trespass, and remembering his naked canvas, spun around to cover it with a sheet.
“We were just admiring your … offering?” said Modigliani, aiming a finger at the herrings, as if the fish rather than their rendering were the object of their espionage.
Chaim fumed. “You had no right!”
Modi stepped forward to introduce himself, calm in the face of the painter’s vexation, but not yet ready to be pacified, Chaim was slow to take his hand. Though he nevertheless accepted the offer of a cigarette; it was his policy never to refuse a handout. Then even as he bent to let the Italyaner light his Gitanes, he was struck by the man’s Sephardic beauty, which he seemed to recognize despite their never having met. Who hadn’t heard tales of the penniless prince of the carrefour Vavin?
He was everything that Chaim wasn’t. There was a thoroughbred elegance about him that the nap of his velvet jacket and the frayed edge of his cardinal-red scarf could not impugn. His dense shock of curling midnight hair was disheveled from having been tousled (one supposed) by a model or mistress. His faun’s eyes were at once teasing and tender. In his presence Chaim was keenly aware of the heavy lids of his own sloe-black eyes, the left one given to a nervous tic, the right half-hidden by a fringe of oily hair. His nose was a bulbous beetroot, his lips what the goyim called “nigger.” Hadn’t he entitled the single self-portrait he’d bothered to execute The Grotesque?
Modigliani graciously invited Soutine to join them for aperitifs.
“I’ve had a loan today from my rainy-day patron Guillaume. The drinks are on me.”
Still reluctant to let go of his umbrage, Chaim couldn’t help but feel flattered at being included. No one in recent memory had requested his company. Grudgingly he conceded that his work was in any case kaput for the night.
“I was going out anyway,” he lied, and began to pull on his filthy pants over his filthy long johns. He snuffed out the spirit lamp and followed the rakish Italian through the little regiment of carved busts and torsos.
Lipchitz and Miestchaninoff, however, begged off. Jacques remembered that he had a wife and the pie-faced Oscar a rare commission to complete. So it was left to Modi to introduce the unfledged immigrant to the city after dark.
“Come, Soutine,” he said, “without hope, we live in desire.”
It was an enticement Chaim would hear various versions of in the coming months and years. But while he resolved each time to resist the Italian’s calls to waywardness, he nearly always responded like one in thrall to some hypnotic suggestion.
Stern’s fiction, with its deep grounding in Yiddish folklore, has prompted critics such as Cynthia Ozick to hail him as a successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer. He has won five Pushcart Prizes, an O’Henry Award, a Pushcart Writers’ Choice Award and a National Jewish Book Award. For thirty years, Stern taught at Skidmore College, the majority of those years as Writer-in-Residence. He has also been a Fulbright lecturer at Bar Elan University in Tel Aviv, the Moss Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Memphis, and Lecturer in Jewish Studies for the Prague Summer Seminars. Stern splits his time between Brooklyn and Balston Spa, New York.