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  1. Book ImageIn the Image: A Novel

    Dara Horn

    A young woman's coming of age, a romantic love story, and a spiritual journey—each infused with the lessons of history.

A Conversation with the Author

Is your family history comparable to the Landsmanns?

My family history is actually nothing like the Landsmann family history. I am a fourth-generation American. My ancestors came to America from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century (1900, that is!). If anything, my family’s experience is reflected in that of the character named Freydl/Frances, who happily settles into life in New Jersey without looking back. I invented this particular family history in part because I wanted to demonstrate the difference America made in the lives of so many European Jews who were lucky enough to come here as early as my family did, and the many ways in which America, despite being older politically than most of the countries in Europe, really remains a vast new world.

I wrote this book while living in England—I had won a scholarship from Harvard to spend a year at Cambridge University, where I did a master’s degree—and I think it shows in the novel that I was a little homesick for America while I was writing it. I specifically remember coming back to my student residence there from a shopping trip to what I considered a rather limited European-style supermarket in Cambridge and then sitting down to write the scene that takes place in Costco, an American chain superstore that carries every possible product you could ever dream of in absolutely absurd quantities. (It is a real store, incidentally, a national chain that exists from New York to Hawaii, and the description of it is true to life.) Europeans tend to look at things like this as nothing but silly materialism, but while I was living in England I missed the sheer exuberance of it—not the idea that you could have anything you wanted, but the idea that you could actually want anything you wanted, that no idea was too unconventional or too absurd. I wanted to show America as a new world of possibilities, where you can become whatever you want to become (as characters like Jason/Yehudah and Freydl/Frances do), and what that choice really means—both the exuberance and the burdens of that freedom.

I should say here that while the story of the Landsmann family is purely my invention, the historical details are accurate down to the square footage of the apartments (I’ll get into this later). I should also say that even though my family is thoroughly American, I have traveled a tremendous amount (much like Bill Landsmann in the novel), to about forty or so countries around the world. I don’t have a slide collection, though.

Do you come from a family of believers?

My family is Jewish and ascribes to the American Conservative movement in Judaism (which is right in the middle of the religious spectrum between orthodox and reform). We are, as you put it, a “believing” family in that I was raised to believe in God, to value the sanctity of life, and to take seriously the teachings of the Torah—which involves both being educated in and often wrestling with the tradition. While I can’t claim to observe every ritual, my religion is the path by which I reach my understanding of the world.

Is the story of the tefillin in New York Harbor true?

The story of the tefillin at the bottom of New York Harbor is, as far as I can tell, true. I first heard this story from a classmate at Harvard College, who told of how his great-grandfather saw people throwing their tefillin overboard on the ship that first brought him to New York. I was very struck by this story and thought it was unique to my classmate’s family. However, I then mentioned it to others and soon found that among Jews of a certain generation in America (those now in their sixties or seventies), this story is something that everyone seems to know—I would start telling them the story, and they would quickly supply the ending. Of course, this might mean that the story is simply a popular legend. But then I discovered an interesting piece of evidence. While I haven’t seen it myself, I am told that in a museum in Nova Scotia in Canada, there is an exhibit featuring “A set of phylacteries [tefillin] removed from the floor of the Atlantic.” That clinched it for me. (I did not, however, have the experience of seeing them in a junk shop!)

Other historical details?

I tried very hard in this novel to ensure that the details were historically accurate. This was of course hardest in the story that takes place in the 1890s. However, I had several sources against which to check my facts. A few years ago I wrote a story for a magazine about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a museum in New York City located in a restored tenement building that demonstrates how turn-of-the-century immigrant populations lived in this neighborhood of New York, which at the time was a large center for Eastern European Jewish immigrants. All the details about Leah’s family’s living conditions—the square footage of the apartment, the gas lighting, the sink (but without running water), the use of the living room as an extra bedroom, the boarders, other material details-come largely from the research this museum has done into material life at the time.

As a person familiar with Yiddish sources, I also knew a lot about this period from articles, novels, and other sources written about this neighborhood at the time period—the situation of Jewish garment workers at the time is familiar to any student of Yiddish literature. Also, there was at the time a very popular advice column called “A Bintel Brief” (A Bundle of Letters) in the largest New York Yiddish newspaper, parts of which have been published in English translation in book form. I read these letters and was incredibly moved by them, and many other details of this particular chapter come from there. For example, one letter describes how factory owners would “fix” the clocks in the factories by turning back the hands on the clock so that people would work longer than they were being paid to work. The tension between the old world religious life and the new world is also of course reflected in these letters. One letter is written by a man who divorced his wife and then decides he wants to remarry her, but he cannot because he is a cohen and now his wife is divorced! I drew on these details as well as other information I have through Yiddish literature in reconstructing this time and place.

Other items in the book are also historically accurate. The character Leah, for example, the child of a woman who was raped, is sixteen—seventeen years old in 1898 because there were pogroms in Yelizavetgrad and surrounding towns in Ukraine south of Kiev in the spring of 1881, during which many Jewish women were raped. Like Nadav and Isaac, many Jews were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I. There was a Montessori School in Amsterdam in the 1930s and 1940s which did expel its Jewish students when the Nuremberg Laws went into effect in Holland (one of these students was Anne Frank). I consulted maps of Amsterdam from this period and discovered that there were dozens of chocolate and candy factories, so Willem walks by a lot of them as he strolls through the city. The Carousel of Progress Ride is a real ride in Disney World, and it really was transplanted from the New York World’s Fair of the 1960s. Even a more recent detail is true: in 1999, there was in fact an early hominid skull that turned up in a gift shop in New York! I’m sure there are historical errors and even more historical stretches, but I did try to ensure the accuracy of the work.

How would you yourself weigh the story: is it primarily a new book of Job, or a specific sort of coming-of-age novel?

I’m not so excited about “coming of age.” On the other hand, I also don’t see this book solely as a rewriting of the Book of Job. While the Book of Job is the most obvious reference, the book is in fact saturated with references to various parts of the Hebrew bible and rabbinic literature.

In studying modern Hebrew literature, I became intrigued by the way that modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, particularly the work of the early modern Hebrew and Yiddish writers, almost constantly refers to the Hebrew bible and commentaries on the bible, even while challenging the religious tradition. This is particularly easy to do in Hebrew, because of the language’s long history and the echoes tied to almost every word.

I wondered whether it was possible to create this sort of literature—using biblically anchored language within a secular text—in English. At first I thought it would be awkward to include biblical allusions in an English book. However, I soon realized that most English readers are familiar with biblical literature only in archaic translations. This made it possible to create a work in English that could be read on several levels without overburdening the language. I wanted to create a different style for American Jewish literature, one more connected to the Jewish literary tradition of constant reference to ancient text.

As for Job: When I was twelve years old, I became a Torah reader for the children’s congregation in my synagogue, which made me very familiar with, and fascinated by, the text of the Hebrew bible. In college I majored in literature and focused on Hebrew literature, and I soon became intrigued by the Book of Job. This book is, of course, one of the most compelling and confusing books in the bible, and for that reason, I believe, it also has some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in any language.

What intrigued me most, though, was what I saw as the ultimate question of the book of Job. The book asks the question that so many people ask themselves: Why do bad things happen to good people? But as I read the book again and again, I decided that this question was misleading. To me, the central question of the Book of Job isn’t that common question—which, after all, can’t really be answered and isn’t answered at all in the book of Job-but rather: Are people “good” to begin with, or are they shaped by their experiences? What makes “bad things” important isn’t whether they happen to you or to someone else, because that’s not your decision. What makes them important is the part that is your decision: what you do with them once they’ve happened. It is a commonplace to say that people are shaped by their experiences. But that implies that you can’t control who you become, since these experiences are left to accidents of fate.

This premise—that the most fundamental aspects of your own life are left to chance—is the subject of many books and movies of varying quality. What I hoped to do, in this novel, was to present a different idea. People are not shaped by their experiences, which they cannot choose, but rather by something they do control: they are shaped by what they make of their experiences. I also wanted to write a book that believed in happiness, that showed that happiness was possible, even in a world dead set against it. Happiness, I believe, is not something that one finds, but rather something that one makes.

In this sense, I suppose, it is a “coming of age” story, but one that has very little to do with age and very much to do with taking responsibility for one’s own life and choices. That’s something that can happen at any age. It doesn’t happen in a moment, but over a lifetime.

Discussion Questions

  1. The novel begins with a description of the main characters, Leora and Bill Landsmann, as “tourists.” What makes them tourists, besides their travels? Can one ever stop being a tourist in this sense?
  2. Several characters in the novel intentionally change their identities, some by embracing religion, others by rejecting it. What do the different characters—Jason, Leah, and Nadav, among others—gain or lose through these choices? When a person makes the choice to reject or embrace religion at the beginning of the twentieth century, are they making the same choice as a person faced with the same question one hundred years later?
  3. While the characters move frequently between Europe and America, the novel ends literally beneath the Statue of Liberty. What kind of picture of America emerges from the novel, from sweatshops to Costco? What opportunities does America offer the characters, and what burdens do those opportunities bring with them?
  4. This is a novel of modern Jewish history but, unlike so many novels on this subject, it is emphatically not a novel about anti-Semitism, or even about the Holocaust. Instead, the book’s tragedies are tragic in the true sense—the characters are generally not innocent victims, and they bring disaster upon themselves. Does this make the book’s many catastrophes easier to understand, or harder? How does this approach change your view of Jewish history?
  5. A central theme of the book is the idea of reclamation: ritual objects thrown overboard appear a century later in a junk shop, pieces of coal resurface millennia later as diamonds, a primitive skull is discovered, a neglected dollhouse is restored, and the novel’s ending reveals a vast underwater treasury of lost things. In Chapter 8’s explanation of diamond formation, we are told that “Nothing is ever really lost.” But a Jewish new year ceremony, enacted in the novel near the end of Chapter 7, consists of symbolically casting one’s sins away in order to start a new year. Does it work? Can people be forgiven? If it is true that nothing is ever lost, is that a blessing or a curse?
  6. On page 124, Jake tells Leora that “just because life doesn’t work the way you want it to doesn’t mean that what happens in the world is completely random. The times when people really do interact with God are exactly those times when life doesn’t work out fairly.” Is this observation borne out in the novel? In reality?
  7. Near the end of the biblical Book of Job, in answer to Job’s questions about why he has suffered so undeservedly, God responds by describing the many unfathomable wonders of the world he has created, asking Job if he knows, for example, where the storehouses of snow are kept, or how God sets the boundaries of the sea (see Job chapters 38–41). In “The Book of Hurricane Job” in the novel (Chapter 10), God responds to Bill Landsmann’s questions by recounting the private moments of the novel’s many characters. What kind of limitations of human understanding does this suggest? How much do the characters in the novel really know about one another, and how much do they miss? How much can people ever know about one another?
  8. God concludes his words to Bill Landsmann by saying, “I created you in my image. I am not created in yours!” (page 267). Much of the novel is devoted to images and re-creations: museums figure prominently; paintings appear by Vermeer and Rembrandt; Naomi Landsmann makes copies of famous works of art; photographs take on large significance; miniature enthusiasts create exact replicas of material life; and Bill Landsmann assembles a collection of thousands of slides. When are these images successful, and when do they fail? Are there limitations on human creativity?
  9. Speaking of his father, Nadav Landsmann, on page 184, Bill Landsmann says, “It is often said that we are shaped by our experiences, but I do not believe that’s true. . . . I think we are not shaped by our experiences, but by what we do choose—by how we react to our experiences.” Do you believe him? For which of the characters in the novel might this be true?
  10. On page 255, the novel borrows language from the story of Cain and Abel to describe Isaac’s death. Is Nadav actually responsible for Isaac’s death? Why does he consider himself to be? Is he responsible for his wife’s fate? Which affects him more: his actual experience or what he makes of it?
  11. Besides the Book of Job, there are many references to the Hebrew bible and to Jewish literature scattered throughout the novel. A few of many examples: in the first chapter, the story of Leora and Bill Landsmann’s ascent up East Mountain borrows language from the biblical binding of Isaac in Genesis 22; in Chapter 4, at the suicide of the aspiring singer Joe Solovey (himself named after the character of a prodigy cantor in a Yiddish novel by Sholem Aleichem), the novel quotes the Talmud by saying he “unable to complete his work, but never free to desist from it” (page 100); and at the beginning of Chapter 6, the story of the two countries where no one is able to sleep is adapted from a mystical story by eighteenth-century rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Does one need to recognize these allusions, or others like them, in order to appreciate the novel? For the modern reader, are these references another example of how people misread one another? Or are they another example of reclamation?
  12. The novel begins with the words, “Accidents of fate are rarely fatal accidents.” Which ultimately dominates the novel: free will or fate?

About Dara Horn

Dara Horn is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and one of Granta’s Best American Novelists. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Books by Dara Horn

  1. Book CoverAll Other Nights: A Novel

    “Slam-bang... superb... masterful... gripping... marvelous.”—Washington PostMore

  2. Book CoverEternal Life: A Novel

    A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2018, Booklist Editors’ Choice Book (January 2019), and Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2018

    What would it really mean to live forever?More

  3. Book CoverA Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel

    The incomparable Dara Horn returns with a spellbinding novel of how technology changes memory and how memory shapes the soul.More