The Novel As Archive


Dara Horn’s latest novel is propelled forward by ideas about preserving the past, over three different eras. “A Guide for the Perplexed” (Norton) is set in present-day California and Egypt, late-19th-century Cambridge and Cairo, and further back, in 12th-century Cairo. With great skill and originality, she layers stories of a software developer who invents a program called “Genizah” for recording a life, Solomon Schechter’s discovery of the Cairo Genizah, and the life of Moses Maimonides, or the Rambam.

“What happens to days that disappear? The light fades, the gates begin to close, and all that a day once held — a glance, a fight, a taste of bread, a handful of braided hair, thousands of worries and triumphs and regrets — all of it slips behind those closing gates,” she writes, as the novel opens.

In the first flashback to recent history, the inventor Josie Ashkenazi is a 13-year-old, pictured at summer twilight in the woods, “thick with the smell of wet wood and encroaching darkness, the twilight fragrance that children imagine to be possibility and adults know to be regret.”

Like the biblical Joseph, Josie is left alone in a deep pit when her tormentors, or her sister and fellow summer campers who caused her descent, leave her behind. On the sides of the muddy pit, she imagines drawers filled with a jumble of memories, and would have preferred they were sorted and labeled like an old library card catalogue.

The Cairo Genizah, with its piles of valuable manuscripts and scraps of paper, as Schechter discovers more than a century earlier, is not an archive (“the opposite of an archive,” as scholars would say) but a pit, “a deep and bottomless well of lives, the lives of everyone who had left a name, and everyone who had perished as though they had not lived.”

The scholar finds a letter from Maimonides about the tragedy at sea that took the life of his younger brother.
Schechter also finds a note with Maimonides’ musings, “We choose what is worthy of our memory. We should probably be grateful that we can’t remember everything as God does, because if we did, we would find it impossible to forgive anyone. The limit of human memory encourages humility.”

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Horn says that she central motivating idea of this novel — her fourth — was about “how the way we remember the past affects who we are our and choices for the future.”

“I’m a person who always wanted to turn my life into an archive. Social media made my dream come true,” she says, admitting that the constant recording of memory is something of a nightmare. “The way we control our past is not recording everything but selecting,” she says.

The award-winning writer began this novel before the events of the Arab Spring (and had imagined a revolutionary Egypt), and before Google glass was invented, so she had to do some rewriting. But the novel stands on its own. Horn spins stories with richness and the authenticity of a deep knowledge of Jewish languages that makes her stand out among the younger generation of American Jewish novelists. She’s never at a remove when writing about Judaism.

Well-versed in Yiddish and Hebrew, Horn is also a professor of literature, but she says that she doesn’t fiction write as a professor. But perhaps being a writer has changed the way she looks at and teaches literature; she’s much more aware of the motivations of the writer. She published her first novel at age 25.

All of her books, including “All Other Nights” and “The World To Come,” have stealth Jewish titles, she says, drawn from Jewish literature. The title of her new work is also the name of the major philosophical work by Maimonides.

Writing about Maimonides made her anxious. Horn says that people don’t think of him as a person, but rather as a set of ideas. She felt fortunate that so much had been written about him, and came to hear his voice. Additionally, she read the work of Solomon Schechter, and found him to be a great writer, with a lot of wit.

Since her earlier novels, Horn says that she has grown to care a lot more about plot. (For the reader’s sake, I’m holding back from revealing too much of it.)

“The way I express ideas is through the plot,” she says, adding, “Suspense is an important part of expressing an idea.” The plots of her first books were “more jerry-rigged.”

“I am much more aware of making the plot more original, avoiding contrivance, having the story matter much more,” she says. “I used to think more about symbols consciously. Now I think much more about the story.”

The novel’s intertwining stories involve several sets of siblings, including two sets of twins — Schechter and his brother, and two sisters in Cambridge who encourage Schechter’s work — along with Josie and her envious sister, and Maimonides and his brother.

Horn understands the way siblings talk to each other. In fact, she credits her own three siblings with teaching her about storytelling at their nightly sessions at the dinner table, when every child had five minutes — regulated by a kitchen time — to describe the adventures of the day. Now, her two sisters, Jordana and Ariel, are successful writers, and her brother Zach just won his second Emmy award.

Yet the novel is not based on her siblings, who are actually very close and part of each other’s day-to-day lives, even as grown-ups. “I’m not mining my own life for my books,” Horn says, noting that her own life would make for a boring novel.”

“Sibling relationships figure in a lot of my books,” she says. “You don’t often see relationships between adult siblings explored in fiction.” She is drawn to them, as “siblings hare a past but not necessarily a future”

Horn, 36, is the mother of four children — ages 8, 6, 4 and 1 — and raising them in the same town that she grew up in, Short Hills, N.J. They go to the same school she attended, have some of the same teachers, even go to the same pediatrician. And just as her parents read to her and her siblings at every meal, she reads to her kids at every meal too.

Her kids go to Hebrew school, yes, at the synagogue where she grew up. On Sundays, they go to Sunday school, but during the week the teacher comes to her house, and teaches some other kids too. “It’s a cheder in our dining room,” she says. Sometimes on Friday nights, the kids make up plays based on the Torah reading, as she did as a kid, encouraged by her parents.

“It’s a lot harder when you’re the adult,” she says.

Horn is loyal to the Conservative movement, and is grateful for her education at her synagogue, Prozdor and Camp Ramah. In an author’s note, Horn, who was selected as one of Granta’s “Best Young American Novelists,” pares some of the fact and fiction related to the Cairo Genizah and to Maimonides, directing readers to other sources.

Dara Horn is speaking about “A Guide for the Perplexed” on Monday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at The Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway (122nd Street), Manhattan.