On the shelf
Künstlers in Paradise
By Cathleen Schine
Holt: 272 pages, $28
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Novelist Cathleen Schine is comfortably ensconced in Venice, ensconced in a Craftsman bungalow on a pedestrian street with her wife, Janet Meyer. But it took her quite a while to establish herself on the West Coast. Schine was a New Yorker for decades, and although Meyer works in Los Angeles as a film producer, they came and went. The red-eye trip couldn’t last forever.
“It had been kind of a bicoastal for 20 years, while my kids were still in school,” says Schine, speaking from her home not far from Abbot Kinney Boulevard. “At a certain point, I realized that I wasn’t really excited by all the excitement in New York anymore.”
After his mother died in 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home, Schine began to think of a novel that would portray a different kind of New Yorker enchanted by the neighborhood, and not just by today’s Venice. but also through the slums. hung version of decades past. Before long, Schine’s story opened up to an often overlooked story: the World War II era when refugee artists, including Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg, made Los Angeles a sort of Mitteleuropa in the exile.
“Künstlers in Paradise” brings twenty-something Julian Künstler to Venice as a more contemporary type of expat. His ninety-year-old grandmother and devoted housekeeper, Agatha, are homebound by the pandemic, and Julian’s parents send him out west, to help his grandmother, but also perhaps to put an end to his aimless wanderings on the coast. this.
“I know a lot of these young people who are at a bit of an awkward stage, like Trollope’s hobble of today, stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood,” says Schine. “My love for that stage comes from raising two wonderful young men, although I am very careful not to write about them. I don’t want to steal all your stuff!”
However, the story begins in 1939, when 11-year-old Salomea “Mamie” Künstler, Julian’s grandmother, lands in Los Angeles with her family. The sophisticated Künstlers (German for “artists”) have fled Hitler’s Vienna and arrive just as the Nazis invade Poland.
On the day the world changes, Mamie gazes out her car window at a new world, a world that today, in many ways, no longer exists. “Back then, people just did what they wanted,” explains Schine. “There were turreted houses, places designed to look like castles or farms, and you never knew what was in which corner. And you had all these places that were completely whimsical, like the Brown Derby, built in the actual shape of a hat.”
Then there are Mamie’s fellow emigrations, the Pacific künstlers. “All these brilliant people, directors, composers, writers and artists, ended up in Los Angeles, and I was completely fascinated reading about them,” says Schine. “But I didn’t want to write a straight historical novel that could get too touchy.” Also, “one of the wonderful things about writing novels is that you can research until you stop understanding or get bored.” (Schine earned a master’s degree in medieval history at the University of Chicago, but dropped out and “ran away” to New York. “I was the worst historian,” she says.)
It was also a latecomer to the Los Angeles artistic legacy. For too long, Schine admits, she was “a prejudiced New Yorker who felt that Los Angeles was a cultural wasteland and had no history. Mistaken! But what ended up interesting me even more was that when these people came from Europe they didn’t always experience success. Schoenberg, an expressionist composer, considered himself one of the most important figures in modern music, but in Los Angeles he can’t even be arrested, let alone become famous.
The Austrian ended up teaching at USC and UCLA before there were independent music departments, influencing generations of composers. He appears in Mamie’s stories, as does Mann, whose beautiful mid-century modern home remains an important part of the urban landscape.
The book draws a subtle parallel between Schine’s refugee groups: those in the 1930s who watched Europe burn from afar, and those who weathered the pandemic as it ravaged the East Coast.
“One day, after the lockdown started, I was sitting in our garden in Venice, smelling jasmine and watching hummingbirds and butterflies,” Schine recalls. “He was very quiet, no cars on the roads, no planes in the skies, an eerie kind of peace. Meanwhile, when he was talking to people in New York, there were sirens in the background, day and night.”
She pauses for a moment. “I am not trying to compare the pandemic with the Holocaust. They are completely different. But I do know that guilt of exile. The feeling that you are safe and the world you love is exploding, falling apart and dying.”
Mamie, like a 90-something Scheherazade, draws Julian in again and again with her stories, knowing exactly how much to say to keep him interested and by his side. She doles out photos and anecdotes with the panache of a high-end dealer, saving one of the most notable for last: a story about reclusive Greta Garbo, whom she and her grandfather meet on the beach.
“Künstlers” is Schine’s twelfth novel, but he admits that, with its time shifts and deliberate deployment, it was particularly difficult to gauge. “I don’t outline my books,” she says. “I was just thinking, ‘What happened to Mamie after? How will Julian react? I think the kind of gradual layering of various details became part of the structure.”
Its loose process has its advantages. “Always” she turns out, she says, in “a kind of peripheral character that ends up being my favorite”. In this book, that’s Agatha, whose origins are hazy but she never lets down her hot-tempered boss and always has a purse dangling from her forearm. “I had no idea what was going on with Agatha until the end, but it became more and more important to me as the manuscript progressed. She could have been a throwaway character. Instead, she is more of a load-bearing wall.”
Schine is not the type of writer who schedules a minimum of pages per day; she can go three months without writing a word. But she’s thinking of a book, ‘sort of’buddenbrooks‘ thing” (referencing Mann’s masterpiece, written before his time in Pacific Palisades). Schine’s sort of homage is about a merchant family in Bridgeport, Conn., where she grew up and where her father owned a lumber company.
“It’s very close to home and a lot of it will be based on my family fortune,” he says. “I’m going to see if I can pull it off.” Meanwhile, after two decades of travel and three years of isolation, he tries to learn more about the city he now calls home. “I had to train myself to read the LA Times instead of the East Coast papers. It’s only been a few years. Old habits die hard!”
She confesses that she recently learned the exact coordinates of the San Fernando Valley. “No wonder I was lost all the time! When I leave this neighborhood, it’s Google Maps, double check it. It is always an adventure. It took me a long time to feel like I live here.” But she has studied. “Now yes.”
Patrick is a freelance critic, podcast host, and author of the upcoming memoir “Life B.”
Cathleen Schine will be in conversation with Michelle Huneven at vroman’s house in Pasadena on March 21 at 7 pm