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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Canvas

Benjamin Stein

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To purchase The Canvas

Title: The Canvas
Author: Benjamin Stein
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 326 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Canvas - US
The Canvas - UK
The Canvas - Canada
The Canvas - India
Die Leinwand - Deutschland
  • German title: Die Leinwand
  • Translated by Brian Zumhagen
  • Includes an extensive Glossary of Jewish terms

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyably intertwined stories about identity and memory

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 4/6/2010 Anja Hirsch
The Harvard Crimson . 2/10/2012 Virginia R. Marshall
Publishers Weekly . 27/8/2012 27/8/2012

  From the Reviews:
  • "Glaubt man sich hier einer Geschichte sicher, beginnt sie sich bereits zu verändern. Die Wahrheit ist dreh- und wendbar wie das Buch, das man von beiden Seiten bis jeweils zur Mitte lesen kann, was diesem Roman schon drucktechnisch gesehen ein irritierendes Aussehen verleiht. (...) Dass dies alles trotz tieferen Sinns so wunderbar leicht zu lesen ist, liegt am erzählerischen Atem, einer Mischung aus üppiger Detailfreude und zügigem Vorantreiben der Handlung, während diese zugleich immer unwahrscheinlicher erscheint." - Anja Hirsch, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Though each story starts in a different time and location, they end up irreversibly and eerily fused so that it is impossible to say which narrator is telling the truth. This indeterminate treatment of truth is one of the greatest strengths of the novel. (...) Though the intriguing merit of this novel arises mainly out of Steinís decision to tell the story from two perspectives, this is not to say that the mode of storytelling is this novelís only aspect worthy of praise." - Virginia R. Marshall, The Harvard Crimson

  • "In addition to telling a compelling story, Stein deftly raises provocative questions about the ethics of adopting false beliefs to preserve a particular reality. Narratives and narrators converge -- literally and symbolically -- in the book's climax, which, while suitable for a book about competing frameworks of memory and identity, may leave readers desiring a more concrete ending." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Canvas consists of two narratives which are not only physically separated in the printed version of the book, but come at each other from opposite sides; to switch back and forth between them one has to actually literally flip the book over. [Aside: while there are fine reasons for doing this, there is no question that the annoyance-factor here is incredibly high (I was just itching to tear my copy in half, so I could peruse it as two separate volumes, and much of the time I could barely restrain myself); I wouldn't protest against a law that sees to it that any author resorting to such games -- and the publishers who indulge them -- gets flogged. (This from someone who generally enjoys and is receptive to literary games that extend to how texts are presented.) On the other hand, I do hope they also printed half of the e-book version upside-down.] Each of the two narratives consists of eleven chapters -- and, yes, eventually the two stories that unfold do converge. Rather than forcing a particular way of reading these stories on readers -- presenting the text in alternating chapters, for example -- readers are left with the choice of which one to begin with, and whether to read it straight through and only then begin the other strand, or whether to alternate between them, chapter by chapter. (The presentation otherwise is neat and careful enough that either approach -- one narrative after the other, or alternating chapter by chapter -- works; the payoff is probably slightly higher in alternating chapters (but that comes with a whole lot of book-flipping -- and, consequently, in the case of some readers (yours truly), the occasional book-flinging).)
       One strand of the novel is narrated by Jan Wechsler, who was apparently born in East Germany and lives in Munich with his wife and children (a biography that, incidentally, in this and a few other respects, resembles that of author Stein). Wechsler describes himself as a: "publisher and an author". The other strand of the novel is narrated by Amnon Zichroni, who was born in Israel but moved to Switzerland, and got most of his schooling there and then in the US; he became a psychoanalyst. Both are observant Jews -- although Zichroni's curiosity about the secular world (and literature) led to what amounted to his exile from the ultra-Orthodox community he came from.
       What unites the two -- though it's long not clear exactly how -- is the story of a Holocaust-survivor-account by a certain Minsky, published in 1995, Days of Ashes. The resemblance to the real-life case of Binjamin Wilkomirski's 1995 fraud, Fragments -- in which Wilkomirski 'remembered' his traumatic experiences during World War II when, in fact, he'd grown up in safe Switzerland -- is, of course, meant to be obvious; Stein's novel is a fictional consideration of this odd case. (While Jan Wechsler seems to share much of Stein's biography, he also resembles Daniel Ganzfried, who was largely responsible for revealing the facts behind Wilkomirski's fiction; aside from also having earlier published a novel dealing with issues of identity (Der Absender), he eventually also chose to address the Wilkomirski case in a fictional treatment; the definitive account of the whole mess remains Stefan Mächler's The Wilkomirski Affair.)
       The two protagonists both think of memory as a foundation, of identity and being: Wechsler desperately says that: "I am what I remember. I don't have anything else", while Zichroni similarly goes so far as to claim, right at the outset, that: "It is our memories that make us who we are." Wechsler, however, finds himself confronted with a big problem: his memory doesn't seem to entirely jibe with the facts -- his own facts, his background, what he has written. Avoidance is one solution, but it only gets him so far; Minsky-like, there's a house of cards collapsing around him. If Zichroni's idea is right --- that 'our memories make us who we are' -- then it appears Wechsler has done a bang-up job of unmaking his 'true' self, and substituting someone entirely different.
       More than anyone, Wechsler is confused by this turn of events -- though the irritated reactions of his publisher and then his wife, among others, show he isn't the only one who is perplexed. But ever so slowly, Wechlser tries to put two and two -- or rather fact and fiction (which apparently comes in the form of many of his memories) -- together, to figure out who he really is. Reading the debut novel of a 'Jan Wechsler' he still doesn't recognize, he nevertheless finds traces of himself in that (apparent) fiction; still in a state of complete denial, he protests:

     He had narrated me, without asking for my permission or even speaking to me.
       The alternative explanation for all the evidence that keeps mounting up is something Wechsler is even less willing to consider, at least for a while.
       When his wife leaves him, things take on a bit more urgency for Wechsler:
     I'm going to lose my wife and the children if I can't sort out who I once was, and who I am now. And I need evidence. My wife is no longer going to be satisfied with mere assurances.
       Even here, he is concerned about convincing others -- his wife, in this case -- rather than himself. For the longest time -- and in spite of tangible evidence -- he's loath even to consider that the identity he's clinging to rests on the shakiest of foundations.
       Whereas Wechler's narrative is set in the present, Zichroni only slowly leads up to it, as Zichroni recounts his youth and education at considerable length. He is unsettled -- his stations take him from Israel to Switzerland and then the United States, before his path leads him back full circle. The most influential figure in his life is a friend of the family who takes charge of his life after he is sent to Switzerland, with his own family eventually feeling more like just distant relatives.
       Zichroni has an empathetic gift -- or curse --, and this also leads to him to pursue the career he does. But in perhaps being able to read a little too much into people, he oversteps some bounds, leading to his own undoing (and taking others with him).
       While Wechsler (and Minsky's) remembered-(false)-identities are at the heart of the novel, the novel is about identity at several different levels -- indeed author 'Benjamin Stein' is himself an example of personal reinvention, having legally changed his name (i.e. a fundamental part of his identity). Jewish identity -- which Zichroni is very much born into, but is not completely crushingly caught up in, and which Wechsler embraces -- is also an important part of the novel (and the Glossary is an extensive one of many of the Jewish terms used in the text). In leaning so heavily on an actual case -- and having Wechsler also resemble Daniel Ganzfried so closely -- Stein also ups the identity-ante and forces the fact-versus-fiction question even more to the fore here.
       The Canvas is also a very self-centered book: while much is seen in terms of their relationship to others -- how others see them -- both narrators are largely unable to understand identity in any other way but from within: Wechsler has the darndest time understanding why his wife and publisher react the way they do, and for all of Zichroni's empathetic talents, he winds up becoming part of the problem (which he often see as becoming part of the solution ...) rather than separating himself from the issue(s) at hand. Tellingly, both characters wind up as reviled (by some) outcasts (though at least they wind up in the Promised Land ...) -- and their destructive (because so complete) self-obsession ultimately can get to be a bit much.
       The Canvas is a clever and ambitious novel, and fluently written, but after a while it feels as though Stein has bitten off more than he can chew.
       At one point Wechsler says:
     In literature, you can't just make assertions that you can't back up, I tell her. After all, it has to be realistic. Otherwise, no one will believe it. So if I'm going to describe a scene like this, it has to hold water, you know what I mean ?
       Stein -- who shows himself to be a masterful storyteller throughout -- does his best in this novel by presenting so much of the material in a very believable, realistic way, in both Wechsler and Zichroni's detailed and naturalistic accounts; this, of course, is meant to allow the implausible elements to slip by, if not unnoticed, so at least largely unquestioned -- a novelist is, after all, allowed to get away with quite a bit in the name of fiction. But Stein pushes the envelope very far, and ultimately Wechsler's confusion isn't quite believable enough; the ending, appropriate though it is, would have required a slightly firmer foundation to really come off well; as is, it feels too obviously like the end of a work of fiction.
       The Canvas is a very good novel, but Stein just tries too hard; he's a talented writer, so most of this works -- and is a pleasure to read (save the book-flipping part of the job ...) -- but he doesn't get it to quite add up to the sum total of what he was reaching for.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 June 2012

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The Canvas: Reviews: Benjamin Stein: Other books by Benjamin Stein under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Benjamin Stein was born in 1970.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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