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The Marriage Artist: A Novel

The Marriage Artist: A Novel

by Andrew Winer

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When the wife of renowned art critic Daniel Lichtmann plunges to her death, she is not alone. Lying next to her is Benjamin Wind, the very artist Daniel most championed. Dedicating himself to uncovering the secrets of their relationship, Daniel discovers a web of mysteries leading back to pre—World War II Vienna. Ambitious, haunting, and stunningly written, The Marriage Artist is an "elaborate psycho-political-sexual puzzle, with...hard truths, startling visions, and eerie insights into the mystical and memorializing powers of art, and that endless hunger we call love" (Booklist).

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312610722
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/25/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 901,627
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrew Winer is the author of The Marriage Artist and The Color Midnight Made. Formerly an artist who wrote art criticism, he teaches at the University of California, Riverside, where he has directed the MFA program in creative writing. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction and is married to the writer Charmaine Craig, with whom he has two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

The Marriage Artist

We Lose Our Love to History, Part One

Falling, in her final moments, Daniel's wife carries in her chest a heart burdened by the weight of her love for another man. She feels something, everything--gravity? God?--gripping her heart, pulling the earth upward to meet it. The sidewalk is still far below her, discolored with patches of brown and black, but it is expanding quickly, rising as if to absorb her. She has little sensation of descent. This is what falling feels like. Around her the air, life-giving and loyal all these years, yields easily despite its wet summer night thickness. It is making way for her. It is assenting to her death.
Is she aware of her lover's figure, also falling, not quite beside her, some few feet away?
No, her mind is not on the man at all. In the greatest matters--love and death, sex too--our minds are rarely in concert with our hearts.
Of Daniel she is not thinking either. Not anymore. She has no more time. She is already a part of history. And history is the time of the dead.
Finally, she is left only with vision. There is the sidewalk. There is a discarded yogurt cup. There, a cigarette butt. Images of eternity.
Then it is finished.


OR THAT IS how Daniel would imagine it, long after Aleksandra's body was found, near that of the artist Benjamin Wind, by a group of college students walking to a party. It had been an airless July night during which the heat bore down relentlessly on the city, pressing its inhabitants toward its sticky pavements. And there they were, two dark figures on the sidewalk, at angles too odd for sleep.
Because Benjamin Wind was something of a personage in New York, because--well, because he was in many people's opinion the best artist, in any country, of the last decade and probably the first great artist of the twenty-first century, and because Daniel had in no small way helped shape that opinion by championing Wind's work in a series of essays and reviews, because Daniel had called Wind's solo exhibition that spring "possibly the best showing of art by a living artist this reviewer has ever seen," and, finally, because the woman who lay dead next to Wind on the sidewalk outside his Bowery studio was Daniel's wife, the entire art world was lousy with gossip about the deaths. Certainly Wind and Aleksandra must have been lovers, it was suggested. Perhaps thirty-eight-year-old Daniel Lichtmann, the very art critic who had made Wind's career, discovered the pair in the middle of a clandestine liaison, forced his way into the artist's studio to find them beneath its outsize window, and precipitately tossed them out of it (precisely how Daniel had done so was detailed in numerous accounts, as various and tantalizing as they were apocryphal). Or had Wind, in the throes of some impassioned dispute, pushed Aleksandra from the roof of his building and then in despair followed her down? Or a question moreinteresting by half, even for Daniel: Had it been a suicide pact? Had the two, under the influence of a mutual death drive, sought a permanent embrace, an irrevocable consummation of their love?
Each of these speculations reached Daniel, despite his self-imposed isolation after That Day--that unnameable day in his life--but he quickly forgave his art world friends. In truth, he was as in the dark as they were about the deaths (as were the investigators who, after plying him with questions and poking about in Wind's loft and a few other corners of the art world, came up with nothing), and it was all he could do to keep his own mind from fabricating the wildest ideas. He tried, typically, to retreat from reddened mental flashes of flesh and fucking and blood to the black-and-white world of words, with pitiable results. Late one night he found himself madly searching his shelves for a volume containing the last letter of the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who had famously committed double suicide with Henriette Vogel in 1811. When he located the entry, he rejoined the heap of trash and uneaten frozen dinners on his bed and copied down the following line, in a spiral around an empty toilet paper roll, as an imaginary reel of Aleksandra and Wind's "flight" to their death played in his mind: "What strange feelings, half sad, half joyful, move us in this hour, as our souls rise above the world like two joyous balloonists."
If the two of them had been preparing in unison for death, there were no clues to be found in their obituaries--which were decidedly free of scandalous references. Wind's ran a half page in the New York Times. That it drew generously from Daniel's published work on the artist's life and career, that it identified Daniel as the one who had coronated Wind "The Art World's New King," that it heavily quoted Daniel's own praise of a man who had probably taken his wife from him, made reading the obituary a cruel experiencefor Daniel--an experience he nevertheless drew out, in a spectacular all-night exercise in self-flagellation. Over and over again he read through the obit, fixating on the words he had once written and skipping familiar biographical details, two of which would become significant to his quest to find out what had happened to his wife:

Benjamin Wind, the first Native American ever to rise to the top of the contemporary visual arts, is dead at 37.

Mr. Wind is survived by his father, Herman, a full-blooded Blackfoot, who lives in Newport Coast, Calif., and his mother, Francine, of Bend, Ore.
In contrast to Wind, Aleksandra was relegated to the "Deaths" section at the bottom of the following day's New York Times Obituaries page. Her brief death announcement had been provided by her family:

LICHTMANN--Aleksandra V. Beloved wife of Daniel. Beloved daughter of Salomon and Yulia Volkov. Photographer. Funeral services July 16, 10am, Weinberg-Lowensohn Memorial Temple, Queens, N.Y.
When Daniel read this, he was seated at the breakfast table that he and Aleksandra had purchased together at the Chelsea flea market. It was still early, he had been up most of the night, and his initial reaction to seeing her written about in this manner was rage--not at the "news" of her death, the cold reportage of it in ink on newsprint, but at the single-word description of her career: "Photographer."Photographer. How could this not be an insult to Aleksandra as an artist? Where was the mention of how valued she had been by the New York Times itself? He stared blinkingly at the obituary for several minutes before swiping the whole newspaper off the table.
Later that day, he was aimlessly making his way against the crush of Canal Street humanity when he realized that no amount of praise for her work would have captured what was truly great about Aleksandra. If he had ever been looked upon by a higher sympathy, it was surely through her eyes. Yet now that she was dead the world would never know that capacity of hers. Because history records what we do, not how we love. No, the latter is one of marriage's immeasurable burdens: to register--to somehow record--the other's care.
This, Daniel came to believe, was what Aleksandra had tried to tell him one morning, only days before That Day, when he had turned from their living room window to find her silently staring at him. He was frightened by the depth of sadness in her eyes and did not immediately go to her. Nor did she answer right away when he asked her what was wrong. She regarded him with a veiled look, as if guarding a mystery. Did she know that she would soon be dead? Abruptly her expression shifted, and he began to be filled with true fear, fear that she was about to tell him the saddest news in the world. When she finally spoke it did seem like the saddest news. "I'm the only one who really sees your life," she said. He mumbled some inarticulate response, but she went on as if she had not heard him: "I don't know how to love you more, Daniel."
When she was dead not a week later, when Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us, this moment came rushing back to him. He would never forget how she had steeled herself then, after he toldher he loved her. "You love me in a disinterested way," she said, her voice hardening. "That makes you my father. Not my lover."
But it was not true. He loved her painfully.
He had loved her painfully from the beginning.
Was there any other way for two people to love each other, in the beginning, when they were each married to someone else?
THE MARRIAGE ARTIST. Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Winer. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
We Lose Our Love to History, Part One,
We Lose Our Love to History, Part Two,
We Will All Be Wedded,
About the Author,
Discussion Questions for - The Marriage Artist,
Copyright Page,

Reading Group Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about The Marriage Artist are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Marriage Artist.

1. Is Daniel and Aleksandra's marriage doomed from the beginning? Why can't they make it work?

2. What is the ultimate purpose of the ketubah? What are some of the motives behind the various couples' intent to have one made by Josef?

3. Daniel's first wife is given no name, and is characterized as being nearly the perfect opposite of Aleksandra. Carmen, by contrast, is not compared to either. What draws Daniel to each of the women?

4. How is Frau Pick's outlook on life transformed by her unhappy marriage? What about Daniel's? And Hannah's (before her eventual reconciliation with Josef)?

5. Why are Grandfather Pommeranz and Frau and Herr Pick unable to acknowledge Josef's achievement right after his first ketubah is revealed? Why is Herr Pick never able to make peace with his son's art, both Jewish and modern?

6. Why does Josef start creating modern art, especially with the subject matter of nude figures and sexuality?

7. What causes Aleksandra to behave in such a conflicted manner at Benjamin's show— by fi rst prostrating herself before one of the works, then saying publicly that the show is just "all right"? Does she wish to send a message to Daniel afterward, during that pivotal walk to Central Park, or is she simply absorbed in her own emotional turmoil?

8. Do you agree with Daniel's mother's assessment of Aleksandra's death, that she killed herself out of guilt? What about her belief that the only thing that brings joy to people is "beginning"?

9. What compels Daniel to attend Benjamin's memorial service? And to go on the spontaneous trip with Max to Vienna?

10. Grandfather Pommeranz tells Josef: "Only an image can fill us with pure joy." How does this statement affect Josef? How is this different from or similar to Daniel's mother's view that only beginnings bring joy?

11. What causes Josef's antagonistic relationship to love and marriage: his own parents' unhappiness, or his strange career as a marriage artist?

12. How is Hannah's requirement that love come through "absolute affliction" perfected with her relationship with Josef? How is she able to feel such complete devotion to him before they even speak a word to each other?

13. How is Hannah's view of Josef like her view of God? How does Josef echo her beliefs in his speech to the Gestapo officers and Hannah when he says, "Lovers are like worshippers. . .Don't make me complete my picture of you. I still want to worship you" (page 247)?

14. How does the intense episode of the Gestapo officers assaulting Josef, Hannah, and Herman parallel the questioning of Daniel, Carmen, and Max by the synagogue authorities in Vienna?

15. What bothers Daniel most about Herman? Do the two men have any similarities?

16. How do Hannah's words to Herman on that train to the camp—"Walk away from it all"— become prophetic for his life? Does Hannah do the right thing by trying to make a family with Max? Should they have told Herman the truth about Josef as soon as possible?

17. What is the ultimate meaning of Benjamin's last show? Is it, in fact, hopeful? How does Daniel's revelation about the origins of the human figures change the meaning he attributed to it in his infamous review ("gave shape to the world's suffering")? In what way does Benjamin's show fulfill a purpose that the actual graveyard in Vienna neglects to do?

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