A Novel of Klass
by Curt Leviant, Livingston Press, 329 pages, $27
October 30, 2008
Curt Leviant’s latest novel is proof (as if more were needed) that he can be simultaneously satirical, playful, and profound.
A Novel of Klass is an insider romp into the often contentious world of Jewish artists and those who buy and sell their work. It also features back-biting Jewish poets and Holocaust scholars of, let us say, the dubious sort.
According to Ayzik Klass, the Chagall-like painter at the center of the novel’s brouhaha, everyone — quite literally — is against him, and each and every one of them is, in his much-repeated one-word dismissal, an “eedyot.”
Klass is a “character” in more than one sense of the word — larger than life as he crams his mouth with herring and his tongue with elaborate Yiddish curses. Part of the problem is that Klass insists on being called a “Yiddish” (rather than “Jewish”) painter because, as he defines it, his “duty [is] to resuscitate the dead Jews and give them the life the enemy had taken away from them.” In one essay he calls this “the imaginative reversal of history, the paintbrush against the sword.”
Sprinkled throughout the text are descriptions of Klass’ paintings. Here, for example, is Kaddish: “Men, lots of men, standing in a field with bare trees behind them, the trees clustered like the men. Their mouths are open, saying the Kaddish. Women and children are scattered in the picture. But one out of every three is a skeleton, representing one-third of the world’s Jews who were murdered. There are little skeletons, too, and tiny ones. Some skeletons have human eyes, others just hollow sockets. Some of the skeletons are covered with musical notation, some with Hebrew letters, to represent the Yiddish language, songs, the words, the books, the sacred texts that were also murdered.”
Klass is much more than his bluster. He is a genius, which one character defines this way: “…a combination of imagination, superlative command of technique. A startling world view, and the creation of one’s own complete and authentic universe.” The definition leaves out “difficulty” and that, too, is an aspect of Klass. He not only imagines “imaginary” enemies, but he has real ones as well.
Here is how the wags in various Yiddish intellectual circles turn his memories of painting with Chagall in postwar Paris into widely circulating jokes:
When the pseudo-literary Klass with his phony honorary doctorates from discredited two-bit colleges writes an article, so goes the joke in Yiddish circles, it’s sure to have Chagall in it: “Me and Chagall, Chagall and I. In Chagall’s Studio. I Remember Chagall. With Chagall in Paris. I Remember Chagall — Part Two. Part Twelve. Part Twenty.”
When Klass dies, his possible murderers include (among others) his wife, a gallery owner, and a jealous poet, but as Leviant’s notes make clear, the novel is not a whodunit; rather, it the sort of wonderfully playful literary exercise that concludes with two alternate ending — one “TRUE,” the other “REAL.”
A Novel of Klass is filled with Hamans and (alas) only one Purim. But for the most part, the griefs are comic and the resulting satire is warmhearted. This does not mean, however, that Leviant doesn’t make a number of wise — and true — observations about art and the artistic landscape. It also does not mean that Leviant has lost so much as a step in terms of his powers as a storyteller. He sprinkles a good bit of Yiddish into his characters’ speeches and while their heavily-accented talk is often played for laughs, there are also plenty of moments when readers will ponder what’s being said and what younger generations, who do not know Yiddish, are missing — namely, the lost world that Ayzik Klass tried to paint.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida, where he writes about Jewish literature and culture on cloudy days.