No characteristic of the third-generation Holocaust novel is more readily distinctive than the well-these-seem-disparate-oh-wait-they-are-meaningfully-intersecting-storylines! structure (though, to be fair, typographical flourishes are a very close second). Think Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Think Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. Where second-generation works—those written by the children of survivors—like Art Spiegleman’s Maus worked through the trauma of the Holocaust by acknowledging its separateness from the experience of their authors, third-generation representations insist on reincorporating that history into the experience of the present, which otherwise threatens to slip into meaninglessness—insignificance apparently worse than chaos and horror and destruction.
Andrew Winer’s The Marriage Artist, the latest example of the proliferating genre, tells two traversing stories. The first of these involves Daniel Lichtmann, a New York art critic, whose wife Aleksandra suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide alongside Benjamin Wind, a young Native American sculptor who had been much championed by Daniel. Forced into examining a life he had preferred to understand as rather unremarkable, Daniel endlessly considers and reconsiders his relationship with Aleksandra, a photographer who had dedicated herself to documenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Jews and Arabs who had been wounded, handicapped, and otherwise adversely affected by suicide bombings,” and whose “Russian-Jewishness…insubordinate wit…protean nature, the way she wore her burdens with either naked vulnerability or hard-bitten frankness that could be confused for callousness” first attract Daniel to her only to inevitably keep them sundered. What, Daniel wonders, drove her to Benjamin? What destroyed them? And what did Wind’s ecstatic final show—three gallery chambers filled with “life-size figures paired off and joined by the holding of hands…each pair…sprayed in the air as if by some centrifugal force…in various states of ascendance”—have to do with both?
The second story begins in Vienna in 1928, when the 10-year-old son of assimilated Jews is reluctantly taken to visit his maternal grandfather, a “failed rabbi” recently arrived from Galicia. The young Josef Pick is simultaneously disgusted by and drawn to his grandfather Pommeranz, whose tiny flat is filled with ketubot, the traditional Jewish marriage contracts the old man illuminates. Convinced that a ketubah will salvage his parents’ unhappy union, Josef tentatively executes a contract that reveals his prodigious talent. “My beautiful, handsome grandson—he will reconvert the Jews with his paintings!” the elderly Pommeranz rejoices, to which Herr Pick, proud Catholic convert, pronounces with derision, “My son: The Marriage Artist!” Five years later, rejecting both father and grandfather, Josef Pick, accompanied by his closest friend, Max Wiener, vows he shall never get married. Yet, when five more years pass, history (and Hitler) voids the vow, and Josef marries, at Max’s behest, Hannah Engländer, a young woman with an immigration permit for Palestine, an arranged marriage that quickly grows complicated, impractical, freighted with the love both newlyweds have worked scrupulously but ineffectively to avoid, dooming all three—Josef, Hannah, Max—to suffer the barbarity of history. (The first two of the novel’s three parts are portentously entitled “We Lose Our Love to History.”)
What binds the two stories together becomes obvious soon enough, though I won’t reveal it here. Suffice it to say that it is Max, now grown old and frail, who, through a chance encounter (are there any other kind?), begins to reveal to the mournfully questing Daniel the somewhat improbable history he must unravel. That history is ostensibly meant to help Daniel come to terms with his loss (though it does little to, as far as this reader is concerned, really explain it), but its real, true function is, of course, to give the novel meaning. It’s as if the story of a man coping with the sudden death—the seemingly unpredictable suicide, no less—of his wife isn’t enough; this story of love and the failure of love, of promise and betrayal, must be loaded with more significance. But rather than gain import, this story gets lost in the context of a far greater tragedy. (Tellingly, the contemporary story is related in the past tense, the Holocaust narrative mostly in the present, as if present-day experience is always already receding, while genocidal history seeps insistently into the current of the now.)
Becoming absorbed in history, the novel seems to lose interest in its original motivation, to return to the inquest only halfheartedly, as if to suggest that it is a mere trifle, a pretext. Perhaps this is why poetry after Auschwitz, in Theodore Adorno’s famously cryptic pronouncement, is barbaric: After that destruction, stories start and stumble, desperately clutching at the Holocaust to give themselves substance and worth, a tragic dimension. But, as Max intones, “anybody who writes about such things—they are all masturbating to their beautiful images of horror! What an abandonment of the dead!—who have no defense against such persons.” No matter how finely crafted, how well-written (and The Marriage Artist is largely, even impressively, both), it seems such projects are doomed to self-aware failure.
Andrew Winer’s The Marriage Artist was released on October 26 by Henry Holt and Company. To purchase it, click here.