> Zed Book Club / In ‘Künstlers in Paradise,’ a 93–year-old Raconteur Regales her Grandson with Family Lore
Surfers at a beach in Venice, California, early to mid twentieth century. Photo: Dick Whittington Studio/Corbis via Getty Images; Inset: Orange tree blossoms. Photo: Yes/Getty Images
In ‘Künstlers in Paradise,’ a 93–year-old Raconteur Regales her Grandson with Family Lore
Memory takes centre stage in this pandemic-era tale by Cathleen Schine about Jewish Austrian refugees who settled in Los Angeles / BY Nathalie Atkinson / March 24th, 2023
Family stories — and the importance of sharing them — are at the heart of Cathleen Schine’s new contemporary novel Künstlers in Paradise. When aspiring New York writer Julian, 22, weathers the pandemic in Los Angeles with his glam 93-year-old grandmother Mamie and her companion Agatha, Mamie regales him with stories about her family’s flight from Vienna in 1939 to Los Angeles, where they settled among the creative class of talented Jewish émigrés.
“I just knew Mamie was going to tell him stories,” Schine says in a phone interview from Brooklyn, N.Y., a stop on her book tour. “I didn’t know that the two people from Mamie’s past who would have the most impact would be actress Greta Garbo and composer Arnold Schoenberg, a rather odd couple. And that’s where it went, because that’s where my interests went.” Mamie’s stories of her 12-year-old self unfurl like scarves endlessly pulled from a clown’s sleeve. That this happens without the engaging novel ever losing the tender and often humorous intimacy of the present-day family story is a neat trick.
Künstlers in Paradise delves into the community that built up Venice, the west-side waterfront area of Los Angeles, at the turn of the last century when it was rough and cheap and scruffy. Schine lives in the neighborhood with her wife, Janet Meyers (a producer), in a small house on a street where no cars are allowed. “It’s just magical,” she says.
Like Julian, Schine is also from the East Coast, although she commuted to L.A., where her Hollywood producer wife lived, for 20 years before settling there.
“Being so parochial and provincial from New York, I thought California had no history. Then my brother lived there for a while and became a history nut.” Schine’s avid interest in L.A.’s cultural history was first piqued in 2020 when she reviewed a biography of Alma Mahler, composer Gustav Mahler’s “rather lurid wife who had, during the war, escaped Vienna and made it to Los Angeles.” Her life intersected with notable 20th century cultural figures, such as another Jewish émigré from Vienna, screenwriter Salka Viertel, so Schine read her memoir next. “And then that was it—I just couldn’t stop reading about these people!”
Schine wanted to write about the émigré community, without knowing how to go about it. “I just didn’t want to write a historical novel with real people showing up,” she says. Then her editor Sarah Crichton pointed out that in one of her 11 other novels Schine had a grandparent and grandchild relationship, which might be a way into the story. Then came the COVID-19 lockdown, and everything went downhill. “I’d already had Trump writer’s block for several years. All I did was sit on Twitter and doom scroll and worry.” She thought she’d never be able to write the book.
“But then I was sitting in the garden and the jasmine was out and everything was gorgeous — there were bees and hummingbirds,” she continues. “I’d been reading a lot about the sense of exile and of losing your home, being stuck somewhere that is incredibly beautiful, and the guilt from that kind of struck me — and then the book bubbled up.”
“What I didn’t realize is that it was a very close-knit community, and part of what brought them together was guilt, because they were surviving while everybody they knew, and their entire culture, was being destroyed in Europe,” she says. “It was partly communal guilt, and therefore everyone helped everyone else that they could to get jobs, networking, socializing, that kind of thing.”
The novel explores the relationship of the expat community of composers, writers and musicians (künstler means artist in German) with those already living in the neighborhood, and looks at the role Jewish refugees played in shaping contemporary Los Angeles and the Hollywood film industry.
Schine focuses on the West Side of L.A., the Americans people who lived there and those who mingled with them. For example, Salka Viertel hosted salons every Sunday, with fascinating combinations of guests like Olympic athlete-turned-actor Johnny Weissmuller and composer Igor Stravinsky.
Pandemic restrictions made it impossible to visit Venice, so Schine did her research online, ordering many used obscure books. “I was immersed in the thoughts and feelings and language of people who had undergone this, some of whom were very successful some of whom weren’t.”
Schine sat in on mezzo soprano Judith Berkson’s online composition class in order to understand the 12-tone music Schoenberg was composing at the time. “I can do 10 months of research and it will turn into one paragraph,” she says. “A lot of it is just having a certain amount of comfort in a particular world so I could write freely.”
Her research is not unlike Julian’s, who follows his interests to become a kind of renaissance man with knowledge of subjects as varied as Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa to Persian mathematicians. His parents are concerned about his wanderings — successive rabbit holes, really — and with no job, no money and his parents refusing to support him, he ends up in L.A. with his grandmother when the pandemic happens. Yet rather than finding him feckless, I found myself wistful for the days of indulging intellectual curiosity. “I do think that having interests and being able to follow them without them leading to a career is something you used to be able to do in college. I thought Julian was doing just fine, honestly, and I think his parents were a little hard on him. He’s still young.”
My favourite childhood recollection from Mamie is a simple one: “The smell of cigar nauseated me, but I loved it, too. It was my grandfather’s perfume.”
Schine explains Mamie’s grandfather was inspired by a memoir by Vicky Baum, a Jewish writer who left Vienna for Germany before she emigrated to the U.S. and penned Grand Hotel, which was adapted into the hit 1932 Garbo movie.
“A lot of the stuff that she talked about, her grandfather that she loved, inspired [my] grandfather character – that he always had cigar ash on his lapel. Other fantastic true-to-life tidbits in Künstlers in Paradise — like the cheese and liverwurst sandwiches, frankfurters and apple strudels Mamie remembers as the “glorious emigre gluttony” served at lavish afternoon parties — came from the description of a party menu for Schoenberg. “You just find these wonderful jewels that you can put in,” she says.
Mamie, fuelled by copious glasses of good wine and expertly chilled martinis, is a gifted raconteur. As Julian becomes the repository for her stories, Schine zeroes in on the Künstler family dynamics, even as she tells the L.A.’s history.
During months of pandemic uncertainty and lockdowns, Julian and Mamie form a tight bond, much like the one Mamie had with her grandfather 80 years before. Why does Schine think grandparents and grandchildren form such tight bonds? “One of my friends always says it’s that they have a common enemy,” she laughs. “If you’re talking about parents and children, it’s so tightly fraught as a relationship. [With grandparents] there’s both enough distance and intimacy for the relationship to really flourish in that particular way. It’s a way of passing on lore and history.”
In the novel, the trio’s lockdown routine makes every day melt into the next. The passage of time is chiefly marked by Mamie’s garden: her emblematic orange tree blossoming and bearing fruit, and the seasonal smells and bursts of colour from honeysuckle, bougainvillea and roses, similar to the blooms in Schine’s slice of Venice paradise.
“I kept having to run across the little street to my neighbour’s to see if their little orange tree was blooming yet, to make sure the oranges I was describing were [the same] at the time of year. Then I realized: I don’t care, it’s my tree, it’s a magic tree and it’s gonna have oranges when I say it does.”