“These pages have the same meaning as a painted surface. If there were a hiding place in my pictures, I would slip them into it”, wrote the artist Marc Chagall in My Life.
His pages are full of lead-heavy gloom, pain and despair, and with guilt, shock and horror at the fast-unravelling fabric of Russian history and society. My Life describes the predicament of being a Jew, an artist and a man of solitude in a world of racial conflicts, propaganda and turbulent masses. Yet “in the dark of the night, it seemed to me that there were not only smells, but a whole flock of blessings breaking through the boards, flying into space” – Chagall’s autobiography is also an enchanted, riveting journey from shtetl existence to artistic vision; to the Paris of Nijinsky, Bonnard, Matisse and Apollinaire; to Vitebsk and Moscow; and to life with Bella.
My Life is a harrowing chronicle of the dolor of being Jewish in tsarist Russia, during the pogroms as the Germans advance, and at the time of the dubious, disturbingly precarious concessions to tolerance made by the emerging Bolsheviks. And yet, “I only had to open my window and blue air, love, and flowers entered with her. Dressed all in white or all in black, she has long been flying over my canvasses, guiding my art”.
Bella Chagall, who was Basha, Bashenka or Berta Rosenfeld, was not simply Marc’s muse and companion. She was a writer, the Jewish-Russian soul Chagall would make his own, and paint with intoxicating poetry and piercing undertones of darkness. Burning Lights and First Encounter were written in the Yiddish of her childhood between 1939 and her early death in 1944 – the echo of her remembered language an act of resistance to Nazism. The books were edited and published by their daughter Ida and Marc Chagall as a gesture of long farewell, with Marc himself providing illustrations for Bella’s stories, making these two slim novels into unique statements of beauty, love and immortality.
These memoirs offer an organic commentary on each of Chagall’s paintings, revealing an extraordinary union of minds, souls and sensitivities. Bella’s stories are the voices, colours, echoes, forgotten gestures, forbidden thoughts, yearned for dreams and the algos of a race, a family and an age that suffuse Chagall’s work. She effected a momentous transformation in him: from the “still-born” man he describes, he will emerge as the painter-poet who will capture inimitably the spirit of a people. The brutalist, ironic gaze of the paintings My Father (1914) or The Butcher (1910) will acquire weight and poise, gait and lilt, a narrative, a world of past and future. She will infuse his life and work with oneiric power, depth, tantalising mischief and humour, with passionate humanity and with dazzling, life-giving colour. Every cultural hint and symbolic shade in Chagall’s paintings are reflected in Bella’s words, stories, images and metaphors; from the floatiness of existence to the pageant of Jewish life, to animals, intimate interiors, urban spaces and starry skies.
Burning Lights and First Encounter offer delicious, irresistible story-telling and mesmerising insights into the flawless osmosis between two exceptional lives. A new translation, or even a re-edition of Barbara Bray’s 1983 version, is long – too long – overdue.
Reviewed by Mika Provata-Carlone
Burning Lights and First Encounter
Written by Bella Chagall
Translated by Barbara Bray
Published by Schocken
Read more on Russian literature in The Riveter. Edition Two – Riveting Russian Writing.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
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