Kün­stlers in Paradise

  • Review
By – March 6, 2023

Kün­stlers in Par­adise is a delight­ful book that mean­ders through time and place, from 1939 to the present, and from Vien­na, Aus­tria to Venice, Cal­i­for­nia. The word Kün­stler itself means artist” in Ger­man — which is fit­ting for an art­ful sto­ry about four gen­er­a­tions of a cre­ative, musi­cal fam­i­ly. Schine’s tone is often whim­si­cal, fairy­tale-like, yet her nar­ra­tive under­pin­nings are ambi­tious and momentous.

The nov­el fol­lows Salomea Kün­stler, known as Mamie,” the nona­ge­nar­i­an matri­arch of the fam­i­ly, and her grand­son, Julian, a soul adrift in his twen­ties. Dis­placed from the East Coast to Los Ange­les by COVID, Julian takes care of his grand­ma and begins to flower like a bougainvil­lea in her pres­ence. Sit­ting in the gar­den, drink­ing mar­ti­nis in her favorite chair, the fas­ci­nat­ing Mamie spins tales of her long-lost past. 

As a girl, Mamie lived in Vien­na, a city brim­ming with cul­ture — much of which was cre­at­ed by Jew­ish artists, includ­ing her own musi­cal par­ents. In 1939, feel­ing the increas­ing tremors of anti­semitism, Mamie’s father Otto and her moth­er Ilse made the brave choice to emi­grate with their daugh­ter and Otto’s elder­ly father. They jour­neyed to Cal­i­for­nia, where their Old World artistry was wel­comed by a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Jew­ish émi­gré colony of fel­low cre­atives. Speak­ing Ger­man under the relent­less sun or the shade of absurd­ly tall palm trees, they took up as com­posers, movie scor­ers, nov­el­ists, and screen­writ­ers, and they did so large­ly under the aus­pices of the bur­geon­ing Hol­ly­wood film industry. 

When she was twelve, but vir­tu­al­ly a new­born in Amer­i­ca, Mamie met Arnold Schoen­berg, Alma Mahler, Thomas Mann (and his less­er known but equal­ly tal­ent­ed broth­er), Theodore Adorno, Mer­cedes de Acos­ta, and Gre­ta Gar­bo. Not only did Mamie meet these peo­ple, most of whom were her par­ents’ col­leagues, but they also embraced her. Nat­u­ral­ly, she picked up on their secrets — that Adorno’s real last name was far more Jew­ish-sound­ing, for exam­ple, and that Alma Mahler owned an actu­al lock of Lud­wig von Beethoven’s hair. But it is from Gar­bo that Mamie learned the most. She adopt­ed the reclu­sive actress’s love of St. Bernard dogs, romance, sto­ry­telling, and mystery.

Lis­ten­ing to his grandmother’s sto­ries, Julian expe­ri­ences both exile and redemp­tion. While COVID iso­lates him, he comes to find that his small world con­tains mul­ti­tudes — not only Mamie’s liv­ing past, but also a romance that involves a sweet, brief removal of masks, Mamie’s clas­sic LPs, and the even­tu­al dis­cov­ery of his own art­ful­ness. What will his medi­um be? Prob­a­bly screen­writ­ing, bring­ing past fig­ures back to life by way of pro­ject­ed, fly­ing frames. But more than that, we see that Julian Künstler’s true art will, like this book, con­sist of lay­ers of moments, each lov­ing­ly shared — and it will rep­re­sent a kind of par­adise of its own.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

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