Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal - Book Review

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal (Nan Talese, March 2014, 290 Pages, $26.95) is an historical novel written mostly in the first person that seeks to set the personalities, social setting, and historical contexts in the mouths and minds of the people who painted, lived, and died in the remarkable painting The Anatomy Lesson, the first masterpiece in the storied career of Rembrandt van Rijn. Set in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, it successfully adopts the voices and social settings of the characters portrayed in the novel. Rembrandt's assemblage of portraits portraying the Amsterdam physician and political figure Dr. Nicholas Tulp conducting a dissection of a criminal executed that day, January 16, 1632. Beyond the historical vision Siegal presents lies the age old inquiry, still actively present in the 17th century, regarding the seat of the soul. Tulp hoped, as did Descartes, who was present, that through the dissection of the recently deceased Aris Kindt (alias of Adriaan Adriaanszoon) further information about where in the human body the soul lay would be revealed. In writing this book, Siegal breathes extra life into the painting, making its contemplation still richer and more confusing.

The novel opens in the voice of Aris Kindt (The Body) as he leaves the bed of his lover Flora (The Heart) to return to his habitual thieving and then transitions to Dr. Tulp and his wife (The Hands) preparing a high toned and tin eared speech he will give the next day to the assembled physicians and notables at the annual dissection. Next we see the setting through the eyes of his loving wife, hoping to aid him while not really knowing how. Jan Fetchet (The Mouth) is something of a hustler while also serving as a go-between for various characters, an expediter. Descartes (The Mind) reflects on the history of ideas as he corresponds with friends about the importance of the upcoming dissection. Rembrandt (The eyes) is, not surprisingly, the most fully rendered, seeing everything in terms of shape and color as his concept of the painting matures and develops. Meanwhile, three hundred odd years later, the Conservator works at analyzing the picture as she gives it one of its few cleanings through time. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this intriguing novel is Siegal's keen ear for each character's voice and her ability to maintain it consistently.

The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt van Rijn

Each of the individual people appearing in Rembrandt's painting had paid for his appearance, and all have already sat for the Master. However, as he anticipates the dissection, which he insists on attending, his conception of the portrait expands, moving from a group portrait to a dynamic portrayal of the corpse and Dr. Tulp in the act of dissection. Each of the characters is affected by the day, its inevitable outcome, the setting of the lecture within the annual winter festival of Amsterdam, the ambitions, the tragedies, the filth, and the glamor all in vivid contrasts. The dissection represents a garish social event within a more serious examination of aesthetics and spiritual discovery. The novel succeeds on all fronts, except, perhaps, the post death wanderings of Kindt's soul.

Nina Siegal

Nina Siegal is an author, editor, and journalist. She graduated with a BA in English Literature from Cornell University and received her MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Siegal's journalistic writing has appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, W. Magazine, Art in America,1stDibs, ArtNews, and Bloomberg News. She has been contributing articles to The New York Times since 1997 and currently writes about art frequently for The International New York Times. In 2008, she was the launching editor for Time Out Amsterdam magazine, which she ran as editor-in-chief until 2012, and thereafter she became managing editor of Flow Magazine International, which launched in 2012. She was born in New York, has lived in San Francisco, Iowa City, Brooklyn, and, now, Amsterdam.

In The Anatomy Lesson (Nan Talese, March 2014, 290 Pages, $26.95), Nina Siegal, has taken a great painting and built a riveting story around it, illuminating the people, the times, and the place through the eyes of the participants, many of whom are the historical figures actually involved. The acknowledgments and glossary show how fully researched The Anatomy Lesson is. The book provides a believable setting for the development of Rembrandt's remarkable work in a narrative form both engrossing and believable. You can't ask much more from an historical novel. I read the book as an electronic galley provided through the publisher by Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.