My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner Vol. 3: Chagall in the Lines

I’m not much of a fan of Cubism… as art movements go, Cubism for me occupies the sphere of “I know what the artists were after intellectually, but the aesthetic experience of viewing this art is largely empty to me.” Still, there are a lot of artists who dabbled (or more) in Cubism that I really like, and Marc Chagall is chief among them. Unlike artists like Braque, Chagall doesn’t so much espouse or exemplify Cubism as much as he makes it his own and employs it as but one tactic in his depiction of his world. I can’t imagine Chagall’s world without hard-angled shapes, just as I can’t imagine it without emerald green-faced violinists.

When I was bookhunting in France, I simultaneously uncovered two additional sides of Chagall beyond what I had known from his paintings. In a fairly upscale (yet uncharacteristically friendly) bookstore near the river, my eye caught a plain white volume in a blue slipcase entitled, “Chagall: Poemes.” I pulled it out and gave it a look- it’s a collection of Chagall’s poems, along with a bunch of line-drawing illustrations. I bought it for around $40 (this was back when the Euro was worth $.70 on the dollar), since I was curious to sit down and read Chagall’s poetry. The poems are okay- there is a reason Chagall is known as a painter rather than a poet, but it’s always interesting to see how someone famous for expressing himself in a particular way does so in a different art form. (As an aside, this is why I like Bukowski’s art and drawings… as art, they do almost nothing for me (although as a comic book fan, his drawings and cartoons interest me more than his watercolors and oil paintings). In these types of cross-medium examinations, interesting patterns emerge, such as Bukowski’s uncompromisingly plain writing style juxtapozed (ha) with his bizarrely abstract oil paintings.) More engaging than Chagall’s poems, however, are his line drawings – one of the reasons I like Chagall so much is his vibrant use of color, so I was kind of surprised at first that I was so drawn to such simple drawings. However, Chagall has a striking talent for evoking extremely complex images and scenes (even emotions) with only a few well placed lines.

chagallI’m sure the decision to illustrate his book with line drawings was one of economy as much as it was an artistic choice, since creating an equivalent number of oil paintings probably would have demanded more effort both to produce and to publish than the monochrome illustrations he came up with. However, the drawings do complement poetry’s capacity to suggest a scene via small observations, and in this way, they fit with the text really well. Moreover, they suggest a confidence on the artist’s part to leave the reader to his/her own devices in fleshing out the scene. As a poet, I would later find via an interesting coincidence, Chagall didn’t have the same confidence to do more with less. Reading the book’s colophon page, I found that this was actually the second French edition of Chagall’s poems (originally written-but never published-in Russian), representing a revision of Moshe Lazar’s original French translations. My eyes lit up at the name… Moshe Lazar is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, and I had just taken a class on Jewish literature after the Holocaust with him the previous semester. When I returned to school the next fall, I stopped by his office and showed him the book.

Moshe Lazar is worth an entire story by himself- he has studied and published on a staggering array of topics, from early Talmudic studies to modernist Irish literature, and when I left school, he was working on translating an 11-volume medieval Spanish Biblical interpretation. He is fluent in 13 languages, survived a Belgian concentration camp as a 9-year old boy, and is one of the most approachable of the “rockstar” professors that I met. Like many professors, his office is a pile of paper, he forgets to hand back assignments, and his lectures are free-form discussions of the texts at hand (leading some students to wonder if he is descending into senility). Still, the last time I saw him, three years after graduating from USC, he remembered my name, my seminar paper on Beckett’s Malone Dies, and then asked me how graduate school at UC Irvine was going.

When I showed him the Chagall book, he got an excited look, like he hadn’t thought of Chagall or his poetry in years. Apparently, through academic excellence and the street cred that withstanding a starvation camp gets you, he had a lot of cachet among Jewish artists (after all, we’re talking about the guy who helped Elie Wiesel trim Night down from a 600+ page rant against the Holocaust and those who let it happen to a slim, devastating, perfect volume on what happens when humans lose sight of humanity), leading Chagall to get in touch with him about translating his poetry from Russian into French, where it was to be published. According to Lazar, Chagall was unhappy with the first round of translations, since the poems seemed flat and unpoetic. He asked Lazar to embellish on his stark lines, leading to a not-so-faithful-to-the-original first publication of the poems. The version I had had been corrected by another translator to strip away some of Lazar’s interventions, although whether or not the new translations represent a return to the original or yet another intervention by yet another translator is unclear.

Like any good literature student, I pull the book out from time to time intending to read the poems, but I always end up looking at the pictures. In a book full of hacked-up poetry, the black lines on the bright white pages evoke a purity that Chagall just couldn’t produce with words.

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1 Response to “My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner Vol. 3: Chagall in the Lines”


  1. 1 Ondrej Ko July 6, 2009 at 4:11 am

    That is a wonderful story. I was and I am constantly being touched by Chagall anywhere our paths meet, whether it is Bratislava, Vienna or London. I have read his early autobiography and I was really stunned by how he could paint images with words on paper with the same easiness and preciseness as with colors on canvas. And now I find out he has even written some poems? Do you have any idea where I could get them in French, or if there is some English edition as well? Thank you, this is a great blog by the way, keep it up.


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