Marc Chagall (Wilson)

From March ’07 Spotlight: Novelist Jonathan Wilson will be at the Woman’s Club of Evanston on March 20 to read from his new biography Marc Chagall. I called the Tufts University professor at home to ask him what he most wants his readers to know about history’s most famous Jewish painter.

“Chagall, who died at age 97, had a long, complex, fascinating life, which spanned World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, the Holocaust and beyond,” he said. “In some ways, the complexities of his life, the shift from a tiny Jewish world near Vitebsk [now in Belarus], a nothing shtetl, a small Hasidic ultra-Orthodox world, moving into the vast open prairies of the secular world and the Bohemian world in Paris, in some ways, Chagall’s life is a representative sort of Jewish life, representing an entire shift in Jewish life in the 20th Century and all the conflicts between the old world and modernity that that involves. Chagall’s work as a painter? He’s far edgy, far more experimental and original than contemporary stereotypes allow.”

“One of the Jewish fantasies about Chagall,” Wilson continued, “is that he is sort of nostalgically sentimentally attached to the lost world of the shtetl whereas in fact he both his and he isn’t. There’s one very revealing moment in his memoir where he talks about how utterly bored he is to be back in Vitebsk. He feels the electric tug of the secular world: Paris!”

“In that sense he’s very emblematic of an entire movement of Jews coming out of Europe and embracing the modern secular life of the west. But beyond that, he becomes a vitally important trailblazer in that world. Chagall arrived in Paris struggling with his artistic and his political and his sexual ambivalence, and this is something I don’t think has been paid much attention to. But what intrigues me is that I think that it’s there in the paintings.”

Nextbook is also sponsoring a lecture by Sara Paretsky at the Newberry Library in Chicago on March 14. Best-known for her detective fiction, Paretsky is about to publish a new book of essays called Writing in an Age of Silence in which she talks candidly about growing up in one of the only Jewish families in her home town (Lawrence, Kansas). Paretsky and I met last month near her current home in Hyde Park, and I will provide more details in May, once her essays are on the shelf and available to all.

For more information about both events (including how to order tickets), visit

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