Ellen Umansky is the author of the new novel The Fortunate Ones. She has worked for a variety of publications, including The Forward, Tablet, and The New Yorker, and she lives in Brooklyn.
Q: Why did you decide to center your novel around a painting by the artist Chaim Soutine, and what do you think the book says about the importance of art?
A: Years ago, a friend asked me to go to an exhibit of Soutine’s paintings at the Jewish Museum with him. I had never heard of Soutine before, and truthfully, I was much more interested in the brunch that my friend promised me afterward.
But I went and I was floored. Soutine is rightly famous for his landscapes and his still lifes but I found his portraits mesmerizing. There was something about the way he captured the humanity of his subjects--people who were often overlooked, like cooks, waiters, or in my novel, a bellhop--that was deeply moving to me.
The exhibit delved into his biography too: he was born dirt-poor, the 10th of 11 children in a tiny Jewish Lithuanian village, and somehow made his way to Paris, where he worked as an artist. When the Nazis took over, he fled to the countryside, and he died during the war.
He was by many accounts difficult and awkward, a perennial outsider, like many of the people he painted. That awkwardness and longing is readily apparent in his art, and I was drawn to it. I found myself looking and wondering, what it would be like to look at one of his paintings for years on end? What could it mean to someone?
As to the second half of your question: I come to art as a novice, but I’m really interested in the fact that we can look at the same painting or photograph, hear the same song, and come to such different conclusions about it.
It may be obvious but it’s still worth reflecting, I think: Art is subjective in the best sense of the word. And the endless associations that we might bring to it (even putting aside the motives of the person who created it): where we were when we bought it, why we wanted it, who were were then, the circumstances that made up our lives.
I thought a lot about the great Elizabeth Bishop poem "One Art" when I was writing the book, her first line in particular: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” (Actually, “The Art of Losing” was the original title of my novel.)
For both of my main characters, the Soutine painting spoke of loss, but also, crucially, of a time when they were deeply loved; it reminds them of their mothers.
Q: Your narrative alternates between the lives of your two main characters, Lizzie and Rose. Did you know from the beginning that you would structure the novel that way?
A: Not at all! This novel was many years in the making and the structure--actually, the entire book itself--changed so much over time.
I knew from the beginning I wanted to write a story of a painting that was stolen twice--the first time, by the Nazis, and the second, in present day--but the particular characters took longer to figure out. Lizzie came first--surprisingly to me in retrospect, because she was actually harder for me to pinpoint and write than Rose.
In an earlier incarnation of the book, I followed the painting every time it switched owners: From its creation by Soutine, to Rose’s mother to an American soldier who stole it while supposedly guarding it, to Lizzie’s parents to Lizzie herself.
It was seriously fun to research and write from all those different characters’ views, but it didn’t cohere as a whole. Once I alighted on Rose, her story was one that I kept going back to.
Q: How did you research the historical parts of the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I read and I read--probably too much reading; at some point, research becomes a great way to put off the actual writing.
I read histories about the Kindertransport, Nazi-pilfered art, a lot about the post-war years in England (a time and place I knew little about), novels set during the various time periods I wanted to cover, and just about any memoir I could get my hands on.
I spent time in the archives at the Center for Jewish History, reading unpublished memoirs and the papers of people who had fled Austria and Germany before the war. All these sources were invaluable to me; they gave me a much-needed sense, whether through specific detail or by capturing their emotions at the time--of what it was like to be in a place that no longer existed.
In terms of surprises, I would say two things stand out: First, I did not appreciate just how hard life was in England after the war. Rations continued, fuel and food and jobs were scarce. These were people who had lived through the trauma of the Blitz--they had won the war, finally--and yet for years afterward, daily life was still very difficult.
And second, the deeper I looked into the Kindertransport, the more amazed I was by it: There was the basic, astonishing fact that the efforts, which were cobbled together quickly, actually worked--nearly 10,000 children came to England from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia before the war--but also, most poignantly and harrowingly to me, that those parents were brave enough to put their children on those trains.
It’s relatively easy, from our vantage point decades later, to say, of course I would have put my child on a rescue train. I would have done anything to make sure my child survived.
But the truth is, in 1938 in Vienna, you didn’t know what awaited you-- certainly not in terms of the horrors of Hitler but neither of what your child might face if you tried to send her alone to England.
There was no guarantee that those trains would make it past the Nazi borders, let alone across the water. And even if they made it to England, who knew who your child would live with, who would take care of her?
I have two daughters, and the thought of putting them on a train like that--well, imagining it gave me a narrow window into just how unspeakable their anguish must have been.
Q: How was this title chosen for the book, and what does it signify for you?
A: A friend of mine, the wise and creative Jen Albano, suggested it, and I loved it from the start. Neither of my characters feels especially fortunate--they both grapple with significant loss, and Rose in particular suffers from survivor’s guilt--and yet, in the scheme of things, they were lucky. They survived. By the end of the novel, they, and I hope the reader, are left with a sense of hope.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: At the moment, I am mainly helping this novel make its way into the world. I hope to get back to fiction soon. I have a few stories that I’d like to work on and an idea for another historical novel that I’m eager to explore, but it’s too early to talk about.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb