My Life by Marc Chagall
Translated by Dorothy Williams

When I was rushing through St. Pancras station in the summer, en route to the Midlands and a visit to the Aged Parent and the Offspring, I made time to pop into their little branch of Hatchards. It’s a small but perfectly formed shop which always has interestingly-themed tables, and I rarely come out empty-handed. This occasion was no different, and I was tempted specifically by this lovely Penguin Modern Classics version of Marc Chagall’s “My Life”. It called to me particularly as I was heavily absorbed in Victor Serge’s Notebooks; and Chagall’s book deals also with exile from Russia. So of course I picked up a copy… To be honest, though, you couldn’t really get two more dissimilar books than the Notebooks and this one. In size, writing style and subject Chagall and Serge are complete opposites; though both are very entertaining and enjoyable writers!

Chagall grew up ina a close-knit Russian-Jewish community, and much of the book covers his childhood; his beloved family; his struggles at school; and his growing desire to become an artist. He writes in short, impressionistic and vivid sentences, conjuring small-town life and the warmth of the people around him (as well as a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere which eventually becomes too much). The book is illustrated with some lovely sketches of his life and surroundings, which are a real treat; and we follow Chagall as he takes tentative steps outside the realm of his childhood into the wider world. The artist came from a poor family and is in some ways out of his depth to start with. But he’s driven to make art, and manages to find contacts in St. Petersburg to help him along.

The essential thing is art, painting, a painting different from the painting everyone else does.

Eventually he escapes to Paris, and the chapters set here are particularly evocative. Again, there is the struggle and lack of money, but he mixes with other artists who help. Blaise Cendrars is a kind and constant presence; Apollinaire makes appearances. Chagall gradually starts to make a kind of name for himself but returns to Russia and here we’re treated to a different view of the Revolution; an elliptical one, from a man who does his best to support what’s happening but really only wants to make art.

Can we help it if we can only see world events through canvas, paint, and painting materials, thickening and vibrating like poisonous gases?

Again, there are glimpses; figures like Meyerhold, Lunacharsky, Trotsky and Mayakovsky pass through Chagall’s pages. However, he never hides the harshness of living through these times and dark actions creep into the narrative. The book ends in 1922 when, in a bid for essential stability, Chagall left his homeland for good, living almost exclusively in France until his death in 1985.

Marc Chagall – The Birthday – 1915 (public domain via Wikimedia
Commons)

“My Life” is a striking book; the prose initially perhaps seems a little brief, stacatto, but as your reading ear attunes to this type of writing it becomes very compelling. And the line drawings complement the story beautifully, their economy of line matching that of the narrative; both nevertheless draw you into Chagall’s world, creating a very moving experience.

So my impulse purchase at St. Pancras station turned out to be one that I’m very glad I made. It gives a privileged glimpse into the life and art of a great artist (some of whose works I’ve seen in the flesh in recent years), as well as revealing the artistic view of the Russian Revolution. Highly recommended!