Jill Ciment's writing has been called "luminous . . . sad, affecting" (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times) and "rich in observation and insight" (Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times).
Now in her new novel, her third, Jill Ciment turns her eye to a painter's world in the early years of the twentieth century and tells the story of an American woman, an acclaimed artist who's been stranded on an island for thirty years.
The novel opens in New York in the 1970s. Sara Ehrenreich has returned to New York to much fanfare--Life magazine has arranged for her return and is doing a big feature on her. Sara had been living on a remote speck in the South Pacific for three decades, and she has returned to the city of her childhood and early adulthood, a city made totally different by thirty years of technological and social change.
As Sara experiences all of the sensations of entering a new world, the novel flashes back to tell the story of her life, of herself at eighteen, a Lower East Side shopgirl meeting the man who changes the course of her life--Philip Ehrenreich, a banker's son and revolutionary, an avant-garde artist who
hasn't made art in years.
Philip introduces Sara to everything from Dada to Marx, from free love to automatic drawing, from trayf to absinthe. Philip sees her art as his chance to create by proxy. They fall in love, marry, and form a collaboration, and by the late 1920s, she takes her place among a small group of famous American Modernists.
As the Depression hits and his family money and her corps of collectors vanish, Philip and Sara are forced to embrace the proletarian life that he had romanticized and that she had fled. In desperation, they sell what is left of his prized collection of Oceanic masks, and their lives are forever altered when one of Philip's patrons hires him to collect masks in the South Seas.
Sara and Philip book passage on a Japanese ship that drops them off on Ta'un'uu, an island famous both for its masks and its full-body tattooing. The ship that was to pick them up never returns, bewilderment turns into panic, then resignation, and, finally, to a peace neither husband nor wife has known before. When the Second World War breaks out months later and Philip and half the men of the island are killed by Japanese soldiers, Sara turns to her painting for salvation. She learns the art of tattooing and begins the painting that will be her masterpiece--the tattooing of her own body.
A beautifully written novel, powerful in its portrayal of the world it creates and the ideas it is taken up with--ideas of immortality through art, and of the here-and-now-ness of life and experience.
Ciment's notable new novel (after Teeth of a Dog) narrates the vanguard life of a New York surrealist artist whose 30 years among South Pacific natives teaches her the sacred art of tattooing. Born at the turn of the century to Jewish immigrants, freethinking Sara escapes her seamstress job via Philip Ehrenreich, a banker's son turned Marxist revolutionary who moves her into his Greenwich Village flat and introduces her to the New York art scene. They make a fabulous avant-garde couple until the New York art world goes bust in the run-up to WWII, and they take off for the South Seas in search of native art. Marooned on the island of Tu'un'uu, the castaways find their love tested when the natives forcibly tattoo their faces. Eventually, with no hope of escape, tattooing each other with the gorgeous dyes becomes a mournful expression of love and loss. After Philip's untimely death, Sara becomes an elder craftsman of the religious art, rendering herself "a piece of living tapestry." Three decades later Sara returns to New York after a roving Life magazine reporter discovers her on the island and photographs her, revealing her curious life's work to the world. Though historically fantastic, Ciment's latest is poignant and anthropologically intriguing. (Aug.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 16, 2006
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Excerpt from The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment
I was born in 1902 on the Lower East Side, that open sore on the hip of Manhattan. My parents had immigrated to America the year before from a shtetl outside Warsaw. The Ta'un'uuans have taught me, however, that a journey never begins at the point of departure, but at the point of origin, and so I envision my parents, neither taller than five feet, my father's face bewildered and terrified, my mother's, arrogant and terrified, fleeing the pogroms of Russia for the pogroms of Rumania, Rumania for Budapest, Budapest for Warsaw, Warsaw for Antwerp, and finally arriving at a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. My parents were not only exhausted by the journey, they were stupefied. In the end, the only question that truly preoccupied them was one that, in my bohemian youth, I dismissed as greenhorn sentimentality, and now, in old age, is the only question I, myself, ask: Where is home, and how do I get there?
Like the children of most fresh-off-the-boat Jews, I attended the only school my parents could comprehend, let alone afford: a landsman's quasi Hebrew school conducted in a cellar and lorded over by a succession of rod-wielding, self-appointed rabbis. My education consisted primarily of chanting Hebrew songs without having the least notion of, or reverence for, what I was singing.
The islanders believe that language originates in song, and that the human throat is a musical instrument, a flute of flesh and blood, and that the breath reverberating through the flute is the soul, and that the music emerging from the flute is the spirit.
Aside from a few deeply ingrained Hebrew songs, everything else has been lost to me from those years. I have, after all, been gone so long. The only keepsake I have is an ancient newspaper clipping, a gift from the archivist at the Yiddish Library who'd read about me in Life: it's a 1916 "Bintel Brief," the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward, in which a letter of my father's was printed.
Dear Esteemed Editor,
I hope you will advise me in my present difficulty. I come from a small town in Russia, where, until I was twenty, I studied the Torah, but when I came to America, I quickly changed. I was influenced by progressive newspapers, and became a freethinker and a socialist. But the nature of my feelings is remarkable.
Listen to me: every year when the month of Elul rolls around, when the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approaches, a melancholy begins to eat at my heart, like rust eats iron. When I go past a synagogue during those days and hear the cantor singing, my yearning becomes so great I cannot endure it. I see before me the small town, the fields, the little pond, the yeshiva. I recall my childhood friends and our sweet childlike faith. My heart constricts, and I run like a madman till the tears stream from my eyes and I become calmer.
Lately, I have returned to synagogue, despite the scorn of my freethinker daughter. I go not to pray to God, but to hear and refresh my aching soul with the cantor's melodies. I forget my unhappy weekday life, the dirty shop, my boss, the bloodsucker. All of America with its hurry-up life is forgotten.
What is your opinion of this? Are there others like me whose natures are such that memories of their childhood songs are sometimes stronger than their convictions? I await your answer.
I offer you my father's letter not to woo you with nostalgia, but because if there were an untouched square of skin left on my body, I would engrave it on my flesh.
Jewish law forbids tattooing: Thou shall not make in thy flesh a scratch over the soul. But what if the Ta'un'uuans are right, and the soul is breath? Then aren't the scratches left on my soul by my needles really just the moments when my breath caught, my voice cracked, unable to find song?
By sixteen, I had become, in my father's words, a freethinker, and by my own definition, a bohemian and an anarchist, a girl for whom religion and its trappings were irrelevant. To bring the point home to my parents, I would invariably light my after-dinner cigarette in the flame of the Sabbath candles.
I was a seamstress by day, a waist maker, the eighteenth girl in a row of twenty at the windowless end of the warehouse. Shopgirls worked their way toward the light by seniority. By week's end, my fingers would be so scratched and marred by the needles that one can't attribute all the abrasions on my soul to the tattoos. But on Saturday nights, I'd don my shopgirl's version of bohemian--a felt hat with purple plumage, a Gypsy skirt, and two immoral shanks of red stocking.