Model and artist walk a fine line
A German and Israeli in exile form a bond, but each has baggage
Reviewed by Charles Matthews
Sunday, May 28, 2006
By Elizabeth Rosner
BALLANTINE; 224 PAGES; $24.95
A German artist and an Israeli model meet in a San Francisco classroom. That's the setup for Berkeley author Elizabeth Rosner's novel "Blue Nude," which tracks the growing fascination that each has with the other.
Both are stuck on the peripheries of their fields. Danzig, a 58-year-old painter who once had considerable success, is blocked creatively and supports himself by teaching. Merav, who is half his age, studied to be an artist, but now works as a life model.
And both have chosen exile because of traumatic events. The death of a childhood friend and former lover in a terrorist attack impelled Merav to leave Israel. She packed "as little as possible in order to arrive in a new country without much memory of anything." Danzig's alienation from Germany began with a terrible loss in his childhood and was made worse by battles with his father, a former Nazi, who opposed his art studies. Danzig felt a "desperate need to place an ocean and then a continent between himself and his past, his father and the Fatherland." He, too, believes that he "can forget anything and everything, a series of doors closed and locked behind him."
But the history of the countries they left keeps those doors from staying shut. When Merav learns that he's German, "she isn't sure she can manage to stay in the room. She's stunned by this almost primal response, her coiled readiness for flight." Later she will recall, "The poses she took in the first session were all in the shape of fear: a woman turning away from something threatening; a body in flight; the curled up shape of self-defense, protecting the heart, the belly." Danzig is not at all blind to this. When he learns her name, he reflects, "It is of course an Israeli name, so she is Jewish, as he had guessed. No wonder she will not look him in the eye." And so they begin a wary dance toward acceptance of each other.
The risk of a premise like this one is that the novel can devolve either into sentimental melodrama, a kind of beauty-and-beast romance, or into a moralizing fable, in which the characters wear labels like Fear and Guilt as they move toward Reconciliation. Rosner is too good a writer to fall into either trap, and she avoids them here largely because of her sensitive and complex portrait of Merav, whose delicate balance of vulnerability and strength Rosner captures in her reflections on Merav's work as a nude model: "Anatomy is more than bones and muscles. Her body is an abstraction, a narrative designing itself in the air." When Merav poses, "she is unveiled down to bare skin, exposed that far, but the world inside her body, the universe of dream and sensation that lives beneath her bones stays covered. All of that belongs only to her."
Merav's attitude toward Danzig is shaped by the experience of her grandmother, Esther, which is told in the novel's prologue: Esther survived the Nazis because a Dutch farmer hid her in his barn; a German soldier discovered her there but let her go because he was so struck by her beauty. Merav imagines how her mother and grandmother would protest about her posing for Danzig. She "silently talks back to them. Hadn't Esther once grudgingly admitted it was possible there had been a few good Germans? That soldier -- wasn't he deserving of credit for saving her life? It's just there were never enough of the good ones, Esther would retort." The suspense of the novel hinges on Merav's trust that Danzig is one of the good ones.
Two of Danzig's former models became his mistresses, and he was a cad in his treatment of them, so we have reason to feel concern for Merav when she agrees to pose for him alone in his studio in Point Reyes. But the working out of the novel's central tension would be more compelling if Rosner had been able to make Danzig come off the page the way Merav does. He's set up too mechanically as the stereotypical cold and authoritarian German, who enjoys the fact that his students "jumped at the sound of his voice," and who overhears them calling him "The Kaiser." Rosner seems unable to make the kind of intimate imaginative connection with Danzig that she does with Merav. This is crucially evident when, in telling his story, she departs from his point of view -- which she never does when telling Merav's story -- to see events through the eyes of his sister, Margot, whose fate is the supposed key to his character.
Rosner's critically acclaimed first novel, "The Speed of Light," also dealt with the heavy weight that the past can impose on survivors. In that respect, it was more successful than "Blue Nude," whose story is too frail to hold up the larger themes -- the tragic history, the struggle to heal and to reconcile -- that intrude upon it. But the grace of this novel is less in its totality than in its details, the insights and illuminations that abundantly reveal the author's intelligence and compassion. This is a writer whose promise here exceeds her achievement, but that promise is splendid.
Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Mountain View.
This article appeared on page M - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle