The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegal

I received a free review copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

18077844One day in January of 1632, a handful of people became linked through the body of one man. This man, a thief, was beloved by one narrator in Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson. He was a subject of medical study by two other narrators and an object to be acquired by a fourth. To yet another narrator, he was the subject of a painting that would become world famous. That man, Adriaen Adriaenszoon, lived a short, miserable life, with no idea that we would still know his name four hundred years later. One last narrator, a modern painting conservator, lends us his scholarly experience to understand what Rembrandt was doing with his painting.

Each of the narrators, who get the unusual opportunity of addressing us all from the first person, are distinguished by an anatomical heading. The body speaks for himself. Adriaen tells us of his unhappy childhood and how he came to be a thief. The heart is Flora, the only one who showed kindness to Adriaen during his life. They loved each other and Flora became pregnant with the thief’s child. She is six months gone when she gets news that Adriaen is to be executed for committing one theft too many. The mind is René Descartes. Descartes happened to be in Amsterdam at the time. Siegal invites him to the anatomy lesson held by Dr. Tulp, the hands. The eyes belong to Rembrandt van Rijn. Van Rijn is commissioned to paint the anatomy lesson for the surgeons’ guild. The mouth is Jan Fetchet, who deals in curiosities and acquires bodies for the surgeons to dissect.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt, 1632

Flora, Fetchet, and Rembrandt tell most of the tale. Flora travels to Amsterdam to try and claim Adriaen’s body for a proper burial, knowing that it is already too late to try and save his life. Compared to her very practical concerns and Fetchet’s fixation on money and acquisition, everyone else in this book is distinctly cerebral. They meditate and discuss the nature of the soul. Dr. Tulp and Descartes wonder where the soul resides in the body. Rembrandt believes that capturing some essence of a person’s soul is only possible when a person is alive. He can catch a glimpse of it while painting portraits.

As I read The Anatomy Lesson, I frequently looked at Rembrandt’s painting. I wondered about the foreshortened limbs, but Rembrandt and the conservator narrator pointed out the structure of the painting that puts Adriaen at the focal point. The conservator, Pia, points out the anatomical errors the artist made and discovers that the thief’s right hand was a creation of the artist. Rembrandt originally painted Adriaen’s stump; he lost his hand to one of the many judges he went before during his life. In The Anatomy Lesson (the book), Rembrandt was trying to give Adriaen back his dignity.

Nina Siegal is a conscientious and erudite writer. Her scholarship is on full display in The Anatomy Lesson, but it doesn’t overpower the narrative. Her characters live and breath (except for Adriaen, obviously). I very much enjoyed her portrayal of Dr. Tulp. Tulp was caught at an awkward time in the history of medicine. New discoveries were coming fast and thick, but Tulp trusted the ancients. He would bend over backwards to incorporate (please excuse the pun) Galen, and even Plato and Aristotle, into his anatomy lesson. His Calvinism showed in his attempts to find signs of “internal corruption” that would explain why Adriaen was a thief and, essentially, a failure at life. Tulp thoroughly rejected William Harvey’s theory on the circulation of blood. He believed in a bizarre blend of Galen and Aristotle about how the body worked. He believed, among other things, that the lungs would blow air into the heart. Any high school student of today would be able to point out the error of Tulp’s ways.

The Anatomy Lesson covers one short day in January 1632, but it doesn’t feel rushed. By parceling the story out to so many narrators, the book has room to breathe. We get to ruminate, as several narrators do, about the nature of the soul and the body. We get to experience the business of a booming Amsterdam. We get to see the tension of lingering medieval ideas and the light of the Renaissance and coming Enlightenment. This really is a remarkable book.


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