Book Review: “The Bridal Chair” — Surviving Genius
The Bridal Chair will not only answer many questions about this complicated, famous family; like painter Marc Chagall’s best work, it will also linger in the mind.
The Bridal Chair by Gloria Goldreich. Sourcebooks Landmark, 489 pages, $14.99.
By Roberta Silman
Although for a long time many art scholars and critics dismissed Marc Chagall (1887-1985) as kitsch or mere interior decoration, I have always felt he possessed a kind of unique genius for distilling into his unforgettable, sometimes Cubist, creations the poverty, paranoia, anxieties, and occasionally the boundless joys of shtetl life. For me, Chagall’s work lingered in the mind far longer than many other paintings of the 20th century: his surrealism was a kind of Jewish magical realism, in which wishes and dreams and prayers found their truest expression.
Then in 2013 there was an exhibition about him at the Jewish Museum in New York that focused on his darker side, his paintings during World War II and afterwards when he lived in the United States, exiled from France where he had lived much of his adult life. That excellent show also supplied biographical details that had somehow escaped me: the shocking death at almost 50 of his first wife, Bella, whom he had painted into immortality; his troubled relationship with a woman hired to be his housekeeper, Virginia Haggard McNeil, and the birth of their son, David McNeil; his subsequent marriage to Valentina Brodsky, the Vava who is so present in the Chagall home in Saint Paul de Vence; and most important, the part played by Ida Chagall, a daughter who was not only the light of his life, but was also the person responsible for his business affairs and the dramatic rescue of his paintings from Provence to the United States in 1941. I remember leaving the museum wanting to know more about their life.
And now we have The Bridal Chair, what Gloria Goldreich calls a “biofiction,” an immensely engaging novel that explores the vicissitudes of la famille Chagall from the crucial years 1934 through 1952. The author begins her story with an incident that may or may not be true, a moral dilemma faced by this very close family when Ida is eighteen and that leads to her marriage to Michel Rappaport, a law student and son of shopkeepers in the Marais. The marriage propels Marc into creating the puzzling painting of an empty chair called “The Bridal Chair” and whose symbolism hangs over the subsequent events with a disturbing resonance. For it seems that this artistic genius was never prepared to do without his devoted daughter. Chagall did not truly understand what every parent knows: that children will eventually leave to live their own lives. Thus, Goldreich skillfully sets up the narrative’s conflicts, revealing how much the family revolves around Marc’s needs, how even in a family where Jewish observance is minimal, religious identity and adherence to Jewish laws is still very strong, and how difficult it is for Ida to fulfill her obligations to her young husband and her demanding parents at the same time.
Moreover, all this is happening against the backdrop of the coming war in Europe, the growing virulent anti-Semitism similar to what the Chagalls experienced when they lived in Vitebsk and Berlin but never thought would follow them to their beloved France. Because Marc and Bella sometimes seem to live in a parallel universe, they wait too long to escape the Vichy and are rescued in 1941 through the efforts of Ida and the help of friends and Alfred Barr (then the Director of MoMa) and the inimitable Varian Fry and Harry Bingham, the American consul in Marseilles. But it is left to Ida and Michel to get the paintings out, which is a drama unto itself and reveals how resilient Ida has become though only in her early twenties. As Varian Fry tells her:
… You saved your father’s life today. But there is no time to waste. We were lucky today, but luck is fickle. Tell your parents they cannot delay any longer. They must leave Marseilles for Lisbon as soon as possible. I only regret that I cannot arrange visas for your and your husband. Still, I have no doubt that you will somehow manage. I will help you get the paintings to America. You are a survivor, madame, a brave and resourceful survivor.
By the time Ida and Michel and the paintings reach the United States, Ida has triumphed in ways she never dreamed. However, new challenges await her. Her parents are unhappy in New York, and although that is when Chagall dug deep into himself to produce those darker paintings, he never adjusted to his “exile,” what many others called “safety.” Here his innate vanity and snobbery and egomania become more pronounced, and when Bella dies of a streptococcal infection after they move to the Adirondacks seeking tranquillity, his neediness becomes almost pathetic. During the years after Bella’s death, until he goes back to France, Marc and Ida’s love for each other is tested as never before.
As Ida strives to find her place in the world, a place without Michel (who is one of the best drawn characters in this sweeping novel), she becomes a strange combination of her mother and father, sometimes blindsided and vain, sometimes naively wistful, sometimes a little too interested in money and power, and sometimes much stronger than she or the reader think she can be. Thus, she is exactly the sort of heroine a good novel needs, with flaws as well as virtues. The other characters are mostly convincing, her old friend Elsa, the Rappaports, her French friend Yvette, Fry and Bingham, and even the cold Vava. The only figure I couldn’t quite get a handle on was the enigmatic Virginia, whom I suspect was as strange in real life as she is in this novel.
And when Ida finally finds a man who is as different from Marc Chagall as one could imagine, the Swiss curator Franz Meyer, she begins to understand that respect is as important as love, that her father’s neediness is no longer her responsibility and that, although she has been the caretaker of her father’s genius, it is time for her to become independent and live her own life. The struggle between father and daughter is over and she will leave Marc to Vava, whatever that may mean.
In all her novels, beginning with Leah’s Journey, Goldreich has always been interested in history and when you finish this book you have a real sense of how it felt to live through those years in so many places — Paris, the south of France, New York, the Catskills, and finally Provence. Her evocation of those locations, especially the scenes set in France, have an exceptional authenticity that give the novel ballast and depth. The Bridal Chair will not only answer many questions about this complicated, famous family; like Chagall’s best work, it will also linger in the mind.
Roberta Silman is the author of a story collection, Blood Relations, now available as an ebook, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.