Nina Siegal


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The Anatomy Lesson

Siegal, Nina

Last Updated: Jun-17-2014
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In 1632, at the age of only 26, Rembrandt finished a large (85.2 in × 66.7 in) oil painting that was destined to become one of his best known works and certainly one of the linchpins in the nexus between the graphic arts and the medical humanities. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" depicts the dissection of the flexor tendons of the left arm of a cadaver by the eponymous doctor while an attentive audience of his peers, identifiable members of the medical and anatomical community of early 17th century Amsterdam, looks on. Nina Siegal's novel tells her imagined back story of this richly illustrated anatomy lesson which, once you read her captivating novel, will make you ask yourself, as I did, why no one has thought fit to do so heretofore.

Using multiple first person narrators, Siegal examines the characters (some historical, others wholly fictional) and events leading up to the anatomy lesson and Rembrandt's artistic rendering of it. Inventing a life for Aris Kindt (born Adriaen  Adriaenszoon), the historically real career criminal whose recently judicial hanging provides the body we see in the painting, Siegal provides him with Flora, a lover who is carrying his illegitimate child at the time of his public - and quite raucous - hanging. Growing up in Leiden, in the same neighborhood as Flora and Rembrandt himself, Kindt was the physically and emotionally abused son of a leather worker and, in Siegal's imagination, a petty but persistent thief hanged for his inveterate and irremediable life of crime. As was the custom of the day, his body was legally assigned to an anatomist for public dissection. With a non-linear narrative, organized into brief chapters entitled for body parts, Siegal traces the beginnings of three of the protagonists - Kindt, Flora, and Rembrandt. She constructs  how their lives intersect not only before, during and after the hanging, but also in more philosophical strokes, namely the medical, theological and artistic tapestry on which this image rests. There are several minor characters, like Tulp and his family; Jan Fetchet, the "famulus" responsible for securing and preparing Kindt's body immediately following the hanging; and even René Descartes, who seems to have been in town during this momentous occasion pursuing his own polymathic research, which included anatomy at the time.  Siegal adds a few reports dictated by a fictional modern- day conservator offering her interpretation of many of the details of Rembrandt's masterpiece, details that serve to highlight aspects of Siegal's narrative, such as the possible artistic re-implantation of Kindt's amputated right hand.

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