Apr/May 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

Dara Horn Talks About The World to Come

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Dara Horn is a novelist, essayist, professor, and scholar. 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 and one of the Top Five Novels of 2002 by the Christian Science Monitor. Time Magazine called The World to Come "a deeply satisfying literary mystery."

The World to Come is Ms. Horn's second novel published in January 2006 by W.W. Norton.

Her work has appeared in many national and international publications including Newsweek, Time, and The New Republic. Ms. Horn lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

When twins are in the womb and one of them is born—Sara remembered hearing once—the twin who remains behind watches his sole companion vanish and suffers an agony almost too devastating to bear. Only a moment later, he will understand that his twin has not died, but quite the opposite, that his vanished friend is closer to him than he can know. This, according to a story Sara once heard, is also the way of real death and the world to come. Just because we think people have disappeared doesn't mean they have. They are closer than we think.

EG     I felt deliriously happy after reading The World to Come. It was as if someone handed me a million dollars. Have other readers told you this?

DH     In fact, I often hand readers millions of dollars so that they will tell me this. (I'm kidding.) Actually, I've had readers who have felt as you did, and others who were equally moved by how tragic they felt the story was. The ending is ambiguous, but in such a way that it's a bit like the optical illusion where some people see a candlestick and others see two faces in profile; the ambiguity isn't obvious, and each reader is convinced that his reading is the only one.

EG     Do you see the ending as hopeful or tragic?

DH     I read it as a happy ending.

EG     What is the origin of the phrase "the world to come"?

DH     Like the ending of the story, "the world to come" is a phrase with multiple meanings. It's used in the Jewish tradition to mean a future redemptive age, which is often conflated with life after death. But there are also elements of Jewish legend that discuss a life before birth—and for those who haven't yet been born, I realized, the world we live in now is the world to come. And for all of us, the world to come is literally just the future. In writing this book, I imagined that all of these worlds might be much more similar to each other than we think—that our lives are in fact the after-lives of those who came before us, and also the before-lives of those who will follow, and that we are creating all of those worlds to come with every choice we make in the world we live in. I think this sense of control over the possibilities in our lives, the proposal of a kind of potential triumph over fate, might be what makes readers so happy.

EG     "But there are also elements of Jewish legend that discuss a life before birth..." Do you know a specific legend?

DH     Yes, and I drew upon it in my book. In the Talmud and one or two other sources, variations on the following legend appear: Before a person is born, he is taught the entire Torah. When he is informed that he is about to be born, he doesn't want to leave this paradise of knowledge. So an angel slaps him on the face, under the nose, causing him to forget everything he has learned (and causing the dent that we all have just below our noses). He is then born completely ignorant, and he is forced to spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he has forgotten.

EG     This sounds like Plato's River of Forgetfulness.

DH     Well, the rabbis were very influenced by Greek thought, and vice versa. But if I recall correctly, the River of Forgetfulness was something experienced after death, not before birth. (Is that right? Lethe?) The suggestion of the Jewish legend is that it's birth, not death, that's a casting into the void, which places tremendous responsibility on the individual to create his or her own life.

EG     I think you are right. The River of Forgetfulness is a river in the afterlife.

Each of the characters in The World to Come had a story to tell, and you artfully told their separate and interconnected tales, and wove them together into this fascinating story of the Ziskind family filled with history, philosophy, theology, romance, and above all mystery. You went back and forth in time from the 1920s to the present from Russia to Vietnam to New Jersey. Was this a hard task?

DH     For me it would have been harder to avoid it. I have actually never written a short story, because I find it difficult to focus on only one plot or setting or character at a time. This is partly because I am very easily bored. But it's also because what drives me in writing novels is the desire to see how things are interconnected, which is something we can rarely see in reality. In real life we are not usually able to look back in time and have a clear picture of particular events in our personal or national or familial history in order to understand the role they had in shaping us. But in writing a novel, the past can be created as a result of the present, reversing cause and effect.

EG     I read the story is based on the real life art heist of a Chagall. Is Chagall a favorite painter of yours?

DH     It's true that the book is based on a real heist. There was a temporary exhibit of Chagall's Russian works in New York a few years ago, and someone stole a small painting during a singles' cocktail hour at the museum. As for Chagall, I admire his work, but there is a cultural background to it that makes it hard for me to enjoy it. Chagall spent an important part of his early career as part of a circle of Yiddish-speaking avant-garde artists and writers in the USSR. He was quite closely associated with a number of extremely talented Yiddish writers and performers, several of whom were his fellow teachers on the faculty of a Jewish orphanage school outside of Moscow, where he taught art. Chagall then went to the West and ultimately became world-famous. Meanwhile, by 1952, nearly all of his former colleagues had been executed by Stalin, who had decided to destroy a culture by murdering Jewish artists and writers. Stalin was very successful at this, because today almost no one has heard of any of these major talents. I think we often assume that time will tell the value of an artist's work, but the truth is that what lasts is not necessarily what's best.

EG     "I think we often assume that time will tell the value of an artist's work, but the truth is that what lasts is not necessarily what's best." Can you say more about this? It is contrary to what many people believe. I wonder why things of value disappear.

DH     It is often believed that everything evens out in the end and we all receive our just deserts. I don't know whether this is true in real life, but it is demonstrably untrue for works of art. I don't mean that works that last are unworthy (though that happens too—Shakespeare's plays are all still in print, though a handful of them don't deserve to be), but works of value disappear all the time without our noticing, and some of these things are better than what we choose to preserve. Often this is due to chance—the writer's style didn't match what was valued at the time, or the writer was not socially situated to promote his or her work. But I am more interested in the cases (and there are many) where this happens not by chance, but by deliberate repression or forgetting. That was certainly the case for Yiddish literature. Most Yiddish-speaking Jews living in the world in 1939 were murdered by the Nazis by 1945, including of course both writers and readers. After that, the Soviet regime murdered Jewish writers and artists and buried their work, and then shut down the schools and institutions where the language was taught and valued. People prefer hearing stories about the triumph of the human spirit over murderous regimes, about lost diaries and manuscripts being discovered and so on. But the truth is that these destructions succeeded. Deliberate forgetting is another matter. In the United States, Yiddish-speaking Jews saw that their only opportunity to advance in American life was to make their children as American as possible, most essentially by making English the children's first (or only) language. This succeeded too. So there is an unfathomably vast literature that has essentially vanished, which included masterpieces. Fortunately it is possible to recover some of them. But imagine all of the works in other languages, and even in our own, that will never have that chance. What we read (and even what's in print), whether contemporary literature or literature we consider "classic," is largely a product of what is stylish in our own time. It simply isn't true that what lasts is what's best.

EG     The characters in the story are all so rich in personality and its components, angst, neurosis, opinions and whatever else makes up a person. This is not a fair question but I will ask it anyway. Was the Ziskind family based on a family you knew?

DH     In my first draft of this novel, the Ziskind family had five siblings rather than two. The dynamic of adult siblings who are very close to one another is something I drew from my own family life. I'm one of four siblings, and they are my best friends; I usually see at least one of them every day, and speak to all of them daily. We're close in other ways too: my two sisters are also published writers and my brother is a professional artist, and we often collaborate on projects together. (And there are characters from my sister's novel who make cameos in mine, and vice versa.) The characters in the novel don't correspond to any of my siblings or to me, but I wanted to capture the relationship I share with them as adults. I dedicated the book to them.

EG     I have never heard of characters from different authors appearing in each others books. What a great idea. What is the title of your sister's book? Were there any characters in the The World to Come that appeared in your sister's book or visa versa?

DH     Ariel's book is called Help Wanted, Desperately. It's a comedy about a young woman trying to find her first job after college. Most of the cameos are minor characters. The host of the TV show where Ben works in The World to Come is actually a character taken from Ariel's book. Ben's wife Nina is named for an identically unpleasant character in Ariel's book. And Ariel is currently writing a new novel that has cameos of the main character of my last book, and possibly others from this book too. It's really an inside joke— our books appeal to such different audiences that we're pretty confident no one will ever notice!

EG     The description of Benjamin's Ziskind's scoliosis, the description of his sister Sara as a child touching her father's phantom limb, and the description of an unborn baby being ripped from the mother's womb in a pogrom were devastating yet I was glued to the pages trying to understand the horrors that happen to people. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9 where Benjamin's father is a combat soldier in Vietnam. He experiences betrayal (readers will have to read the story to find out what happened).

"An instant later the jungle exploded with burst of machine gun fire, but soon it fell silent again. Daniel lay for a long time on his stomach in the mud, listening to the insects and the occasional explosion in the distance, with the bottom of Tim on top of him and his gun in front him and the top of Tim next to him which had stopped screaming but which still had it's eyes open, as if it were watching Daniel. Daniel tried not to think, and he succeeded. He looked at the trees, looked at his hands, looked at the mud. Then he rolled over, wriggling his arms out of the blasted-open pack on his back that was drenched with Tim's blood, so that the bottom half of Tim fell off of him and onto the ground next to the top of him."

There was more to this and it was gruesome. What drew me to this chapter was the way you described Daniels' reaction to unbelievable scenes that those who will never go to war may only have in nightmares.

In the story you write about many unpleasant and challenging things that can happen to our bodies in life. How do you know about phantom limbs or how scoliosis isolates a young person or the physical torture soldier in Vietnam experienced?

DH     One often hears that writers should "write about what you know," but for me, fiction is motivated by empathy. And the vulnerability of our bodies is something that produces a kind of automatic empathy: if you see someone being physically hurt, you will often involuntarily cringe as though it were you, even while being immensely grateful that it isn't. I went to Vietnam as a tourist, and somewhere in a museum I saw a depiction of a rather creatively brutal North Vietnamese booby trap, the kind that injures Daniel Ziskind in the book. I was nauseated by it, and was surprised by how physically I felt that effect just by seeing a picture. I couldn't get it out of my mind. As a child I once read a novel about a girl with scoliosis and was equally haunted by it, and remembered it whenever I met someone wearing a brace. The fragility of our bodies is something very amazing and frightening to me (and something I've become newly in awe of as the mother of a five-month-old). But I find it equally amazing how resilient human beings are, even when faced with this fragility. There is a saying in Judaism that every person should always carry two piece of paper, one in each pocket, one saying "I am dust and ashes," and the other saying "The world was created for me." The characters in this book experience both.

EG     Have you always been an empathetic person?

DH     I would say I've always been an empathetic writer. But whether I'm an empathetic person? I guess you'd have to ask someone like my daughter!

EG     One of my favorite relationships in the story was that of Benjamin as a child and Leonid, the Russian youth he corresponded with who never answered him. Benjamin reminds me a bit of Woody Allen. Benjamin was melancholy and funny, most likely unintentionally. He does experience new emotions as the story ends. Do you always write uplifting or happy endings? I haven't read any of your other books.

DH     I've only written one other novel prior to this one, so I don't have much of a track record. But the relationship you mention in the book is one of my favorites too. Ben is a very isolated nerdy type, and at thirteen he thinks he has found salvation through a Russian Jewish pen pal who never writes back—until the pen pal comes to America and turns out to be a thug. But Ben ends up defeating him in an amusing way, and there's a redemptive ending to that story for the Russian boy too. I wouldn't say this book is entirely one of happy endings, but overall the book does have what I would call a redemptive ending. I'm not sure whether I could write a book without some type of redemptive possibility at the end. I certainly couldn't now.

EG     What was your first novel about?

DH     My first novel was called In the Image. It was about a European Jewish refugee who lived in New Jersey, but travels around the world looking for Jewish communities in exotic places and creates a massive slide collection of images from his travels around the world. The novel begins when he meets a friend of his granddaughter's in the wake of his granddaughter's death, a girl who's about seventeen at the beginning of the book. The friendship between the old man and the young woman fails, but the book then moves forward in the young woman's life over the next ten years, and simultaneously backward in the old man's life and the life of his family over the past century, revealing connections that the two of them aren't aware of between his family's past and her family's future.

EG     When Der Nister, the famous 1920s Yiddish writer, wrote letters to the Angel of Dreams, King Nebuchadnenezzar and the Eternal one I felt like I was in a Chagall painting. Actually for most of the book I felt like I was in paintings from different eras. There was a different light and color to each chapter. Your writing is visual and visceral. Have you ever painted or written poetry?

DH     I've never written a poem (or at least not since junior high!). My brother is a very talented artist who makes his living as a professional animator, and he and I have always been very close. As a child I took art lessons with him for a few years, but he continued them and I didn't. I'm also very lucky in that when I was growing up, my parents took my sisters and brother and me to about forty countries, and we all had enormous exposure to art and architecture around the world. So I grew up taking art very seriously, even though I'm not a visual artist myself.

EG     Forty countries! Was all this traveling for vacations?

DH     Yes—for my family, a vacation was something that required shots, or at least malaria prophylactics. In theory these were vacations, though my siblings and I always joked that perhaps our parents were spies.

EG     What did your parents do?

DH     My mother is a public school teacher, and my father is a dentist. My mom also has a doctorate in Jewish history, which inspired a lot of my own interests.

EG     I know some writers read their published work and want to change parts of it. Are you satisfied with The World to Come? Do you want to change anything?

DH     I wrote The World to Come about three times, and there were some very dramatic changes along the way. So at the moment I'm very satisfied with it. But now I dislike many things about my previous novel, so after a few years I might feel the same way about this one!

EG     I know you are a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. Many people think Yiddish is a dead language like Latin or Greek. Do you agree?

DH     That's a very loaded question in my academic field. Yiddish is spoken among certain religious communities, and these communities have very high birth rates, so the number of Yiddish speakers in the world is technically growing. And there are many languages (like some native American languages) where the number of remaining speakers is less than a hundred people, and about a million people speak Yiddish, so to call Yiddish a "dead language" isn't accurate at all. But obviously millions of Yiddish speakers were murdered in the last century, and millions of potential Yiddish speakers grew up in places where assimilation decimated the language within a generation, and that is the loss to which labels of "dead language" apply. There's currently a small uptick of interest in Yiddish culture in certain circles, though often not in the language itself. A new academic book by Jeffrey Shandler called Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culturedescribes all this very well.

EG     Why did you decide to pursue this area of study?

DH     I learned Yiddish in college. I was studying Hebrew literature, and I became very interested in early modern Hebrew writers, who began writing secular literature in Hebrew in the nineteenth century, before Hebrew was fully revived as a spoken language. I understood modern Israeli Hebrew, but I couldn't always understand these writers' works. Eventually I realized that they were writing in Hebrew but thinking in Yiddish. I decided to learn Yiddish to better understand their work. It opened up an entire world for me. Over time I saw just how inaccessible this world has become to most readers, for whom this culture only exists as a kind of kitschy cliche. In this novel I tried in a small way to bring it back to life.

EG     Can you explain "they were writing in Hebrew but thinking in Yiddish"?

DH     Hebrew was spoken in ancient times, and then for centuries was a "dead" language like Latin, used only in written texts. In the nineteenth century, the Zionist movement revived it as a spoken language, which is unprecedented in world history. This revival was preceded by a revival of secular fiction and poetry in written Hebrew. But imagine the challenge for these writers. They were trying to write dialogue in a language that no one spoke, trying to invent language that sounded natural, even to invent slang. When a natural sound eluded them, they fell back on the language that they actually spent their lives speaking, which was Yiddish. So they used Hebrew words, but sometimes the syntax or idioms were very obviously borrowed from Yiddish.

EG     Who are some early modern Hebrew writers?

DH     M.Y. Berdichevsky, Y.H. Brenner, H.N. Bialik, Dvorah Baron, S.Y. Abramovitch (aka Mendele Mokher Seforim or "Mendele the Book Peddler"), to name a few.

EG     Could you recommend any modern Hebrew writers?

DH     I teach modern Hebrew literature, so this is kind of an enormous question for me. I suppose my introductory recommendation would be S.Y. Agnon, who remains the only Hebrew writer to receive a Nobel prize. His work does take patience to appreciate, though. Among somewhat more modern writers (late 20th century) I would recommend Yaakov Shabtai.

EG     What books did you read as a child?

DH     What a wonderful question. I'm probably expected to lie and say I was reading Kafka at age four, but the truth is I devoured a lot of "young adult" books. I didn't like straight fantasy books, but I loved the ones where realistic characters find themselves participating in some kind of game or quest that reveals a world much larger than they are. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door were puzzles in science or psychology; The Phantom Tollbooth was a puzzle in language; there were several books like Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game and E.L. Konigsberg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that were essentially puzzles in art. I also loved historical novels—there was a wonderful series about a Jewish family in the 1910s on New York's Lower East Side called All-of-a-Kind Family, and an equally wonderful series about a Catholic family in 1890s Mormon Utah calledThe Great Brain, both of which were based on the authors' childhoods. I think you can actually find all these fascinations of mine—the puzzles involving art and language, the realistic characters, the historical settings—in the World to Come . Except there is a sense of the tragic that doesn't appear in children's books.

EG     What kind of books will you read your daughter?

DH     I already read to her, since she enjoys turning the pages of picture books and chewing on them. A friend gave her a book by William Steig, and even though she can't understand it, she always pays attention to this particular book (or at least to its pictures) when I read it to her—she actually turns the pages in order and is always quite riveted. It's a book about a mouse who's a dentist. I don't know why she likes it so much. She doesn't even have any teeth.

EG     What books are you reading these days?

DH     A fair amount of Yiddish literary criticism as I finish my dissertation. But other than that, I just finished Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, which I found beautiful. And recently I have been reading a lot of Mark Twain. Right now I am in the middle of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

EG     It is interesting to see what authors read. I used to assume authors read only work of their style, Stephen King reads horror novels or Steve Barry reads humor.

DH     I'm interested in all kinds of literature. I do have trouble reading books that are just plot with no character development, though. Someone once forced me to read The DaVinci Code, and I can't say I enjoyed it. And I'll admit that I usually don't like poetry or short stories. So I do mainly read novels.

EG     Has your publisher put you in a writing niche according to genre?

DH     My editor's other books include Snow Falling on Cedar Mountain and House of Sand and Fog, so I often joke with her that all of her books (including mine) have to somehow involve an interethnic property dispute!

EG     How has being a mother affected your writing?

DH     I don't know yet whether it has affected the content of my writing. But writing is now more expensive, because I have to pay a babysitter in order to have enough time to write.

EG     Babies aren't cheap. Wait until they grow up! Are you writing a new novel?

DH     Right now I'm trying to finish my dissertation, but I am also beginning to work on my third novel. I don't want to say what it's about, partly because it's in such an early stage that I don't want to commit myself to anything, and partly because I think it's a good enough idea that I don't want someone else to write it before I do!

EG     Alane Salierno Mason, a senior editor at Norton's, wrote in her introductory letter before the first chapter of The World to Come," the day of your discovery of Dara Horn's work is a very good day indeed." I heartily agree. Thank you for answering my questions.


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