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Read an Excerpt
BEGIN ANYWHERE, Danzig says. The shoulder, the rib cage, the thigh, the ankle. It won’t be an accident, even if it feels that way right now.
He stands in his classroom at the Art Institute, the students arranged on chairs and stools in a rough circle with their sketchpads and charcoal, all sixteen of them waiting for the model to take the first pose on her platform.
Find a place where your line wants to take a journey, he says. Some curve in any direction, a place where skin meets light, meets shadow. Let your hand tell you. Begin there.
It’s almost the last class of the semester, and he is deliberately talking about beginnings, not endings. He keeps promising himself he is never coming back, but he keeps coming back. For the third year in a row, he has made a vow not to return in the fall, but he’s finding it hard to take his own word seriously. Even when he is shouting at his students, feverish to convince them to care more, he feels his own intensity in doubt, wonders how much he still cares himself. He used to relish the moments when they jumped at the sound of his voice, but now he is no longer sure that anyone even flinches. Their anonymous, hopeful faces may not be enough to save him.
On the worst days, he feels that he must be getting old and used up. The youngest students who pass him in the hallways barely seem to acknowledge he is alive. To them he might as well have one foot in the grave.
But wait. At fifty-eight he can still attract plenty of attention when he wants to. It’s just a few of the women, girls really, who infuriate him with their disinterest.
HE STANDS BESIDE his faithful skeleton, the one that dangles like a marionette on its wooden stand, its bleached bones as familiar to him as an old friend. This is the invaluable prop he calls Doctor Memento, for memento mori, though Danzig is sure most of the students imagine he must be referring only to his own death and not theirs; they’re so young they are still convinced of their immortality.
He is not allowed to touch the models; that’s one of the rules of the Models Guild. And so instead Danzig will rest a hand on Doctor Memento’s shoulder blade, tap a fingertip on his collarbone. Today, he casually holds the good Doctor’s left hand as a form of mild entertainment or even consolation. Later, he will gesticulate with its digits for emphasis, always reminding the students to keep track of the bones.
Look closely, he tells the students. Deeper. This is the predictable architecture of the body. This is how you pay attention to the truth.
Twenty fresh faces arrive in his class each semester, young men and women with barely tolerable moods and attitudes, startling shades of dyed hair and ubiquitous piercings. Fifteen weeks ago there were twenty of them, and now there are sixteen. Though he used to be able to predict with surprising accuracy which of them would leave, this semester there are more stubborn ones than he had counted on, furiously scratching at their sketchpads.
It takes a few weeks or sometimes just a few hours before he knows whether or not anyone in the room has talent. In the first few meetings they are blurry and indistinguishable to him. Now, he sees that several are frowning or grimacing, already prepared to be dissatisfied with the first gestures on the page, already wanting to tear sheets away and throw them aside.
He admits with a private sigh that there is not a single student who engages him right now. For a long time, the opposite happened, and a student would get under his skin by being infuriatingly incompetent. There was one girl last year whose drawings were always filled with oversized, unmatched hands, lopsided mouths, heads shaped like eggs or apples, eyes too high or too low.
You’re just not looking, he had growled at her. Do you mean to tell me these hands belong to the same person? You’re not even trying.
He knew she probably hated him, his icicle heart, his mouth twisting and cruel. She thought he was a mean bastard, and she was right. He was. She left the class and never came back.
They seem younger than ever, these students, almost another species. He swears to himself he was never that young, never that naively arrogant. On certain days there might be one or two who remind him of those first Americans he met, all those years ago. The Occupiers, his father had called them. Soldiers. But he has mostly forgotten.
Begin again, he says.
SOME YOUNG WOMAN with peroxide hair about an inch long and a silver stud through her tongue (she is yawning, even now) seems to be glaring at him. More likely she is angry at the world, but Danzig takes it personally, so he is angry at her too. In the past he would have managed to seduce her after the first or second week of the semester, just to wipe the glare off her face. But this is what outrages him as much as anything: she doesn’t seem to register him in any way as a sexual being. She turns her back almost every time he passes near her.
He might have reassured himself with the certainty that she doesn’t like men at all, but in fact he’s seen her more than once with her pierced tongue in the mouth of a leather-encased, acne-scarred boyfriend, who drops her off and picks her up on his motorcycle.
So it’s just Danzig who doesn’t appeal to her. All that sexual heat and none of it for him.
He tells himself he doesn’t mind, not about her or about any of the rest of them. He has made no promises and told no lies. And he is about to forget each one of their names.
TODAY’S MODEL is getting undressed behind a folding screen. So far he can only see the back of her head, noting very dark brown hair, cut in a kind of thick bob above her jawline, windblown and messy. There have been so many models—easily hundreds over the years, possibly as many as a thousand—so many whose names he cannot remember and probably never knew.
Just last week his model hadn’t shown up at all, and Danzig had posed for the class himself, stripped down to his jeans and bare feet, determined not to squander anyone’s time including his own. He is still vain enough to know that his muscle tone is reasonable, his back and shoulders powerful enough to be compelling anatomically.
The students could work with a piece of clothing for once; it wouldn’t kill them, he said. And here was a chance to practice contours half hidden under fabric, folds and creases and what they used to call drapery in the days when nude models were rare and for men only.
He used a long stick kept on hand for prying open and closing the high casement windows of the room. He held it like a staff of Moses, aimed it like a javelin, used it to prop his arms like a weary shepherd. He imagined himself through their eyes: his blond hair going gray at the temples and on his exposed chest, his charcoal-stained fingers. Rocking almost imperceptibly on the balls of his feet, he reminded himself to bend his knees, all of this giving him a renewed appreciation for the balanced stillness of his models.
All of the students seemed to work especially seriously that day, a little shy of him at first and then with increasing eagerness, obviously hopeful in the face of his silence that this might be a once-only chance to work without his correcting hand hovering nearby. For now Danzig’s hands were elsewhere, held in a foreign gesture that had nothing to do with their own hands, except that it had everything to do with getting his hands to look as real and as still as the ones they saw when they looked up from their easels.
He was there for them to study all they wanted, a body twice their age at least, maybe three times, and suddenly a figure in space with a look that might have surprised them had any of them been curious enough to decipher it carefully. He felt vulnerable, subject to a persistent gaze that made him worry about what they thought of him, whether the young women saw him as old and unattractive, past his prime; whether the young men saw him as weaker than they’d ever allow themselves to be, a man without much of a future, a father figure who needed, basically, to step aside so that the youth and promise they held could stride ahead and take over the world.
BEGIN AGAIN, he says today, even before the model has stepped onto the platform.
It’s not just a beginning every time you see a new model, he continues, but every time you face a fresh page. It’s that necessary leap into the unknown. And even though you know you’re compressing the infinite possibilities that exist just before the first line is made, you still have to make a commitment. It’s a direction that can be changed even when it declares itself to be irrevocable.
They look at him, at least a handful of them still willing to hang on his every word. There are several, he knows, who stopped listening weeks ago. They draw and fail and draw the same thing all over again. They’re like dogs with bones, stubborn and single-minded.
It’s their loss, he thinks, but never mind. They’ll end up where they started, with or without me. If I’d really wanted to be one of those eternally patient fathers I would have stayed with Andrea and raised the child where I could have some say. Never mind.
Still holding up Doctor Memento’s left hand to point it at them, he looks at nothing for a few silent moments, feeling a low hum of expectation and anxiety in the air. Maybe a few of them really are afraid of him, as if he is the enemy, not the work itself.
The day he modeled for the class, he thought he overheard someone refer to him as The Kaiser. The comment was low and muttered somewhere behind his back. He was caught so completely off guard that he barely admitted his own shock; it was too absurd. He would have expected worse, in fact, but they didn’t know anything about their own country, much less about the rest of the world. All they recognized was his blond hair and blue eyes, his imagined lineage on display. But he brushed it off.
What did they know? he asked himself. What could they possibly know?
YOU CAN NEVER HOPE to be able to finish a painting unless you truly know how to start, he says. Unless you’re willing to practice that first movement over and over. To turn seeing into a stroke.
He gestures with his arm, moving it like a swimmer, and the arm of Doctor Memento moves too.
Stroke, he says. Learn how to pull yourself through the water. Feel the pure balance between tension and release, the arm loose and strong at the same time, finding exactly where the angle works best. Part the water as if you could divide it into Before and After.
The model steps out from behind the screen and looks at him neutrally, with apparent calm, though her gaze is aimed just past him, over his shoulder.
She is lovely, he thinks, not beautiful in the usual boring ways. There is something else.
He does his quick, expert appraisal. Dimensions, he thinks; that’s what she has. Space between her features, her breasts, long arms and legs and torso. Smooth unblemished skin, those very dark eyes, a full mouth, even without a smile. Her fingers are long and tapered, and she is completely unadorned. No makeup or jewelry or tattoos. Just a pure unveiled being.
He says what he always tells the models: that he wants her to start the session with twenty one-minute poses, and up she steps onto the platform.
What he will remember later is that Billie Holiday was playing, that the light pouring through the high windows was diffuse and fog-colored, that as far as he could tell none of the students truly realized just how good she was, from the moment of her first pose until the unraveling of the last one.
He will remember pacing back and forth between the platform and his skeleton, taking its hand and dropping it, taking it back again. For the first time in all his years of teaching he barely notices himself talking about bones, about the need to remind them what the body is made of, the mathematics of anatomy, the beauty underneath beauty.
He can only see her.
© 2006 Elizabeth Rosner
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Blue Nude includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Rosner. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Elizabeth Rosner’s luminous second novel, Blue Nude, takes modern history’s greatest atrocity and expresses its consequences—and a hope for redemption—in the lives of two people thrown together by accident. Born in the shadow of postwar Germany, Danzig is a once prominent painter, now teaching at an art institute in San Francisco.
Increasingly haunted by his dark inheritance, he finds himself unable to create. When Merav, the Israeli-born granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, becomes Danzig’s muse, both realize they must face the wounds of history that each of them carries. Bringing together the past and present lives of Merav and Danzig, the story moves forward and backward in time and place: from a California art studio to the ruins of Berlin and back again.
In subtle yet profound awakenings, both artist and model begin to transform themselves as well as one another. Blue Nude becomes the literary equivalent of a masterpiece of visual art: elegantly composed, vivid, a perfect object as well as a great and stirring drama.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The concept of “beauty” is discussed throughout the novel in its many different forms. How does each of the characters see beauty? Do you find your own awareness of beauty has been affected by reading the book?
2. The past continually visits Danzig and Merav, both separately as well as when they are together. Discuss how the legacy of the past impacts subsequent generations. Can they ever move beyond their history? How much more burdensome is their past, given their ancestor’s experiences with the Holocaust? Are they ever able to reconcile their pasts?
3. This book largely tells of the connection between Merav and Danzig—but where does Margot fit in? Why is she the only other character to have chapters told from her point of view, and how does this impact the book overall?
4. How does Merav’s early life in Israel (growing up on a kibbutz, serving in the army) affect her later life in the United States? Which values does she bring with her, and which does she leave behind?
5. Danzig’s sexual impulses continually conflict with his artistic inspirations. For instance, after having sex with Andrea for the first time, Danzig realizes he can no longer be artistically inspired by a woman he has been with. Why do you think this is?
6. “I never wanted to be anyone’s father.” Danzig refuses to care for his and Andrea’s baby on page 78. What do you think is holding him back from fatherhood at this point? Also, when Andrea sends him a scathing letter in the mail, is she justified in doing so? Why or why not?
7. Merav is both an artist and a model. How does she reconcile the two? Does it seem possible for her to be both at once, or must she ultimately give up one to make room for the other?
8. Describe the balance of power between Danzig and the models who pose for him. Who is really in control: the artist, or the muse? Is the balance of power different when they are in the classroom compared to in Danzig’s personal studios?
9. Danzig’s fight with Susan (pages 84–88) is a pivotal moment in this story. Does anything change in him after the fight? If so, what? How does the news of her subsequent suicide attempt affect him?
10. How did Merav’s relationship with Gabe differ from her relationship with Yossi? What did Merav get out of her marriage with Gabe, and why did she feel she had to end it?
11. Both Danzig and Herr Hoffman display skeletons in their classrooms—“Doctor Memento” and “Herr Doktor.” Why do you think Rosner chose to give them these names?
12. Merav and Danzig might be considered opposites: She is a woman, he is a man; she is Israeli, he is German; she is the model, he is the artist, etc. Their differences are overtly apparent throughout the book, yet perhaps they share more subtle—and some not-so-subtle—similarities. Consider some of these similarities.
13. Rosner often focuses on the colors her characters experience; for example, Gabe dreams in “red light” (142), Danzig finds Margot with skin “not just white but pale blue, gray-blue” (110). How do these references to color help bring the story to life, and why do you think Rosner has made this theme so prominent?
14. Merav is repeatedly told the story of her grandmother’s discovery by a “young German soldier” in a barn. Why do you think Rosner has placed Merav in this same barn for the final scene of the story? Do you think Merav realizes the significance of the barn, or do you think she is completely unaware?
15. In the final scene in which Danzig paints Merav, Danzig muses on how the image of Merav in the tub has merged “into one echo, one story” with his finding Margot in the bath so many years ago. Discuss how painting Merav may have helped Danzig to cope with his past. Consider how Merav is also changed by posing for him.
16. Do you consider this to be a love story? If yes, in what way? If no, why not?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Sign up for an art class with the members of your reading group. Many community centers and colleges offer a variety of beginning art classes for adults. Also, private teachers may be available in your area if your group would prefer a smaller class.
2. Both Merav and Danzig listen to music while painting/posing, and several musical artists are mentioned throughout the book. Compose a playlist of your own with the members of your reading group and try using it as background music during a group painting session. You can try painting a specific subject, such as a person or an object, or you can let the music lead your brushes.
3. Visit a Holocaust museum, or sit in on a speech given by a Holocaust survivor. While the experience may be powerful, and perhaps overwhelming at times, it may give you and the members of your reading group a new perspective on the novel.
4. Hold a free-write session in which the members of your group have a specified amount of time to write whatever they like. Try picking a certain theme in the book, such as memory or reconciliation, on which to write. When everyone is finished, you can choose to share your writings or keep them private.
5. Merav appreciates nature’s beauty as she is on a five-day hike with Yossi and Tzvi, the eccentric kibbutz artist. Go for a hike on a local trail with your reading group; after all, you don’t have to be in the deserts of Israel to appreciate what nature has to offer.
A CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH ROSNER
In a previous interview, you mentioned you like to do research by talking to people and listening to their stories. Do you ever use specific stories in your books, or does your research serve more as inspiration?
Research and invention are constantly evolving and interacting as I write. Often, interviews and the stories told to me become so much a part of my imagination that I lose track of where the “facts” end and where my own interpretations begin. In response to some inspiring encounter, I attempt to climb inside the skin of that person, to see the world through his or her eyes, and to dream my way into his or her psyche. At the heart of my work, I have a tendency to write what could be called emotional autobiography. The material isn’t exactly based on my own life, but my inner landscape is a deep reservoir that is fed by the stories of others as well as by my imaginings.
As the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, did you find it difficult to write from Danzig’s point of view?
Without a doubt it was challenging for me to develop the character of Danzig, but my compassion for him—so necessary to the writing process—increased the more I wrote. It was even more daunting to write from his sister Margot’s viewpoint. I went through a very mysterious process of imagining her, then putting those drafted pages away because I felt overwhelmed by a terrible discomfort. For an entire year, I even forgot I’d written them! When I rediscovered the scenes I’d composed for her, they were almost exactly finished, serving as the pivotal chapters that the book needed. I can’t imagine the book without her now.
Throughout the book, Danzig continually uses the phrase “begin again.” Why did you choose to use this particular phrase as his “motto”?
In a way, that motto is mine as much as Danzig’s. I realized during an early stage of struggling with this novel that every artist has to keep facing the empty space, whether it’s a white canvas or a blank page, whether we are listening for music or watching a sculpture take shape in our hands. Each new piece of work means we have to overcome our fears and doubts and find the way to start over, again and again. I am also aware that sometimes I can teach others what I think I know, until finally I really listen to what I’m saying as instruction for myself.
Furthermore, with Danzig in particular, there is some profound historical wound he needs to heal inside himself in order to feel capable of being his own person. That kind of new beginning can be elusive for a very long time.
Why did you choose art as a way to connect your two main characters? Do you paint? Do you model?
For a long time, I wanted to be a painter, but couldn’t quite locate a sense of what I would call talent. Although I did spend some time painting while working on the novel, it was mostly to remind myself what it felt like to hold brushes and focus my mind on a visual language. I love how different painting is from working with words. As for modeling, I have done that kind of work off and on, mostly a very long time ago (when I was in college). I wrote an essay about the experience when I reflected back on it from a great distance, and was able to appreciate how much it taught me about my relationship to my body.
In using art as a means of connecting Danzig and Merav, I want to show that making peace is an actively creative process, and indeed a collaborative one as well. These two people have to use their imaginations and empathies to reach across the historical and personal divides that could so easily keep them separated. Each pair of potential enemies has the same creative capacity, or so I believe. Not that it’s easy. But in my opinion, this willingness break new ground, to take a leap of faith in each other, this is what our future depends upon.
Blue Nude ends in an uplifting, hopeful way for two characters who have been through so much pain. Was ending the novel this way important to you?
See above! Even as I find the entire notion of a “happy ending” to be quite complicated, I do want to invite readers to feel that there is hope even in the darkest moments of this story, including the final scenes. Not just to offer a simplistic recipe for optimism, but to explore the fragility and nuance involved in healing the wounds of history, one person at a time. I believe that small movements in the direction of compassion can make a huge difference in the larger scale of humanity.
Your first novel, The Speed of Light, came out in 2001. How was the experience of writing your second novel different?
There are so many ways to answer this question. One obvious concern was how to resist repeating myself, or following a path that felt safe and familiar. I had to be deliberate about making different choices in voice, subject, imagery—and yet I also had to be able to trust that certain themes continued to haunt and interest me, especially the way the past is palpable inside the present. I think many authors find that after they’ve discovered an audience of whatever size, they suddenly feel as though there are readers with expectations and preferences. That kind of pressure—even if it’s imaginary!—can easily interfere with one’s authentic process. I kept having to remind myself that Blue Nude was an individual piece of work, and that it would find its own place in the world.
Last but not least, I was writing my first novel mainly during summers because I taught full-time at a community college. While writing Blue Nude, I was able to work with far fewer interruptions because I was no longer teaching.
What books and authors have most influenced your writing?
It would take a long time for me to make a complete list, but first and foremost is Virginia Woolf, especially To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Other significant influences include Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, Marilyn Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Don DeLillo, John Banville, and Sharon Olds.
You are an award-winning poet, and your prose has a lyrical, near-poetic feel to it. More than once, readers and reviewers have commented on the poeticism of your words. Do you write this way intentionally, or is it a natural inclination?
Some combination of the two, I think. My inner voices always sound lyrical to me, and I try my best to translate that quality onto the page. My poetry is quite prosaic and my prose is poetic, so I suppose you could say that I’m hovering in the spaces between the two forms. Honestly, I’m not convinced they are so distinct, at least in my writing life.
What project are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel that is set in my hometown of Schenectady, New York. It’s called Electric City. Too soon to say much more than that!
If you could offer one piece of advice to authors writing fiction, what would it be?
My single piece of advice is to persevere. That may sound simplistic or obvious, but in my experience, it’s the hardest and most essential part of the process. Not to give up when it feels impossible to go forward, not to be discouraged by rejections and disappointments of all kinds, not to allow the opinions of others to overwhelm your vision and purpose. The corrollary is not to try to write like anyone else, and not to obsess about the outcome after the work is done. There is something that only you can create. If you devote yourself fully to writing in the most honest way you can, that process itself will be your best reward.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of the best books I've ever read. It's fascinating and the writing is absolutely beautiful.
BLUE NUDE BY Elizabeth Rosner is a historical fiction set in San Francisco and Point Reyes in the 21st century. It is well written and fast paced. It has secrets, truths coming to light, sexy art work, muse, artist, failed relationships, a former Israili soldier, a German Nazi descendent, despair, fear, hope, World War II, Holocaust story, guilt, and forgiveness. A German washed up artist and a former Israili soldier/model learn redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness together. Merav, the former Israili soldier turned model and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor becomes Danzig's muse. Danzig, a washed up German artist whose post war inheritance brings him to Merav while he is a teacher at an art institue in San Francisco. This story brings together the past and the present with profound awakenings for both the artist and the muse. This is a touching story of pain and survival. This book was received for review and details can be found at Simon and Schuster and My Book Addiction and More.
I found myself completely engrossed in this novel. It's one of those books that you fly through because you can't put it down. Elizabeth is a writing genius!
Wonderfully written novel, almost like poetry. The story is well defined and developed from the past and how it plays on the present. I will have the read his writer again, and look forward to seeing future works.
¿Blue Nude¿ centers on two people living in the San Francisco Bay Area: an artist originally from Germany and a younger Israeli model. Both are struggling to overcome the legacy of their culture, as well as difficulties in their personal lives. Danzig was born to a cruel father who was a Nazi officer, and as a child he found his older sister¿s body after she committed suicide. Merav struggled to balance the need for the security of her people with avoiding becoming herself a part of the violent, murderous cycle in the Middle East, and lost her best friend and lover to a bus bomb. Danzig has had failed relationships and is getting older and less relevant both as an artist and as a teacher; Merav has gone through a divorce.In the beginning of the novel a Nazi soldier spares a young Jewish girl when he comes upon her in a barn; it turns out that the girl is Merav¿s grandmother. In the end the son of a Nazi paints a young Jewish girl in a barn that¿s been turned into a studio. I took the meaning of the novel to be embodied in the phrase Danzig returns to as a teacher: ¿Begin again¿ - in one sense referring to the perseverance needed in the artistic process, and in another sense the need to create the world anew, to transcend the past, and continue on.The story is pleasant enough but there just isn¿t enough happening and it¿s all a bit too subtle for me. I found the descriptions of the artistic process both repetitive and dull. The photograph on the cover of my edition was mesmerizing however. Quotes:On nudity:¿Suddenly she felt vulnerable, to see that what she wore made her look like a soldier, like everyone else, and so they were all interchangeable and replaceable. It scared her to be so generic, so much a part of the giant machinery of the country in which she lived.What consoled her were the moments of open and ordinary nakedness, the locker rooms and showers, where for a while at least she felt all of them returning to their skins. Individual colors came back: their hair, their shapes, their breasts and thighs and backs, so much beauty and variety, one at a time and unique. Merav was allowed to remember what she really looked like.¿On photography, and love:¿Image by image, Merav saw herself in pieces, saw how Gabe¿s camera had explored her. When she saw the flour like ashes on her skin, as though she were made of crumbling marble, she thought of a line from Leonard Cohen: `Let me see your beauty broken down.¿For a moment, she felt stunned by the idea that maybe he was dismantling her, maybe he would never be able to see her whole. But right away she shook herself free of that idea, told herself she was only inventing fears to keep from falling in love with him.This is how beautiful you are, he said. This, and this, and this.¿