The Village Idiot

Image of The Village Idiot
Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
Melville House
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"Anyone interested in culture, history, and simply a rollicking good story, will find much to savor in these pages."

In The Village Idiot, Steve Stern gives the reader more than a portrait of an artist. He creates a vivid sense of the unique place Paris was in the early part of the 20th century, a vibrant home to a mixed circle of artists, from the aging Renoir to new cohort of brash creators. Picasso, Brancusi, Diego Rivera, Vlaminck, Derain, and Max Jacob are only a few of the famous names who put in an appearance, adding to the rich layers of cafe and gallery life portrayed here.

The star of the show, however, is Chaim Soutine, a desperately poor painter from a Russian shtetl. He arrives in Paris with nothing but an address scribbled on a scrap of paper, a place that houses "a disorderly warren of studios thronged with a ragtag assortment of gifted immigrants who had swapped the poverty of inhospitable nations for the more romantic poverty of the City of Light." Soutine ends up sharing a studio with a sculptor in a temporary arrangement that ends up lasting a decade.

Soutine is a surly loner until he meets Amedeo Modigliani, a fellow Jewish artist. He doesn't mean to make a friend, but he ends up completely devoted to "Modi," as he calls him, following him into various adventures, or more accurately, misadventures, from a duel to the attempted robbery of a large stone for sculpting to a boat race between artists. The boat race opens the book and weaves throughout the pages, anchoring Soutine firmly to Modigliani as he pulls his friend's boat by plodding along the floor of the Seine in a borrowed diving suit. The way the two are tethered, with Modigliani in the open air while Soutine is closed in on himself, perfectly mirrors their relationship. Except it's Modigliani who pulls—or really pushes—Soutine forward into the world.

"He hadn't been looking for a friend. He had even avoided his compatriots Kikoine and Kremegne, with whom he'd studied and starved in Vilna. The electrifying air of Paris was a shock to his system after the prevailing gloom in the Russian Pale. Reclusive by nature, since arriving in the city Chaim had run virtually to ground. He might have attained some fluency in the language of his somber pigments, but with other people he could be inarticulate to the point of moronic."

Modi is exactly the person Soutine needs, the friend he simply can't refuse, which is why he finds himself again and again the Italian's accomplice.

"The answer was one he could not admit to himself: that he adored his only friend this side of idolatry; and adoration, outside of art, was a thing that didn't come naturally to Chaim Soutine."

The best lines in the book are all Modigliani's, his advice and encouragement precisely the words Soutine needs to hear. "'Come, Soutine,' he said, 'without hope, we live in desire.'" And later, "'I'm Apollo when I work,' he declared, uncorking a small vial of ether that he poured into his wine, 'Dionysus when I'm away from my chisels and paints.'"

Soutine himself feels much less romantically dramatic. He's drawn to paint the ugly, brutal truth of the world as he sees it. He has grown up admonished that representation veers dangerously close to idolatry, that attempts at beauty are sinful. His response: "So I make ugly."

Modigliani sees past this pose, however, claiming that the two of them are "geniuses together." He never gives up on his friend, and in return, Soutine is completely devoted to the Italian.

Though their friendship provides the basic structure for the story, Stern's canvas is much bigger than the two men, including not only the artistic riches that Paris offers in that period, but the simmering antisemitism that argues that "if the Jews have been kicked out of so many countries, there must be a good reason for it. France, beware!"

Though Modigliani dies before the rise of the Nazis, Soutine ends his life in Vichy France, forced to sew the yellow star on his jacket. Before that happens though, Stern follows his unusual trajectory from desperately poor to darling of the art world, despite his refusal to socialize with the wealthy collectors who snap up his art. Though he's compared early on to Van Gogh, Soutine enjoys success in his lifetime, unlike the depressed Van Gogh.

The book offers an impressively wide view of the art world and artists at a pivotal time in history. Anyone interested in culture, history, and simply a rollicking good story, will find much to savor in these pages.