Salomea Künstler, known as Mamie and all of eleven, has just arrived in California with her parents and grandfather when Cathleen Schine’s Künstlers in Paradise begins. An orange tree grows in the garden of their new home in Santa Monica, and in the “odd, shining fog” of their first morning, they ate oranges, “as charmed as Adam and Eve, though unlike poor Adam and Poor Eve, they felt no shame and were not cast out of their garden. These oranges were not forbidden. They were ripe and sweet. After running, escaping, losing everything, they have found oranges. They had landed in Paradise, a place with oranges for everyone.” It is 1939 and they have made it out of Vienna in time.
Now it is early 2020, and Mamie is still living in Los Angeles, albeit in Venice and not Santa Monica, though still with an orange tree. Her housemate is Agatha, a semi-deaf, “ropey” person who is something of a caretaker (they call her a dogsbody) but mostly a friend to Mamie. Julian, her oblivious grandson, is due to arrive from New York to help care for Mamie who fractured her wrist and cannot get around. Agatha makes a mean martini but does not drive.
Mamie’s invitation was well timed as Julian had recently been cut off by his parents who were tired of his privileged approach to work and money. Julian, it seemed, had thought he could make his way through life in a “serial monogamy of intellectual pursuits.” He is twenty-four and still has so much life to live, so much becoming to do.
Then comes the pandemic, and Julian, Mamie, Agatha, along with the Prince Jan the dog, are marooned in the Venice bungalow. Little of anything can be done, and Mamie, who had up until then been speeding along, is forced like everyone to stand still. Faced with a loveable but indolent new housemate, as well as the burden of remembering alone, Mamie decides to share with Julian the stories of her life. And what wonderful stories they are! Mamie’s tales are peppered with the likes of Thomas Mann, Irving Tabor, and Greta Garbo, the enchanting, enthralling Garbo. Making the Künstlersher anchor, Schine tells the story of Los Angeles in the present but also in the 1940s and 50s, Los Angeles caught in amber: neon signs, the smell of mimosa and honeysuckle, Garbo on the beach.
Schine’s writing is cut glass, a mix of Jewish humor and family banter which reads like Vaudeville. The Künstlers are very Jewish in a Reform sort of way, representing the intellectual diaspora which has its origins in plush Viennese apartments and coffee cups. Mamie has been brought up amongst music and culture; she constantly lands on the mot juste. In fact, it is impossible not to want Mamie for a grandmother: She is clipped and zingy, has cocktails at 6:00 PM each day (“Schedule for olds,” [Agatha] said. “Very important.”) and learned tennis from Arnold Schoenberg.
Myopic and self-involved, Julian is more of a drip, and though he becomes less of one as his world simultaneously contracts geographically and expands temporally, he is never not annoying. Everything is personal, everything is out to get him, and even as he realizes that quarantine owing to the virus is different, say, to being trapped at home because of the Nazis, he is the victim of his world. Perhaps this is just what it’s like to be young and privileged enough to feel secure in your own sense of self.
Yet there is a radical joy to self-involvement, a line which Julian begins to thread, and which Mamie encourages. The world has not yet crushed or terrified her grandson. Adulthood can be delayed just a little bit longer. Watching Julian asleep on the chaise one afternoon, Mamie thinks about how different their lives have been: “She looked at her sleeping grandson and recalled how hard she had worked to empty her mind of tragedy. It was difficult to imagine that she had first encountered tragedy with a mind as blessedly blank as Julian’s. And so much younger. She hoped he could keep his wits just that way.”
Künstlers in Paradise
by Cathleen Schine
Henry Holt and Co.
Published March 14th, 2023
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian based in London.