If You Loved The Goldfinch: The Anatomy Lesson
Neophytes, longtime fans of art, and fans of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch will all find much to enjoy in Nina Siegal's new novel, The Anatomy Lesson. I'll admit that ten pages into it I found myself looking up Rembrandt's 1632 masterpiece (the full name is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, for curious readers); a passing familiarity with the work is useful - but not required - to find Nina Siegal's story engaging and worthwhile.
Beginning with the planned execution of Aris Kindt (the corpse at the center of the lesson), The Anatomy Lesson deftly moves among various players who have a vested interest in the eventual terminal protagonist in the painting, as Siegal steers the narrative away from confusing or crowded territory. Like other authors before her (Julian Barnes has a chapter in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters that accomplishes this quite well), Siegal takes one fascinating work of art and transmutes it into another. Without becoming too speculative or causing incredulity, The Anatomy Lesson takes us into the world of a few characters - among them Kindt, his lover, Rembrandt, Descartes, and the man preparing the corpse for dissection - and gives us a glimpse at their stories over the course of a single day that ultimately covers much more time and depth than anticipated.
Perhaps because she has free range here to move between fact and fiction - after all, Kindt, Rembrandt, and Tulp were all real people, and there is some history available on their involvement in the painting - Siegal never strays too far into schmaltz or melodrama. Seventeenth-century Amsterdam was not an easy place or time, and in giving us the perspectives of people different only in how they earned a living, lived, and died, there's a common humanity at the center of the story. And though the events take place over the course of a day, Siegal provides enough background to satisfy readerly curiosity without dragging out a story or confusing timelines.
Ultimately, The Anatomy Lesson is a well-written and engaging book that aptly describes a brief moment in the human condition and sheds light on a lesser-known painting whose story is worth telling. Read it and you'll not only experience a great story; you'll also be introduced to an important piece of art.
At the first toll of the Westerkerk bell Adriaen Adriaenszoon bolts awake in a dank stone jail inside Amsterdam’s town hall. He is shivering and sweating at the same time. Shivering because winter gnaws through his meager leather jerkin, sweating because of the nightmare out of which he’s just awakened.
What he remembers is no more than an assemblage of symbols—a dog, a wall made of doors, an old woman with a pail full of sand—but fear is pounding through him insistently, demanding he return to sleep to see out the dream. There is the promise of solace through one of those doors, and a bed to lie on, something tells him. But his eyes will not close again. His other senses are already registering the day.
Horse’s hooves tromp in the puddles somewhere nearby. There’s a whinny and the sound of clacking steel on cobblestones. The street, which he can see only through the tiny window, is glistening from last night’s downpour. The air smells of mineral soil, sweat, and piss.
He crosses himself before remembering where he is, then glances around nervously in hopes that no guards have seen this. He presses his callused palm through his coarse hair and slumps against the cold wall. There’s only his cell mate, Joep van de Gheyn, the fishmonger killer, still asleep on the plank against his own wall. Aris wipes his sweat from his brow with his left hand, then rubs the stump over its bloody bandages, stifling the throbbing of the limb, which pulses with every heartbeat. “That’s all right now. Easy there,” he says, massaging the limb.
Hearing the bells ringing out the final chimes of the morning hour, he slaps himself to full wakefulness. This is his last day living. Each time the bells ring he’s one step closer to the gallows.
Outside, there’s a festive feeling in the frigid air. Damp and cold as it is, with clouds that hang so low they form a ceiling over the city’s tile rooftops, there’s still a raw excitement that pulses like a current through Amsterdam’s quiet canals and byways. Some would call it bloodlust.
The streets echo with silence, hollow and expectant, like an empty tankard waiting to be filled. As dawn starts to creep across the water and the wharves from the swampy eastern marshlands, workers from the docks arrive with wood planks to build the hangman’s scaffold. They drop the boards like pieces of a coffin on the square and the hammering begins. Nearby, vendors are setting up their stalls to sell delftware, wool mittens, or fresh-baked bread to all who’ll come to gawp.
Tacked to the town hall door is the justice day schedule:
• R. Pijnaker, age fifteen, will receive a birching for willfully stealing from a tavern keeper’s till.
• Brothel madam S. Zeedijk shall be beaten upon her neck with a rolling pin for general lewdness, moral corruption, and running a house of debauchery.
• Three burglary conspirators, R. Tolbeit, A. Schellekamp, and F. Knipsheer, to be flogged and branded with the Amsterdam A on their chests before being banished from the city for their brazen attempt to break into a diamond cutter’s shop.
• A confined convict H. Peeters shall be whipped and marked with burning spears for his violation of confinement and other evil acts before his lifelong imprisonment is renewed.
• German convict E. Eisenstein caught smoking in the rasp house and, when scolded, cursed and spit at his jailors, shall have an ear sliced off. He will return to the rasp house to work the twelve-blade saws cutting brazilwood for the dye works until his hands are as good as his ears.
• The hanging of J. v. d. Gheyn, the notorious murderer of good fishmonger Joris van Dungeon.
• The hanging of A. Adriaensz, alias Aris Kindt, evildoer and recalcitrant thief.
Adriaen Adriaensz, Adriaen, son of Adriaen of Leiden, alias Aris Kindt, Hans Kindt, or Arend Kint: he’s used different names in different towns where he was arrested, then banished, then arrested again. Arend was his father’s nickname for him, meaning “eagle.” These days he goes by Aris, which means nothing. It was others who tacked on “Kindt” or “The Kid” years ago, on account of his small stature and since he was still lithe and smooth-skinned when he committed his first crimes.
Aris draws his jerkin tighter, clinging to it with his one hand making a fist over his heart. His nightmare has already fragmented into shapes—the terrible slimness of a starving dog’s back, a room of doors leading onto still other doors, his own hands painted gold, clutching a goose feather pillow. A goose feather pillow.
Beside him, snoring, is Joep van de Gheyn, the fishmonger killer. By profession he is a tailor—a fact that Aris finds secretly ironic, since he has spent much of his own adult life stealing fine coats from tailors’ shops. Still asleep like a babe in his mother’s arms, the tailor has his hands pressed together in prayer under his pulpy jowls, his left foot kicking an invisible attacker.
Idiot, thinks Aris.
Still sitting, he extends his foot out toward his cell mate and nudges Joep in the ribs, not gently. “Sleep when you’re dead,” he says.
The cell mate’s eyes open, and without knowing that he’s just been victim of a minor assault, he comes coughing out of sleep. His hacking continues until he sits up straight, only to emit two consecutive sneezes. He pulls a dirty rag out of his pocket and blows his nose profusely.
“Well, then,” he says, blinking his eyes to daylight.
The two convicts sit in their small cell, neither one fully awake. In the idle haze of this first hour of the last day of his own life, Aris thinks: A pillow? Has he ever laid his head on a goose feather pillow?
Flora, comes the answer. When she’d mended him those months after he’d got that beating in the tavern. Flora. There she was, her proud, sturdy shoulders, the catlike curve of her neck, that comforting broad backside. She had cradled his bruised head and placed a pillow underneath, hadn’t she?
Flora. Would Flora be out there?
The tolling of the Westerkerk bell can be heard more distinctly at the stately canal-side mansion belonging to Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who is pacing across the checkered marble floor of his sitting room. He is preparing himself to recite the speech he intends to give tonight, his wife, Margaretha, as his test audience. She is propped up in a high-backed wooden chair in front of him, with an enormous swath of damask silk she’s embroidering in her lap, her hands motionless, waiting.
How lovely to have the new church so close by their home, she thinks, though she doesn’t always love the half-hour bell. What she does love is when the organist plays something special at the hour, like her favorite, Sweelinck. She would like to go and see that carillon some afternoon soon if Nicolaes could be persuaded to join her. The churchwarden from the Westerkerk has invited them personally, because of her husband’s position, of course, but he hasn’t yet accepted. Of late, he has been so preoccupied with politicking that he has no time for any leisure activities. Tomorrow will be election day at last, and tonight he has the opportunity to convince the city’s current burghermasters and aldermen that he is sufficiently learned and stoical to be elevated beyond a mere magistrate.
She hopes her husband will accept the warden’s offer. It is a rare thing that such a grand church should be erected so close to their home, and she could use a small diversion from the household and his five children. Perhaps she will suggest the warden as a useful ally in his campaign. They might even be among the city’s first visitors to the beautiful tower. What a view there must be from up there!
Tulp takes a ceremonial step forward. “Most excellent and ornate men of Amsterdam: Honorable Burgomaster Bicker, Amsterdam burghers, gentlemen of the Stadtholder’s court, magistrates, inspectors Collegii Medici, physicians, barber-surgeons . . .” he begins a bit shakily.
“Welcome to the second public dissection of my term as praelector of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild . . .” He continues, and Margaretha follows the rhythms of his inflections and gathers the melody of his voice, working its way up and down the scale. She begins drawing her needle back and forth through the fabric, looking down on each stitch to check her progress on the tulip she is incorporating into the damask curtains of the entry hall.
She has based the design on the potted admirael over on the mantel, a recent gift to her husband from Roemer Visscher, in appreciation for treating the poet’s gallstones. So far, she has managed to complete the white of the petals and now she is continuing with the red parts; her embroidered flower has no stem. She is considering adding a stem now, but that would involve going back upstairs to get the green floss in the basket that she’d absentmindedly left on the landing. The green floss. If only she’d remembered to bring down the green floss. She doesn’t want to disrupt her husband, who’s lost sleep for several nights already in anticipation of the important evening ahead, but if she had the green floss she could perhaps finally finish this tulip while listening.
“At the request of the governors of our noble guild, I do humbly come before you to offer my annual lecture upon the human body and the fabric of nature . . .”
He has commissioned this new painter at Uylenburgh’s studio to commemorate his dissection tonight. It’s his second year as praelector, but this follows a tradition. Each of the previous praelectors has commissioned a portrait of the guild when they’ve taken the helm, with themselves at center stage. She hopes the artist will focus on his kind, almost innocent eyes, which were what attracted her to him and which she still finds comforting whenever she looks up from
her embroidery. He is a doctor of great compassion and skill, willing to rush out in the middle of the night to see any patient. He is a good man. A man of character.
The painter, she hopes, will capture his full head of dark hair and an ample beard that makes him look still so young. His eyes are just a tiny bit dreamy, though he works hard to appear stern and eagle-eyed.
Perhaps the painter will notice the deftness of his hands, which are, she has always felt, a touch feminine, with long elegant fingers that he often presses to his lips when in thought. He is no hearty man of the fields, certainly. The blue tint of his veins is visible through his pale skin; he’s always had a kind of ethereal pallor that made her think he was closer to the angels. When he gives his lectures, he attempts to mask it with a touch of her rouge. The men he
seeks to impress—like those who will assemble tonight in the Waag chamber for his annual anatomical display—are not worthy of such self-concern.
She knows, as well as she can recognize the dull end of the needle now pressing against her thumb, that he will rise to his natural position in Amsterdam society in due time. Already he’s chief praelector of the City of Amsterdam, Dr. Nicolaes Pieterszoon Tulp, occasionally referred to by the Latinate: Tulpius. She sees how eager he is to rush this process along. Perhaps the portrait itself is even a bit premature.
He clears his throat—the sudden evacuation of a busy lecture hall—and begins reading his speech again from the beginning, this time trying out a slightly lower vocal pitch, more sober and authoritative.
“Most excellent and ornate men of Amsterdam: Honorable Burgomaster Bicker, Amsterdam burghers, gentlemen of the Stadtholder’s court, . . .” he says, glancing up to notice that his wife is still quite attentive, though her fingers have begun to work her floss through her embroidery. “Before me, gentlemen, lies the body of a notorious criminal sentenced to death by the honorable magistrates of Amsterdam for wrongdoing and evil deeds and hanged by the
neck this very day. . . .”
She adds a few more red details to this tulip instead, and muses to herself about whether the tulip curtains might not be one step too far in the florescence of their home. There is garishness to it, Margaretha thinks, especially as the tulip has just now become such a ridiculous craze.
When they had moved into this mansion it was just a bit of silliness. There was a gable stone with a tulip just above their front door and so when he’d purchased the carriage for his nightly house calls, he had a tulip painted on its side. Soon enough he became known around the town as Dr. Tulp, and the name stuck. He eventually adopted the name instead of his original, Claes Pieterszoon. After all, there were already a few Pieterszoons in town but only one Tulp.
Since then, friends and grateful patients often arrive at the house of Tulp with tulip-shaped gifts: tulip vases and tulip dishes, tulip-shaped silver cups, and actual tulips, too, sent from wealthier patients in earthenware vases with many small spouts, which the servants arrange on mantels positioned beneath oil paintings they’d been given, too, of tulip bouquets. All these beautiful flowers signify love and respect, Margaretha knows, but every once in a while she
can’t help feeling she resides, not in a home but in a tulip nursery. She draws the needle through the fabric until it stops.
Her husband has paced away again, but now he is moving toward her. Margaretha isn’t listening exactly, and he has noticed. She hopes he will not take it personally, but she can see that he is agitated, looking for some way to capture her attention. He flips through the pages of his manuscript. Seeming as though he has a new idea, he shifts the papers from one hand to the other, then raises his free hand and begins to gesticulate. He’s making a strange movement, rotating his wrist in a somewhat comical twirl, his index finger pointed toward the ceiling.
“Observe the motion of my right hand,” he tries. “The hand, with its opposable thumb, as the great Galenus has revealed to us, is unique to mankind. To what do we owe to this appendage that sets us apart in form from all other barbarous creatures and brutes?”
He pauses to address her. “I have heard tell that the chimpanzee may also have opposable thumbs, though it is not yet confirmed. I wonder if I should mention this? Or does it confuse the point?” He muses to himself, drawing his hand across his beard, and then raising his hand again.
She suppresses a smile that wants very badly to form on her lips as her husband’s hand continues to histrionically twirl in the air, like some grandiloquent rhetorician of the Egelantier’s. He doesn’t seem to notice, but he abruptly paces away from her, dropping his head and muttering something to himself. He holds his fist to his forehead and remains silent for some time. She looks down to check the red detailing, which has gone amiss.
“Don’t you think it’s quite fascinating that we associate so many negative things with the left hand?” his wife observes idly, after the silence has gone on for a while. “Think of it: the Latin sinister, which you use so often in your speech, for the left hand, means ‘evil or inauspicious,’ ‘foreboding.’ And when someone is left-handed, we fear they have powers of witchery.”
She glances up to see his exasperated expression, before he drops his arms to his sides and some papers flutter to the floor. “My love, are you paying any attention at all?” He shakes the remaining pages of the manuscript at her. “I must memorize the speech by this evening. So far, I have not even completed the writing. I shall embarrass myself and our whole household.”
Margaretha takes in the plaintive look in her husband’s eyes. She’d heard him rustle in the adjacent chamber at least three times in the night. She should’ve gotten up to heat milk for him, or at least forgotten all about the green floss and not mentioned the Latin just now.
She runs her needle into the fabric, just where the stem will eventually reach the blossom, and leaves it there. She reaches out her hand to take her husband’s. “You’re absolutely right, my love. I shall not interrupt you again. Please start again from exactly where you left off.”