In Andrew Winer’s insightful novel, an art critic struggles with his wife’s infidelity and suicide, and a painter deals with life in Hitler’s concentration camp by creating Jewish marriage contracts.
Dysfunction is the rule when it comes to marriage in literature, and Andrew Winer’s new novel, The Marriage Artist, with its cast of difficult husbands and suffering wives, certainly appears to abide by it. But, in the end, Winer offers a refreshing take on the institution; while he depicts many failed or failing couples throughout the novel, The Marriage Artist is ultimately a celebration of the commitment between husband and wife.
The plot is comprised of two narratives, and Winer, the author of The Color Midnight Made, skillfully alternates between them from chapter to chapter. The first, set in the present, opens with the apparent suicide of art-critic Daniel Lichtman’s wife, Aleksandra, and her suspected lover, an artist called Benjamin Wind, whose career Daniel has helped launch. As a way of coping, Daniel sets out to discover the nature of their relationship, and the cause of their double suicide. The second story begins in pre-World War II Vienna, and tells the story of Josef Pick, the world’s greatest painter of ketubot, illuminated Jewish marriage contracts. Pick and Wind are connected—their connection is the point at which the two narratives intersect.
It’s tempting to peg The Marriage Artist as “Jewish Literature”—all of the characters are Jewish, many of them wrestle with Jewish identity, and the Holocaust figures prominently into the Vienna narrative. But to do so would downplay the universality of Winer’s ideas about the human condition, and his fearless examinations of sexual power, love between men, hatred between fathers and sons, maternal instinct, grief, and professional impotency.
Art has a way of articulating the ineffable and, as a former artist and art critic, Winer has special insight in this regard. Not only that, but he has a wonderful ability to write about art, at times the most esoteric of subjects, in an remarkably accessible way. When he describes Daniel viewing Wind’s transcendent, final exhibit, he channels an artist’s eye to literarily install what might’ve been his own great work:
And then, when he and Aleksandra had penetrated several steps into the gallery, when he saw that the two hands belonged to the floating (flying?) figures of a woman and a man, when he saw that their clasped hands were representative—that Wind had filled all three of the gallery’s cavernous chambers with life-size figures paired off and joined by the holding of hands—when he saw that each pair of figures appeared to be sprayed in the air as if by some centrifugal force, when he saw how these sculptures of men and women and children seemed to be caught—as if they eddied about the room and each other—in various states of ascendance, Daniel understood at once that Wind’s show was not only a confirmation, and, really, a summation of developments in his earlier work, but also a monstrous upheaval representing nothing less than his attainment to greatness.
As a reader, seeing the art is all well and good, but Winer does us one more favor and offers, through Daniel, a subtle critique of his own creation: “Yes, he grew increasingly confident that what he was looking at in every one of these clinging figures was the end of a life’s tenure, when the reins are handed over to another driver (maybe the Driver).”
Winer’s desire to fill in the gaps that emerge when words fall short of vision can sometimes work against him. His portrayals of old Jewish men can read more like caricatures, and he can also belabor his points, dulling a few of the novel’s more acute moments. In this sense, Winer is a better writer than he gives himself credit for. In one of the book’s powerful, early scenes, Josef Pick reveals to his father his first ketubah, and Herr Pick is unmanned by its depth. Here, Winer takes us inside Herr Pick.
Rage because for the first time in his life he feels… What does he feel?
He feels confused.
Moments like this are few and far between, however, and Winer’s ultimate theme survives. The Marriage Artist dares to reply to the question, “What is the point of marriage?”—when Josef Pick is held in a concentration camp, he begins illuminating ketubot for the men there who begin reenacting their marriages as a commemoration of what they have lost. “Josef’s creations probably offered those men the only opportunity they ever had in camp to think of someone besides themselves.” Ours may be a broken world, Winer tells us, but we’re not alone. Marriage is one way of saying, “I’m not just in this for me.”