Benjamin Stein: The Canvas

Is it a gimmick, or a formal element that adds to the story? I wondered this when I picked up The Canvas (Leinwand, 2010; tr. from the German by Brian Zumhagen, 2012), a book that is designed to let the reader choose between two equally situated beginnings. We can start reading on the side called Amnon Zichroni or we can flip the book over and begin the story with Jan Wechsler. Each side contains the copyright information and even the ISBN. The two halves meet in the middle where each have identical glossaries.

Review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books.

It’s hard, when talking about a book like this, not to begin with the unique structure, and we threaten to focus on that rather than on the story itself. However, it works here, because the book’s physical structure is actually a factor in interpreting the themes. Why is the book set up this way? So that neither narrative is more important than the other.The Canvasis a book about identity, about memory, about the narrative one makes of one’s own life, about the competing narratives others may make for you. Consequently, the book’s physical structure, which gives no preference to either narrative, makes the reader choose his or her own pathway through the novel and, thus, to doubt the legitimacy of that path. Personally, I think the book could have done some of this without the unique format, and the format itself has some pitfalls, but there’s something to be said about an author who doesn’t want to control our experience with the book.

The story? Oh, yes, the story. Well, which narrative should this review begin with? I myself started the book on the Amnon Zichroni side, so let’s start there.

Amnon Zichroni’s story starts when Zichroni is just a young man in a very orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Israel. His life is dedicated to the Torah. Nothing secular is allowed to enter. But one day he discovers hidden in his father’s things a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He can’t get it out of his mind. He wants to read books from around the world, secular books. In what he considers to be an act of love, Zichroni’s father sends him away to Switzerland to live with his uncle (well, not really his uncle, but by the end he will feel like even more than an uncle).

Much of this side is about Zichroni’s coming of age and beyond to where his life unravels. He eventually goes to school in America and eventually works in a psychiatric hospital. The reason he takes up psychiatry is because, as a youth, he realizes that he’s been given a special gift: the ability to experience the memories of other people. He can feel whatever sensation they once felt just as if he is then feeling it. He wants to use this gift to help others, and he does have some success. It’s not to last:

The collapse of Minsky, for whom I hadn’t even been a therapist, but simply a friend, cost me my reputation, my practice, and my research position in Freiburg. With Wechsler I might possibly even have become a criminal in the end.

Minsky is a friend and a survivor of the Holocaust. In a way, Zichroni encourages Minsky to write his memoir, and it’s a hit. Then Jan Wechsler comes along and exposes it as a fraud.

This is the side I read first. I know others who have read the book by alternating sides after each chapter, and I wonder if that wouldn’t have been better for me. After all, it is only on page 100 (out of 158) of Zichroni’s side that we finally hear about Wechsler, but even then we don’t get to his story. Instead, we go to Minsky and spend several pages on his violins. Only in the last few pages do we get the narratives to merge, making me feel as if I’d read a lot of build up for a pay off I didn’t understand.

Consequently, as much as I enjoyed the Zichroni side, it was refreshing to begin reading about Wechsler, a rather modest publisher and author, whose story covers much less time and seems to push the themes forward a bit more. 

As Wechsler’s story develops, we realize that he has major gaps in his memory, maybe. He is surprised when one day a delivery-man comes to his house with a bag and an apology from the airline who said they’d misplaced it. Zichroni is confused because he hasn’t lost a bag, though this one does have his name and his address on it, written in his hand, and the airline said he was the one who made the formal complaint in the first place. Disturbed, he doesn’t open the bag for a long time. When he finally does, he finds in it a few books, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he admits is familiar since it looks just like his own edition that is in his library, and, even more strangely, a book entitled Masquerades, by one Jan Wechsler. Wechsler’s story begins to spiral out of control even as he begins to tell us about his past. He discovers more apparent gaps in his memory, even as Masquerades seems to fill in the gaps. He begins to destroy his relationship with his wife, and no one understand what is going on with him. He can simply say, “I am what I remember. I don’t have anything else.”

It’s an interesting book, well written (even when I got frustrated as I realized the time I was spending with violins meant the book’s two halves were only going to come together at the very end, I still really enjoyed reading about those violins), and it comes at identity (cultural, religious, actual) and memory from a unique perspective, even without the physical book’s structure. The structure is just an added layer, and one I can appreciate since it makes me wonder how I would have responded to these characters had I read it another way; or, rather, it makes me wonder how much of my own interpretation is based solely on my perspective, on the path I took, and how much of it I should doubt. Whatever, the case, Stein offers no answers, and we can see in a sentence what he is hoping to do as he presents these lives in this way:

Instead, he was contemplating a delicate black cloth that shrouded the painting on the easel; it was left to the observer to speculate about what might be depicted on the canvas behind it.

4 thoughts on “Benjamin Stein: The Canvas

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Perhaps like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas where the structure gets a lot of attention, but is also interesting in its own right?

  2. Pushing you to read both halves to understand the full story rather than just beckoning you on to the later chapters to understand an event’s impact seems just as controlling on the author’s part to me. But I still want to read it. :)

  3. Trevor says:

    I think that’s fair, Lisa, though I think here the structure may actually be more of a feature than David Mitchell’s (I say that actually preferring Cloud Atlas overall).

    Alex, that’s a good point, but the various ways you can read both halves loosens those authorial strings a bit. That said, I’ve heard others say that it’s best read by alternating sides, and due to my experience I might say that’s the best way as well. This made me wonder if Stein shouldn’t have just bitten the bullet and alternated chapters, though I understand that whoever comes first would get a preferential reading. In the end, I think it works well because we’re meant to wonder how else we could have read it and whether our views would be different. Had he laid it out for us, I don’t think we’d doubt our own experience as much.

  4. I imagine it’s easier if you alternate chapters, but clearly Stein didn’t want it to be easier. Once it leaves his hands it leaves his control, but my suspicion is that the decision to structure the book as he has is due in part to a desire to achieve something that alternating chapters wouldn’t achieve.

    Other than that it sounds interesting. I’ll take a look.

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