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In “The Village Idiot,” Steve Stern resurrects Chaim Soutine and the sordid eccentricities of his milieu.
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By all accounts, Chaim Soutine did not like to bathe. The painter lived in protest of “all the vain hygienic practices favored by our century,” according to his gallerist Paul Guillaume. “It is an article of faith to him that ablution is a heresy.”
Ironic, then, that Steve Stern’s novel “The Village Idiot” finds Soutine submerged in the waters of the Seine, undergoing an ecstatic ritual of sorts. The year is 1917, and the artists of Montparnasse have assembled for a regatta, each man having designed his own boat. Modigliani leads the pack in a salvaged bathtub, and his secret weapon is Soutine, who, wearing an unwieldy diving suit and weighted boots, pulls the boat to victory from the bottom of the river. From this murky vantage, his air supply dwindling, he’s overcome by visions of his past and future; soon this halting, solitary journey encompasses the whole of his existence.
If this seems an unlikely premise, Soutine’s was an unlikely career. Born near Vilna, he traded the shtetl for Paris, where, uncouth and shy, he took to painting with a zeal that could alarm his contemporaries, especially given his habit of keeping pungent carrion in his studio. Those who knew him compared him to “a frightened animal” and “an abandoned cat.” He enjoyed portraying people in uniform — pastry chefs, waiters, choirboys — though they must’ve been stunned by how little the resulting portraits resembled them. In 1922, the collector Albert Barnes vaulted the 29-year-old Soutine to success by buying every canvas he could find. But the painter continued to live frugally, traveling widely in France, whose vistas he alternately admired and loathed. (“I need twisted trees,” he said.) His romances were tortured, his health frail. He remained in France even after it fell to Germany, decamping from one hideout to the next to avoid the Gestapo. He died of a perforated ulcer at 49.
Stern has a prodigious knowledge of Jewish folklore, and he’s said that his characters escape their pasts on “vehicles assembled out of bootlegged myths and dreams.” Small wonder that he’s placed Soutine at the center of his sixth novel, tugging a makeshift boat that might as well be jury-rigged with myths and dreams. In “The Village Idiot,” Stern has blended biography and fabulism into a frothy picaresque that curdles into a haunted, dyspeptic study of Jewish identity.
When it works, there’s nothing quite like it. An exacting describer of feculence, Stern is at ease in his subject’s sordid milieu. Few writers could find the romance in public urinals “furry with hoarfrost” or the “sour-pickle musk” of a brothel laundress. Fewer still can capture the “debauch of creation,” as Stern calls Soutine’s frenzied bouts of painting dead flesh: “He mixes carmine and lampblack to give the curved ribs the majesty of a church nave stained with gore, then leaves the awesome beast suspended in a cobalt emptiness.” At its best, the novel vibrates to the “sweet celestial confusion” of Soutine’s painting: delirious and earthy, reverent and irreligious, so hot with life that it can’t help incubating disease.
For all the felicities of Stern’s prose, though, his Soutine remains frustratingly opaque — too distant, even, to register as a stranger to himself. This would be forgivable if the novel weren’t doggedly concerned with the origins of Soutine’s genius, “the old unanswerable question” of what makes a painter take up his brush in the first place. Soutine calls it “the itch,” the same way he might affectionately refer to a bout of dermatitis. That’s true to form, maybe, but it brings the reader no closer to his motives, his head, his heart. “It can poison you, the nostalgia,” he tells a friend, and Stern seems to agree: He has written a story of Parisian artists that’s gloriously free of sentimentality. A shame that it’s often free of real emotion, too.
Dan Piepenbring is an advisory editor at The Paris Review.
THE VILLAGE IDIOT | By Steve Stern | 369 pp. | Melville House | $27.99


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