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Truth can be stranger than fiction. Sometimes.,
This review is from: The Artist's Wife (Hardcover)
I approached this book with some trepidation, not quite "fear and loathing" perhaps, but close enough. My reason? Simple enough. My fondness for Gustav Mahler's music - irrespective of what warts the man may or may not have had - made me think twice before reading a fictionalized version of "the wild brat's story" and how it might have distorted my own version of reality concerning my favorite composer. I shouldn't have worried.
Some thirty-odd years ago, I had the opportunity to read an English translation of Alma Mahler Werfel's "Ein Leben mit Gustav Mahler" ("My Life with Gustav Mahler"). The book was not mine, and I regret not having my own copy to this day, if for no other reason than that Alma edited these reminiscences with a rather heavy hand, lest the reader get the idea that she was less than devoted to Mahler. Of course, even then, her legend preceded her. Those of a certain age (and I am one of them) well remember Tom Lehrer's send-up of her, sung to the melody of "Alma Mater." A tune as trenchant commentary, deservedly so.
Well, if there's nothing new under the sun from Tom Lehrer (and others) from then till now, why in the world should one read this "autobiographical" novel? For the simple reason that Max Phillips has fashioned an excellent tale about a fascinating woman whose greatest adventures occurred during a time when her fin-de-siècle Vienna and Hapsburg world was simultaneously both filled with intriguing characters and at the brink of chaos and collapse.
Despite her own heavy hand at personal "damage control," there is plenty of historical corroborating information (including those parts of her diaries and memoirs that she did indeed approve for publication) to state that Alma was clearly all of these: Self-absorbed, wilful, modestly talented, unafraid of her own sexuality, a flame to the moths of creative genius of the times, a sometime muse to these geniuses, and self-appointed - or perhaps self-anointed - champion and guardian of the arts of her times, with her "Sundays" (salons at which all the rich and famous of the arts of the period grovelled for her invitations and attention). She was also beautiful by the day's standards, and suffered from both deafness and alcoholism. Nevertheless, she outlived all but one of her husbands and lovers, living to the ripe old age of 84, by that time a barely-subdued doyenne. (Of her paramours, only Oskar Kokoschka outlived her, finally expiring at the very ripe old age of 94 in 1980.)
In an endnote, Phillips begins by stating "To put it mildly, this is not a work of scholarship." While perhaps true - because Phillips does take minor liberties with the timings and juxtaposition of events and (probably) major liberties with words placed in the mouths of his panoply of characters - he is being entirely too modest (perhaps with tongue implanted firmly in cheek) regarding these liberties. For, at the end of it all, one does come away with a clear sense of "what Alma was all about," and of an epoch and its end. The latter is detailed better in "Wittgenstein's Vienna" by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, a true work of scholarship available elsewhere at Amazon.com. But, where Janik and Toulmin are factual - almost, but not quite, to the point of pedanticism - Phillips is downright trenchant in his observations on the epoch and in the words he puts in his characters' mouths.
At the end, the tale turned out to be both a hoot and a valuable backward glance at an artistic period and place which we in America regrettably understand not well at all. As I said at the outset, "I shouldn't have worried."