We're pleased to offer a new installment of 3MI - where three questions are customized and the last two are the same for all takers - to coincide with Dara Horn's L.A. appearances this weekend at both Vroman's and Sinai Temple. (Details at the end of the interview.)
Dara Horn is an award-winning novelist, essayist, professor, and scholar. Born in 1977, she is currently a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard University, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. Her first novel, In the Image, published by W.W. Norton when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. It was also chosen as one of the Best Books of 2002 by the San Francisco Chronicle ("stunning and absorbing") and one of the Top Five Novels of 2002 by the Christian Science Monitor ("a work of raw genius"), along with rave reviews throughout the United States and overseas. Her work has appeared in many national and international publications, and she has also worked for Newsweek, Time, and The New Republic. She has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College, and has lectured at universities and cultural institutions throughout the United States and Canada. Her new novel, The World to Come, will be published by W.W. Norton in January 2006. She lives with her husband and daughter in New York City.
1) Time Magazine called your novel - which has drawn favorable comparisons to Nicole Krauss' The History of Love - "a "deeply satisfying literary mystery."Given that one of the interminable debates out there has to do with the eternal conflict between the "genre" and the "literary," what experiences can you share about having successfully melded the two? How much - if at all - did you weigh the question of "literary" versus "mystery"? Or do you think everyone is fussing over nothing?
DH: I think the divide between "literary" and "genre" fiction is rather arbitrary. Crime and Punishment is a thriller, and there are plenty of books that are called "literary" simply because they don't have a conventional plot. But the genres are useful in describing a book, which is how you get people to read it. When I published my first novel, I was living in an apartment on the 31st floor, and I had trouble describing what my book was about in the elevator, even though it was a long ride. At some point I said to myself, "I wish I had just written a book about an art heist." So I wrote my second book about an art heist, and I certainly owe that external structure of the book to "genre" fiction. But I really saw the art heist or mystery plot as a way of bringing the reader along into a particular story, into a world of art and literature that might not be familiar, and into an exploration of other ideas - about who owns a work of art, for instance, or what's authentic and what's fake or forged, or whether art or literature can offer people some kind of redemption, or why we trust people at all.
2) Your novel incorporates figures like Marc Chagall and the Yiddish Writer Known as Der Nister.(Take that, Prince!) What sort of challenges did working with these characters present?
DH: Writing about real people means approaching them with respect, and, I think, fairness. In real life, Chagall and Der Nister (a pen name meaning "The Hidden One") were once housemates. As young men, after both of them had already achieved considerable acclaim, they were teachers in an orphanage for children who had been orphaned by Russian pogroms. They lived there in faculty housing together and collaborated on children's books. But what fascinated me is the point where their lives diverged. Chagall went to the West, became French, and died at age 97 as a worldwide household name. Meanwhile, Der Nister died in 1950 in a Soviet prison camp, and his last novel's manuscript was lost forever. In writing about these men as characters, I knew that everyone is familiar with Chagall, but no one has ever heard of Der Nister. In the novel, I had a chance to balance things, while being careful to present both of them with respect to history. Der Nister emerges as the main character, and you see from his perspective what it might have been like to really be crushed as an artist, as he was by the Soviet regime. Everyone can imagine what it's like to be famous. But despite our lust for stories of wars and genocide, no one really wants to imagine what it means to be forgotten-- not forgotten and then "redeemed" years later by some lost work of art resurfacing, but genuinely, completely, irreparably forgotten. We like to believe that time will tell the value of an artist's work, but I think that what lasts is not necessarily what's best.
3) You've taught Jewish literature at Harvard and Sarah Lawrence.What do you think the future of "Jewish literature" looks like - and in an increasingly multicultural literary landscape is that still a useful label?
DH: Jewish literature has always been multicultural, multilingual, multinational. But from a historical perspective, "Jewish literature" usually meant literature written in Jewish languages - Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, or any of the other several dozen Jewish languages. So the label "Jewish literature" only becomes an irritatingly fraught one when applied to literature in non-Jewish languages, because then one has to consider what it means to address questions of Jewish cultural interest for a general audience, and that can be pointless and tedious if it's treated as a labeling game, as it often is. I do think it's occasionally useful to talk about "Jewish literature" in languages like English, especially with writers like Steve Stern whose work is so immensely informed by (and dependent on) a knowledge of and grappling with Jewish literary culture. What's no longer useful is the question that I and many other writers are still asked over and over again, which is "Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?" Fifty years ago, this was a loaded question whose answer could make or break an American writer's career. That isn't true anymore. I think in the future there will be more writers who will feel freer to draw on this tradition and to reinvent it, and to do so in ways that are interesting in universal human terms - which is what Jewish literature has always done.
4) Who's the best author we've never heard of?
DH: Lamed Shapiro. He was an American Yiddish writer whose short stories are beyond masterful. The good news is that a new translated collection of his stories is going to be published next year. The bad news is that since they're being translated from Yiddish and marketed as such, there's a high risk that potential readers will assume that they fit the completely false stereotype of Yiddish literature as "funny," sentimental, nostalgic, kitshy, and so forth-- which would be tragic, because they are actually stomach-churning, brain-warping masterpieces.
5) Ask yourself any question you like - but be sure to answer it!
DH: Your book's ending is something that has caught many readers' attention. Do you believe in happy endings?
Not in real life. In reality, a happy ending is made happy by the fact that it's really a beginning-- a book might end with a wedding, but in real life, the wedding is followed by a marriage, and what makes the moment happy is precisely the fact that it isn't the end. At the beginning of my novel, Chagall and the writer Der Nister have a conversation about a story by Sholem Aleichem that has no ending-- the story concludes instead with the author's comment that it's better for things not to end at all, and that instead of looking for conclusions, people should just laugh. Chagall insists that "people like real endings - redemption, that kind of thing," while Der Nister insists that laughter is the only way for anything to end, and that there are no endings in real life, so a story without an ending is the most realistic story of all. My novel is unusual in that I created an ending with the capacity to be read either way - as a redemptive ending, or as something as open as real life can be. And I've found that readers are as divided as Chagall and Der Nister: some want the redemptive ending, while others see the openness as a window to real life. It reveals a lot about what we expect from the books we read, even when we don't realize it.
Dara Horn will be appearing at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena tonight at 7 p.m. to sign and discuss The World to Come. She will also make a special appearance at the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library on Sunday at 11 a.m.