The Arty Semite

Author Ascending A Staircase

By Benjamin Ivry

Serge Bramly

In 1940-1941, as part of the American journalist Varian Fry’s rescue of anti-Nazi European intellectuals, artist Marcel Duchamp fled to New York, with a brief stopover in Morocco. This visit is the focus of a new novel by Serge Bramly, a Frenchman of Tunisian Jewish origin. The title of “Orchidée fixe” cites a virtually untranslatable pun by Duchamp referring to orchids and obsessions.

A hothouse atmosphere is certainly conveyed in Bramly’s tale, which is narrated by Nina Zafrani, an Israeli in her late 20s who has just finished a stint of military service. Describing herself as a plump “semitic avatar of the young Ava Gardner,” Nina is drawn to Tobie Vidal, a University of Colorado art historian who visits her family on Rehov Mazeh in Tel Aviv to record her grandfather’s recollections of Duchamp. Decades before, the Zafrani family hosted Duchamp at their family bar/card parlor in Aïn Sebaâ, an arrondissement of eastern Casablanca. The fiftyish Duchamp had long neglected art, favoring chess instead. When the Zafranis take Duchamp to a local bordello, he follows a female nude ascending a staircase and begins sketching again. Some drawings were left with Nina’s forebears as signs of Duchamp’s gratitude. Seventy years later, the family auctions them at Sotheby’s, and Nina shacks up with Vidal in Colorado.

This happily-ever-after story glows with ebullient wit. Among the in-jokes: Duchamp carried into wartime exile a suitcase containing miniature copies of his past artworks, such as the notorious 1917 “readymade” porcelain urinal, signed “R. Mutt” and entitled “Fountain.” His baffled hosts misidentify the item as a plumbing fixture for dollhouses and assume that Duchamp must be a traveling toy salesman. Bramly gives a tourist’s eye-view of Tel Aviv; Vidal stays at the Dan Hotel, and Nina researches Duchamp’s work at the Beit Ariela Public Library and the Tel Aviv Museum’s Helena Rubinstein Art Library. His take on North Africa is more emotionally resonant. In 1961, Nina’s family had fled Moroccan anti-Semitism to Paris, only to move on again to Tel Aviv in 1982, after the Goldenberg restaurant attack, a tragedy ascribed by some to the Abu Nidal Organization. Bramly’s own mishpocheh left Tunis after the 1961 Bizerte Crisis, when the country’s Jews were caught in the midst of fighting between French and Tunisian troops. An intuitive understanding of the refugee perspective gives life to Bramly’s novel, haunted by the wry Beckettian zombie Duchamp.

Watch Serge Bramly discussing his writings, which include popular studies of Leonardo da Vinci and “The Kiss: A Celebration of Love in Art” here.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tunisia, Serge Bramly, Marcel Duchamp




Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.