The Marriage Artist
By Andrew Winer
Picador Copyright © 2010 Andrew Winer
All rights reserved.
WHERE WILL IT BE RECORDED?
Falling, in her final moments, Daniel's wife carries in her chest a heart burdened by the weight of her love for another man. She feels something, everything — gravity? God? — gripping her heart, pulling the earth upward to meet it. The sidewalk is still far below her, discolored with patches of brown and black, but it is expanding quickly, rising as if to absorb her. She has little sensation of descent. This is what falling feels like. Around her the air, life-giving and loyal all these years, yields easily despite its wet summer night thickness. It is making way for her. It is assenting to her death.
Is she aware of her lover's figure, also falling, not quite beside her, some few feet away?
No, her mind is not on the man at all. In the greatest matters — love and death, sex too — our minds are rarely in concert with our hearts.
Of Daniel she is not thinking either. Not anymore. She has no more time. She is already a part of history. And history is the time of the dead.
Finally, she is left only with vision. There is the sidewalk. There is a discarded yogurt cup. There, a cigarette butt. Images of eternity.
Then it is finished.
OR THAT IS how Daniel would imagine it, long after Aleksandra's body was found, near that of the artist Benjamin Wind, by a group of college students walking to a party. It had been an airless July night during which the heat bore down relentlessly on the city, pressing its inhabitants toward its sticky pavements. And there they were, two dark figures on the sidewalk, at angles too odd for sleep.
Because Benjamin Wind was something of a personage in New York, because — well, because he was in many people's opinion the best artist, in any country, of the last decade and probably the first great artist of the twenty-first century, and because Daniel had in no small way helped shape that opinion by championing Wind's work in a series of essays and reviews, because Daniel had called Wind's solo exhibition that spring "possibly the best showing of art by a living artist this reviewer has ever seen," and, finally, because the woman who lay dead next to Wind on the sidewalk outside his Bowery studio was Daniel's wife, the entire art world was lousy with gossip about the deaths. Certainly Wind and Aleksandra must have been lovers, it was suggested. Perhaps thirty-eight-year-old Daniel Lichtmann, the very art critic who had made Wind's career, discovered the pair in the middle of a clandestine liaison, forced his way into the artist's studio to find them beneath its outsize window, and precipitately tossed them out of it (precisely how Daniel had done so was detailed in numerous accounts, as various and tantalizing as they were apocryphal). Or had Wind, in the throes of some impassioned dispute, pushed Aleksandra from the roof of his building and then in despair followed her down? Or a question more interesting by half, even for Daniel: Had it been a suicide pact? Had the two, under the influence of a mutual death drive, sought a permanent embrace, an irrevocable consummation of their love?
Each of these speculations reached Daniel, despite his self-imposed isolation after That Day — that unnameable day in his life — but he quickly forgave his art world friends. In truth, he was as in the dark as they were about the deaths (as were the investigators who, after plying him with questions and poking about in Wind's loft and a few other corners of the art world, came up with nothing), and it was all he could do to keep his own mind from fabricating the wildest ideas. He tried, typically, to retreat from reddened mental flashes of flesh and fucking and blood to the black-and-white world of words, with pitiable results. Late one night he found himself madly searching his shelves for a volume containing the last letter of the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who had famously committed double suicide with Henriette Vogel in 1811. When he located the entry, he rejoined the heap of trash and uneaten frozen dinners on his bed and copied down the following line, in a spiral around an empty toilet paper roll, as an imaginary reel of Aleksandra and Wind's "flight" to their death played in his mind: "What strange feelings, half sad, half joyful, move us in this hour, as our souls rise above the world like two joyous balloonists."
If the two of them had been preparing in unison for death, there were no clues to be found in their obituaries — which were decidedly free of scandalous references. Wind's ran a half page in the New York Times. That it drew generously from Daniel's published work on the artist's life and career, that it identified Daniel as the one who had coronated Wind "The Art World's New King," that it heavily quoted Daniel's own praise of a man who had probably taken his wife from him, made reading the obituary a cruel experience for Daniel — an experience he nevertheless drew out, in a spectacular all-night exercise in self-flagellation. Over and over again he read through the obit, fixating on the words he had once written and skipping familiar biographical details, two of which would become significant to his quest to find out what had happened to his wife:
Benjamin Wind, the first Native American ever to rise to the top of the contemporary visual arts, is dead at 37.
Mr. Wind is survived by his father, Herman, a full-blooded Blackfoot, who lives in Newport Coast, Calif., and his mother, Francine, of Bend, Ore.
In contrast to Wind, Aleksandra was relegated to the "Deaths" section at the bottom of the following day's New York Times Obituaries page. Her brief death announcement had been provided by her family:
LICHTMANN — Aleksandra V. Beloved wife of Daniel. Beloved daughter of Salomon and Yulia Volkov. Photographer. Funeral services July 16, 10am, Weinberg-Lowensohn Memorial Temple, Queens, N.Y.
When Daniel read this, he was seated at the breakfast table that he and Aleksandra had purchased together at the Chelsea flea market. It was still early, he had been up most of the night, and his initial reaction to seeing her written about in this manner was rage — not at the "news" of her death, the cold reportage of it in ink on newsprint, but at the single-word description of her career: "Photographer." Photographer. How could this not be an insult to Aleksandra as an artist? Where was the mention of how valued she had been by the New York Times itself? He stared blinkingly at the obituary for several minutes before swiping the whole newspaper off the table.
Later that day, he was aimlessly making his way against the crush of Canal Street humanity when he realized that no amount of praise for her work would have captured what was truly great about Aleksandra. If he had ever been looked upon by a higher sympathy, it was surely through her eyes. Yet now that she was dead the world would never know that capacity of hers. Because history records what we do, not how we love. No, the latter is one of marriage's immeasurable burdens: to register — to somehow record — the other's care.
This, Daniel came to believe, was what Aleksandra had tried to tell him one morning, only days before That Day, when he had turned from their living room window to find her silently staring at him. He was frightened by the depth of sadness in her eyes and did not immediately go to her. Nor did she answer right away when he asked her what was wrong. She regarded him with a veiled look, as if guarding a mystery. Did she know that she would soon be dead? Abruptly her expression shifted, and he began to be filled with true fear, fear that she was about to tell him the saddest news in the world. When she finally spoke it did seem like the saddest news. "I'm the only one who really sees your life," she said. He mumbled some inarticulate response, but she went on as if she had not heard him: "I don't know how to love you more, Daniel."
When she was dead not a week later, when Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us, this moment came rushing back to him. He would never forget how she had steeled herself then, after he told her he loved her. "You love me in a disinterested way," she said, her voice hardening. "That makes you my father. Not my lover."
But it was not true. He loved her painfully.
He had loved her painfully from the beginning.
Was there any other way for two people to love each other, in the beginning, when they were each married to someone else?
THE MARRIAGE ARTIST
Vienna, 1928. Inexplicably, for it has been a bitter and unrelenting December, tendrils of warm air — mysterious exhalations of breath, sweet and melancholy at the same time — worry their way down the Alpine promontories, following the fingers of the Vienna Woods into the gray capital. People, too, pour into the morning streets to take advantage of their city's Indian summer, unaware that the place is in its final flowering, the last of its artistic noons. They are unaware that the universe, having favored Vienna since Roman times, having held its walls fast against Teutons and Turks, having tolerated its Mozarts and Mahlers, its Klimts and Kokoschkas, its Beethovens and Brahmses, Schuberts, Schieles, and Schoenbergs — its gross husbanding of genius — is ready to leave their city out of its calculations. Unaware also that another breath will soon wash over the city from the north German plains, a breath not of the gods but of a human taint, carrying black archaic forces that will quicken the universe's leave-taking.
But the universe has not yet taken its eye off of Vienna. It is about to offer the city one final genius in the form of ten-year-old Josef Pick, though if the boy were to be told that the morning's strange warm air is an omen of this offering or of the bittersweet fate that awaits him, he would pay scant attention. His interest in the hot spell is more immediate: for the first time ever, his parents are taking him to see his grandfather Pommeranz, and the heat seems both to externalize his burning curiosity about the old man who recently moved here from Galicia, and furnish his father, now applying handkerchief to forehead, with one more reason why the three of them should turn around this instant and go home.
"Of all the days to visit the old Jew!" his father proclaims for the benefit, Josef is sure, of Taborstrasse's streetful of Jews, whose multitudes suck his family forward into the Leopoldstadt.
Josef has been to the Jewish district once before with his mother, but only to visit the amusement park at the Prater: they passed right through on a tram, and he does not remember seeing anything of the neighborhood, certainly nothing like this. He steals a glance back at his father. Hewing to the sidewalk's edge several steps behind Josef, the man glares at the slapdash wooden carts filled with pickles and potatoes, cabbages and onions, at aged Jewish women who sit on the sidewalk without embarrassment, their wares spread before them on blankets, and at endless shop windows festooned with makeshift banners announcing greatly reduced prices, grand openings, or going-out-of-business sales. Josef knows all too well what his father is telling himself: that none of this — no resident, no particular shop, no vendor, certainly no single beggar — has been here for more than five years, and not a one of them will be in another five years. How many times has his father ranted against "the provisional spirit of the Island of Matzos," as he calls the Leopoldstadt — against its "fugitive, flagrantly commercial" aspect? "No enterprise can endure," his father always says, "when it's founded solely on financial aspirations, without respect for legacy and history. Just look at the bank for which I work: there's a reason why it has existed since the days of Baron Salomon von Rothschild! And why, alone among Vienna's firms, it survived the Great War and depression both! We haven't abandoned values born during Emperor Franz Josef's reign — the longest the continent's ever known, I might add! — a time before the War to End All Wars, when you could count on an institution to be in existence when your second or third child is born. A time when you could yet trust the human race!"
More distressful to Josef, though, are the traces of relief, of gratitude, gladdening his father's eyes. The man is surely also thinking how grateful he is that the Picks converted to Catholicism a generation ago. How grateful he is that his wife — Josef's mother — agreed not only to be baptized before marrying him but also to raise any child she bore as a Christian, as an Austrian. How grateful he is for having insisted this morning that Josef wear his lederhosen, green loden jacket, and white kneesocks — those symbols of national pride. How grateful he is that no one in his immediate family is still a Jew.
And this last thought, Josef understands painfully, is what makes the existence and recent proximity of Grandfather Pommeranz — his mother's father and an Ostjude, or Jew from the Eastern principalities — so bothersome to his father. The Ostjuden, who do not bother to wear a modern suit, who cannot be inconvenienced to shave their beards, who, most unforgivably, do not learn to speak properly the German of the Viennese or what his father calls "the sweetest, most sublime language ever to grace the European continent" — it is these scions of the shtetl, Josef has been told, who boldly violate the tacit compact of the assimilated not to reveal anything Jewish, who make no effort to do as the Viennese do, to fit in, to ... hide ... and who are thus to blame for Vienna's mounting anti-Semitism. He knows that his grandfather is a prime example of why the Ostjuden attract such hatred. Having been a failed rabbi in Galicia, the old man is now a failed rabbi in Vienna. A rabbi without a following — who has ever heard of such a thing? Who has ever heard of a rabbi earning his bread by trudging all over Vienna and begging its poor shop owners to allow him to bless their meats, produce, or appetizers in exchange for a few schillings?
It hurts Josef's stomach every time his father shares with him the latest joke from Café Central, where his father regularly meets his colleagues: How many potatoes did the rabbi convert to Judaism this week? Does he do dumplings? I met a gefilte fish today on Kärntner Strasse who's having difficulty with his wife and could use the rabbi's blessing. "Wait till they discover the worst of it!" his father bellowed to him one night last week after returning home from the café. "That your grandfather, like a rabbi who wants to bring in more believers, tries to increase the number of meats he blesses each week! According to your mother, some of his foolish clients let the old man bless their meats twice!"
The old man's pitiful travails obviously pay little; why else would he shamefully accept the ten-schilling note Josef's father dispatches to him by courier once a month? It is almost enough to make Josef believe his father's assessment that all Ostjuden are not only crude and greedy but also doomed to failure. Yet as he pushes deeper into the Leopoldstadt's hectic center he senses something in himself competing with his father's disdain. Each scuffling shoe and bared ankle, each clacking heel and chafing trouser, strikes him as part of a triumphant symphony of momentum. But it is more than just the bustle that excites him. It is that these people aren't hiding — that here, Jewishness is altogether to be seen. Synagogues on each street corner, prayer houses in every other building, Hebrew lettering the permanent feature of many a shopwindow. And everywhere: the clamorous swarming air of Jews, from the ultraorthodox to thenormal run of them. What is so wrong with this? Josef wonders. He does not see any difference between these people's scrappy struggle to succeed and the efforts of a pair of goldfinches who return each year to the same flimsy branch outside his bedroom window.
Suddenly, just as his father leads him into what must be the poorest and busiest marketplace in the district, an acute awareness of his lederhosen, kneesocks, and blaring green jacket causes him to shrink from the gaze of passing Jews — or rather from the sight of their clothes: every darkling caftan, felt hat, and tassel that hits him like a rebuke of his Gentile garb. Only his family's arrival at the door of Karmeliterplatz 2, a low-slung begrimed building tucked into a corner of the square, saves him.
"This," his father says in an incriminatory voice, "is where your grandfather lives."
Josef raises his eyes to the building's chipped walls, its sagging roof. It once might have been a family's home; now, hand-painted above the door: ROOMS TO LET — FOR MEN ONLY. Why does his grandfather live here, with other men who have no one, while his family's villa in Hietzing has several unoccupied rooms?
"Let's do this quickly," his father says. He leads Josef and his mother through the entryway and into a dispiriting concrete courtyard full of offense and stench and not much else. Josef, holding his nose, has never stood in so joyless a place, and he is troubled by a vague premonitory heaviness of heart for the old man he is about to meet. At his father's urging, he mounts the stairs. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer. Copyright © 2010 Andrew Winer. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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