Fri. Feb 28th, 2020

Staff Picks: Gossip, Ghosts, and Growth

6 min read
Staff Picks: Gossip, Ghosts, and Growth

Alma Mahler and her husband, Gustav, 1909. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes you just want to read something juicy, and Cate Haste’s Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler delivers that in spades. Alma is remembered primarily as the wife and muse of three major cultural figures in fin de siècle Vienna: the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, and the novelist and poet Franz Werfel. But Haste’s biography reveals a woman with artistic ambitions of her own, sidelined in no small part because of the social expectations of the time. To be perfectly honest, though, I read this book for the gossip, of which there is plenty. Haste has a knack for capturing Alma’s world in all its art house fervor. Alma’s first kiss is with Klimt (she refuses his sexual advances by quoting Goethe’s Faust). During the birth of their second child, a panicking Gutav tries to soothe Alma’s pains by reading Kant aloud to her (it doesn’t work, unsurprisingly). Gropius and Alma exchange extremely explicit letters concerning their sexual fantasies (including possibly the most florid description of a blowjob I’ve ever read). We haven’t even reached the second half of the book, which includes Alma’s intense, sadomasochistic affair with the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka (culminating in Kokoschka creating a lifelike doll of Alma and dragging it around Vienna before beheading it) as well as her dalliance with and subsequent marriage to Werfel, whom she helps escape Austria by foot in a perilous journey on the eve of World War II. Alma herself comes across as wildly unpleasant—she’s a monarchist and Hapsburg supporter who’s constantly getting into fights with Werfel, a committed communist; she makes frequent anti-Semitic remarks despite two of her husbands and most of her closest friends being Jewish; she constantly criticizes her daughter for marrying for love (five times) instead of marrying geniuses. But Haste portrays Alma Mahler in all her whirring and feverish complexity, and the result is as engrossing as it is jaw-dropping. Read it and you, too, can know entirely too much about the sex lives of almost every major artist, composer, and writer in early-twentieth-century Vienna. —Rhian Sasseen 

I’ve been thinking about the character Claude McKay Love since the summer, when someone handed me an advance copy of Gabriel Bump’s Everywhere You Don’t Belong, and I’m glad he’s finally making his debut next week. But this isn’t a debutante kind of coming out: in Bump’s first novel, young Claude navigates the shittiness of growing up with humor, insight, and a certain big-eyed vulnerability that’ll have you rooting for him through thick and thin—even when it’s Claude who has skated himself out onto the thinnest ice. You live and learn, the adage goes, and over the course of Claude’s trials, he goes from an awkward kid to a young man who knows a thing or three about the human he wants to become. It’s classic bildungsroman, made better by a lot of love for warts-and-all Chicago, and I see dashes of Percival Everett in Bump’s deadpan, how his characters cross the stage with a sashay (and sometimes more). Welcome, Claude! We’re glad you’re here. —Emily Nemens

 

Christian Wiman.

 

Since the release of Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems earlier this month, I’ve been eager for more new poetry from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So I was delighted to discover Christian Wiman’s collection Survival Is a Style, which, like Sullivan’s, is frank and modest, capturing the first-person experience of contemporary American life in bone-clean melodic verse. Wiman’s greatest asset is his taste for simplicity, best exemplified by “Eating Grapes Downward.” Where one might expect an invocation of the muse, the opening lines are a self-deprecating tribute to writer’s block: “Every morning without thinking I open / my notebook and see if something / might have grown in me during the night. / Usually, no.” Wiman’s short poems, spoken by a singular voice, resemble a collection of Bach-like sarabands and gigues—my favorite, the pairing of “Two Drinking Songs,” is subtitled “1. Up with a Twist” and “2. Neat.” But these simple melodies are not without deep resonance and even occasional dissonance, as themes of spiritual doubt and physical illness recur throughout the book’s four sections. Wiman sets his intentions in a poetic preface, writing: “I need a space for unbelief to breathe. / I need a form for failure, since it is what I have.” So thoroughly charmed was I that I failed to notice I had boarded the wrong train, hopping off just before it tore out of Manhattan—though I would have indeed welcomed a moment more in Wiman’s musical company. —Elinor Hitt

It’s in his novel The Ghost Writer that Philip Roth first introduces us to his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, the book’s neurotic protagonist and the narrator of eight more novels. The Ghost Writer is set around a meeting between Nathan, a twenty-three-year-old aspiring writer, and his idol, the accomplished writer E. I. Lonoff—an ascetic devotee of craft, long married, Bellow-esque. (Of his process, he tells Nathan: “I turn sentences around. That’s my life … Then I have lunch.”) The young Zuckerman is clearly a reflection of Roth at that age—having just published his rather controversial first stories, harboring a quarrel with the Jewish community that he’ll sustain in later novels. But the most bizarre part of the book has to do with Amy Bellette, Lonoff’s dark-haired writing assistant and paramour. As Nathan falls further into Lonoff’s rarefied world, his preoccupation with Bellette grows, and his curiosity about her identity overwhelms him. Throughout the night he spends at Lonoff’s, he wonders, Could Amy Bellette be Anne Frank? The latter half of the novel is Nathan’s imaginings of Frank-turned-Bellette as a detached, secular Jew like himself. He postulates what Frank’s life would have been like and fantasizes about a new one for himself: a life where he’s been adopted by his literary idol and is married to Anne Frank. —Camille Jacobson

I’ve been paying special attention to flower arrangements these past few years—hazard of the trade, in part. But I’m not the only one of my demographic who has gone to seed. All across the city, young women are leaving PR and corporate law to become florists, arranging bracken and berry and blossom in loose, wilder ways, bringing mortality into the living room. The writer Nikki Shaner-Bradford has done just this with “Unfleshing,” a bright and thorny essay on beauty and technology published in Real Life this week. Shaner-Bradford seems to have carefully trimmed all my favorite questions to fit in one graceful container. With each sleek new undergarment and every successive layer of serum, are we growing closer to liberation or to divestment? Her linkages are surprisingly perfect, considering Away luggage, notable for FAA-unfriendly batteries (now removable), and Thinx underwear, notable for creating a menstrual undergarment that has turned out to be almost certainly toxic, and how they both cloak the human element. Her centerpiece is Uncanny Valley, a memoir by the tech veteran Anna Wiener, which I had missed in the fray of suffering the other side effects of living in a post-tech world, such as answering email till today is tomorrow and trying to find funding for print journalism. Shaner-Bradford’s sure hands are part of the work’s wild beauty. We can see her twining around the very subjects she resists as she writes herself into the essay and gains an uncertain safety in foliage. —Julia Berick

 

Nikki Shaner-Bradford.

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