Artist's Wifeby Max Phillips
Deftly blending period detail and modern sensibility, Max Phillips presents here a bold, unapologetic Alma Shindler, who narrates her own provocative story from beyond the grave.
Deftly blending period detail and modern sensibility, Max Phillips presents here a bold, unapologetic Alma Shindler, who narrates her own provocative story from beyond the grave.
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Death, also, I find to be a disappointment. There are noarches of cloud or tunnels of fire. Instead, there's knowledge. Yourown little cupful is emptied out into the general ocean, you vanish asa drop of blood vanishes in the cool sea, and after that, you swimthrough all the moments that ever were, the way water swimsthrough water. Your second husband addresses his egg with a butterknife and thinks, Whore, the wind lifts the corner of your page andyou smooth it back with a child's fat hand, the fingers shine in placeswith dried pear juice and you draw your thousandth-to-last breath.Your shoes pinch. Well, at eighty-four years old, all shoes are tightand, besides, you're not wearing any shoes. You think, I shall nevermarry. You walk to the road on legs swollen with pregnancy, closeone eye, and hold up a thumb to blot your house of orange clay fromthe hilltop, but you've never lived in a house of orange clayyou see,one swims not only through one's own moments, but through all.And so, yes, the dead know everything. Your cat's-eye sapphire earringwith the loose clasp has slipped through a hole in your pocket.It sits in the lining of your gray lambskin coat. Your car keys, youknocked them across the sill above your kitchen sink and into thewindow box outside. There they are on the chalky blue bottom,which is set like an abandoned chessboard with the husks of flies.
In fact, there's no end to the questionsthe living won'tleave us alone. Tapping, humming, burning incense, mutteringendearments, the mystics, the mourners, the professionallymorbid, asking, Have you heard from my Aunt Betty?Will I findlove, or money? And: You? Oh, I've heard of you. Tell me, how didyou live?
How greedy you are, how interested. I was awfully interestedin myself when I was alive. But now my old serf, my old husbands,old enemies, old children all seem a bit transparent, likeghosts, or abstract, like facts and figures. And so noisywhat afuss we were always making. I will say this, we could be amusingto watch.
Maybe that's all you want, to be amused.
Anyway, I don't mind telling the story. None of us here mindanything anymore.
The proper place to start, of course, is with my father. As ithappens, he was killed by a prince. This was his old friend PrinceRegent Luitpold of Bavaria, who was a great lover of jokes. In thesummer of 1892, while his guests were all eating dinner on theterrace of his castle, His Excellency cranked open a secret valveso that a great rush of water flew out and knocked everybodyacross the stone floor. The prince staggered back and forth,cackling. Water rolled down his fierce little monkey's head. Heclapped for servants to run forward with towels and schnapps,but Papi lay still in a puddle. A great pain moved up through myfather's body then, as clear as a sentence in plain German,though afterward he couldn't recall what it had been about.
At home in Plankenberg, the doctor told us this was exhaustionof the nerves. He polished his pince-nez and talked enthusiasticallyabout sea air. By 1892 our family was finally out of debt,so we could have our first trip for pleasure, and we decided to goto Sylt in the North Sea and rent a small house near the beach andtake healthful walks. But in Sylt my father just lay in his roomwith a blanket pulled up to his chest and his finger between thepages of a volume of Schiller. He listened to the waves and to hisdaughters' voices. In his intestines, he had his own secret valve,closing, a blockage from which he'd soon die. When he felt alittle stronger, he opened up his book and read: Peaks thunder, thefrail narrow footbridge sways. / No fear feels the archer up dizzy ways.
Me, I wasn't so crazy about Sylt. Papi was sick, and there wasnobody to talk to. Just Mami and Gretl and my father's studentCarl Moll, a big round pale-bearded giant who went with histeacher everywhere and saw to the running of his household. Theonly thing I really liked were our trunks, because some of themwere quite enormous and I was proud that we owned such largethings.
One morning I woke up especially petulant and bored. It wasbright out, but not too hot yet. I rested my feet on the cool walland lay there with my book, which was about a big Russian fishthat wore a crown and bestowed treasures. I was almost thirteen,and my body was fussing me. If I looked down the collar of mynightdress, I saw two puffy little hills in a sort of cambric twilight,and on the horizon a little twilit wood. I put out my belly tobe fat, and then twisted around to be thin, and then I buttonedmy collar over my nose and walked around like that with no face,making ferocious eyes. Then I got dressed and went down thehall to have a look at Papi. He was lying all neat and small in hisown bed, with his own book. His cheeks were yellow and gray,like a new-plucked chicken. When he saw me in the crack of thedoor, he made himself look sly, as if he were pretending to be illjust to be lazy, and said, "You must be very quiet, Tigress.Because I'm asleep."
I said, "But you're talking to me."
"Perhaps," he said, "I'm only dreaming of you."
"I'm not a dream," I said, very offended, and went downstairsand out the door.
There were two ways down to the sea. One was a cobbledroad, which was boring, and the other was a steep path thatbegan in a little saddle of honey-colored clay. I sat myself downin this and looked out across the clean dark waves. They lookedvery new in the morning sun, but they smelt old. I kept thinkingabout Papi's chicken-skin cheeks, and it made me gather myskirts squeamishly away from the weeds. Down on the beach, mysister was examining the tide pools. I could see her long toes,plucking at the rocks. There she was, not giving me a thought. Ishouted, "Grete! Grete!" like two stones rapped togetherwhata loud child I wasand waited until she was watching me beforeI began to climb down.
Grete was a year younger than me. We lived way out in thecountry and had no friends except each other. I was a big blondgirl, but she was dark and sleek and could move fast when shewanted. If you'd asked me, I'd have told you I loved her, and beenhappy to tell you just why. My whole life, I was very fond oftalking about love. Gretl was holding a wet brown ribbon-thingon the end of a bit of reed. "I found it in the pools," she told me."I was going to go down to the ocean and see if it swims."
"It's just a bit of kelp," I said.
"Oh. I thought maybe it was an eel?"
"No. Just seaweed."
She dropped it in the sand and wiped her fingers on her leg.
"Do you want to wade?" she said.
She kicked her feet in the sand, to dry them. "Do you want toplay Prisoner?"
For Prisoner, you got an old trunk or scratched a square intothe dirt. Gretl would be prisoner inside this and I would pinchher all over until she confessed. Then I'd execute her, but beforeshe died she could make a speech. If she was good, I let her comeback as an angel, and she'd walk around doing angel thingswhile I pretended I couldn't see, crying out, "What was that?Who goes there?" Sometimes I'd be the prisoner, but Gretl wasafraid to pinch me too hard, and I'd keep my face calm until shestarted crying with frustration, and then I'd escape. So we bothsaw it was best if she was the prisoner.
"No," I said.
"Do you know a game?" she said.
"All right," I said. "Dig a hole."
"As deep as your elbow," I said. "Three sides should bestraight down and the other should be sloping."
One sloping side seemed like a good thing for a hole to have.She went to work at once. When she was finished with the hole,I'd figure out what you might do with it. She dug quickly, withher hands like paws. We felt better now.
"We've hardly seen Papi at all," she complained.
"He has to rest," I said.
"We wouldn't tire him."
"He has to rest."
"We could put a divan on the beach," she said, panting, "withan umbrella to keep him cool. And a screen all around. Mollcould help us. We could sit with him and be quiet." She wavedout her dirty hands to make everything quiet. "We could all betogether. It would be nice for him. There could be music."
She was full of her own ideas now.
"Impossible," I said. "He may have a wasting illness, youknow."
I'd read about wasting illnesses and they sounded very fine.Princesses got them.
"A bellyache only?" she whispered. Mami had said bellyache.
"No, it's different. He told me. He has told me many things,as the eldest."
"Things?" she whispered.
"Serious things. He wouldn't want you to worry, as you'reyoung. His condition is serious." The hole was already prettydeep and soon I'd have to think of something.
"He may die," I said, and I saw myself addressing a grievingEmpire. There were flags everywhere, and I explained toeveryone what had to be done.
Gretl was standing there, all muddy, with tears in her eyes.
"You're lying?" she said. "No?" Then she just stood in herhole and wept.
It wasn't enjoyable anymore.
"We must love him very much," I said, "and then he'll getbetter."
"Yes!" she said. "Let's go to him now!"
"No. It's best for his condition if he rests. You leave this to me.He'll be fine. Never mind the hole," I said kindly. "It's all right.Come here. What a mess, your face is all snot." I cleaned her facewith my handkerchief and made her blow. She leaned into me andsmelt sweet and helpless. I always loved Grete best after I'd madeher cry, and I put my arms around her and kissed her and smelther sweet hair until I was calm myself. "It's no good gettingupset," I said. "Besides, I know what we can do."
I'd passed through town the previous day with Mami andnoticed a woman in a cafe, by the window, unpinning her beautifulhat. Gretl's hair reminded me.
We went to Mami and Moll and announced that we wanted togo across the island to town and have lunch, all by ourselves, andthat we wanted money.
My world was as full as a garden in which weeds and strangeblooms hide the paths, as full as an old map in which theunknown places are decorated with monsters, but it containedonly two cities: Plankenberg, where we lived, and Vienna.
Vienna was ruled by the Emperor Franz Josef, whose face wason all our money. He was an old man and very tall. I knew thatwhen he died, they'd pickle his heart and put it with the otherHabsburg hearts in Saint Augustin's. I'd seen him once onCorpus Christi Day, leading the holy procession with a candle inhis hand. I thought he nodded to my father in respect, but myfather couldn't nod in return, because I was sitting on his shouldersso I could see.
Plankenberg, of course, was ruled by my father. His namewas Emil Jakob Schindler. He was the most celebrated landscapepainter in the Empire and a very impressive fellow. His uncle wasa member of Parliament who helped abolish the lash, and hismother's portrait still hangs in the Gallery of Beauties. He wasgood friends with Franz Josef's court painter, Makart, and thetwo of them used to give big Renaissance balls, with Liszt playingthe piano and garlands of roses swinging drunkenly from theceiling. He sang Schumann lieder in a fine tenor voice. He wasonce Lenardo in a private production of Lenardo und Blandine.Blandine was a brewer's daughter named Anna Bergen, who'dbeen sent to Vienna to make her début at the Ringtheater underMottl, but she got pregnant and married my father instead.
I was always convinced that marriage brought a narrownessinto my father's life. He had luxurious tastes and was always indebt, which he and I both thought was only fitting for a genius,but Mami didn't agree. I used to sleep in a drawer of my parents'wardrobe until Makart made me a crib. That's the sort of thingshe always wanted to talk about, that and the bills, but Papi justturned his back and napped. But when I was nearly five he had asuccess with a couple of collectors and we leased a castle near theflower-town of Tulln. Plankenberg Manor was four hundredyears old and had a little onion-shaped dome that rang the hour.Inside, it was all polished leather and venetian glass, everythingall tufted, swagged, fringed, and tasseled. Papi used to goaround patting and straightening. The artist's eye! Myself, I'd godown to the pantry and inspect the silver. They kept it in a varnishedcedar box, which smelt warm and spicy. It had an oval lid,and when you closed it, the box was very solid and satisfactory.
Papi used to tell me how the Plankenberg ghost went aroundlooking for golden-haired girls, taking strides as long as a coalbarge on its great double-jointed legs. He put a painted woodenMadonna in a niche halfway up the stairs and heaped up flowersall around it. Its smile was very frightening, very still, shapedwith three dabs of a tiny red brush, two dabs for the top lip andone for the bottom, and Gretl and I used to run past it at night,when its eyes got enormous in the shadows and you couldn't tellwhat it was thinking. Papi used to frighten the wits out of us. Iwas crazy about him. He kept his studio upstairs, so our bedroomsall smelt of linseed oil. He'd furnished the place very fashionably,like Makart's studio, with ferns and Turkish rugs and amandolin in a corner that nobody knew how to play. The chairsall had legs like lion's paws, and while Papi worked I'd kneel onone and ride, as if it were a flying beast I'd tamed myself, anddream that I'd built a great Italian garden full of white studios,like caves, where princes lived for their art and the air was full ofSchumann lieder.
Once Papi painted me as I stood in the kitchen garden. Heused a hinged palette, which folded for traveling. Whenever hestopped for a minute to consider, he'd roll the brush slowlybetween thumb and forefinger, his fingers very certain, hismouth solemn and kind. All right, I thought. Now I'm going tolearn all the secrets. He took a flexible little knife and mixed upmauve, grass green, apricot, and vermilion. These were all verysplendid but I didn't see how they pertained.
"Wait, Tigress," he said.
Scrfff, scrfff, went his brush.
"Are you tired, Tigress?"
"No," I said.
"You're being very good," he said. "You're being very goodand still. There are grown-up ladies who couldn't stand so still.That's why I'd rather paint a poplar, a larch. No witless chatter.Better posture, too."
"I might be tired in a little," I said.
"We'll rest," he said. "Have a look."
I stood before the canvas as he wiped his fingers one by onewith a rag, and then he laid his hands on my shoulders andrubbed them. A great feeling of ease moved down through mybody, and I wanted to be picked up and carried, but this wasn'tgrown up and so I didn't mention it. Papi's skies were alwaysvery dense, like an endless thickness of lead crystal. By the timethe light squeezed through a sky like that, it was pure, and madeeverything glisten a bit. There I was, glistening, there betweenthe leaves. I held my face near the little hills and valleys of thepaint. I tried to see how the strokes of mauve, grass green,apricot, and vermilion wove together to make the cheeks of anexcellent little girl. He said, "Are you looking at it, dumpling, oreating it?"
"But I like the smell," I said.
"You'll get paint on your nose. You'll get your nose on yournose."
"I hope so."
"What will you do when it's done?"
"Put it on the wall."
"Why?" I asked. Up-on-the-wall meant old things, treasures,from journeys Papi must have made back in mythic times, backwhen he went around with the other great old mythic fellows.
"So people can look at it," he said.
"Everyone will look at it?"
"You made the flowers so big," I said, a little frightened.
"They are big."
"The big flowers are all looking at me."
"Sunflowers," he said, "always turn to look at the sun."
When I was eight, he read to us from Faust. The devil came toFaust as a black poodle. This was exciting, because I wanted adog. But soon the story went wandering, like the singing of anevil kettle, all complicated bargains and a stumbling girl, and atlast Grete and I were weeping with the strangeness. Then he gaveit to us, saying, "This is the most beautiful book in the world."
Well, Gretl didn't see much of that book. I kept it for myself.I'd stare at it, sniff it, even taste it. I'd ruffle the pages against mycheek, then open the book wide, so the binding made a noiselike a comb biting into snarled hair, and look down the littlewoven tunnel in the spine at this and that in my room. Faustspoke of two souls in his breast. This sounded very uncomfortable.He sang of Gretchen's beauty. He climbed up into the sky,which was where the angels sang to you, apparently, and madeyou wise. I wanted to carry the book everywhere.
"What is that," Mami cried.
"It's beautiful," I shouted, but she took it away.
My parents were always quarreling. I always took Papi's side.In fact, I couldn't really see the need for my mother. She knew nogood stories. She wasn't handsome. She'd never made her débutunder Mottl. Instead, she went around trilling under her breathand let her daughters be prime donne in her place. I had no respectfor anyone who sacrificed for others, and Mami went out of herway to be nice to us. We weren't sent off to convent schools likemost girls of our sort, or to any school at all, and we did what weliked, so that we soon taught our governess fear. We also worewhat we liked, and I got used to running around my whole lifewithout underdrawers, which I also couldn't see the need for.But I was quite an ungrateful child. When I got measles, it wasMami who slept in a chair pulled close to my bed, but all Iremembered was that Papi came and scattered flowers across mycounterpane as if I were a toy Madonna.
"Papi," I told him, "you are putting things on my bed."
"Mami won't like the mess. Papi, there's a noise."
"Your Mami is snoring."
"You sound very far away...."
He rubbed his thumb and forefinger quickly together besidemy left ear, then my right ear. "Can you hear that?"
I didn't answer.
He touched my ear, looking very sorrowful.
"Is it late?" I asked.
"It's very late."
"Am I better?"
"You're much better."
"You don't know that," I said, accusing him, and he laid hispalm on my forehead. His hand was big and cool. It seemed tocurve around my head the way clouds curve around the earth. Myhead seemed hollow. I felt I was growing large, very unpleasantly.My legs were endless beneath the comforter. I was a mountainat the edge of the world, and Papi was a neighbor mountain,and Mami was a distant mountain in the horrid quiet. "See?" hesaid, "you're much better."
"No," I said, "you mustn't take your hand away now. Becauseit's cool. Gretchen went up to heaven, I was just thinking, or elseI was asleep? And Faust said he was sorry, and they all sang to her."
"Ah, but you're a luckier little girl than Gretchen, for we'llsing to you right here on earth. I'll sing about a little house withwings, in which you can travel all over the world."
"And the roof will be of crystal, so you can look up from yourbed and see all the stars as you fly along. And the stars will becool, like peach ices. And the peach-ice stars will sing with us,and their song will make you cooooool. And sweet."
"Your hand is getting warm." He took it away. "I don't wantto go up to heaven...."
"But what a foolish Tigress! Didn't I say we'll sing to youright here?"
I thought he sang better than the angels anyway. I was crazyabout him.
Soon after I recovered, my father was commissioned by FranzJosef's son Rudolf to make ink drawings of all the towns of theAdriatic coast for the Crown Prince's book Die österreichischeungarischeMonarchie in Wort und Bild. We got the use of asteamship, which waited in each port until Papi was done, and wetook Moll to be our nanny. At the end we rented a small stone villaon a hill in Corfu, so Papi could rest and paint his own pictures.We had a pianino sent up from town, and for me this was thewhole point of the trip. I was wild about that pianino. It was justthe right size. If you closed the lid over the keys, it was solid andsatisfactory, like the silver chest. If you lifted the top and sang in,the wires inside sang back. The measles had damaged my ears,and for the rest of my life I never heard properly again, but if Istruck a key, the note was clear and meaningful. So that's when Ifirst began to make music: when I'd just freshly gone half deaf.
I liked to play with my arms spread wide, which made themusic more dramatic. I'd twiddle with the right hand and growlwith the left, and rock stubbornly back and forth on my littlebottom, and wear a lofty look, as if I wasn't much interested. ButI was in paradise. Because I saw how, in that row of keys, youcould find everything: the gold of the onion dome, the darkstriding trees, my parents' shouting, the devil's whistling, thesad comfort of velvet on my cheek when I was bored. There wereother things, too, that had never been heard of and that only youknew about, and only while you were playing them. I thought,Papi's doing his work in the corner room, and I'm down here inthe parlor doing mine. I'm his apprentice now, not Moll. He'sgoing to teach me everything.
The day we came to Sylt, he walked along the beach with meand said, "Play, play to allure the gods."
And he bowed, carefully, because of the little valve inside, thatwas already closing.
My café turned out to be quite nice. The glass cabinetswere filled with good things, and an elderly waiter unfolded ournapkins ceremoniously, flick snap for Gretl, flick snap for Alma,heavy white napkins embroidered with blind white suns. Weordered sherbet, and when we were done we ordered somemore. Gretl ate slowly, in little dabs with the spoon or fork, eachlittle dab important as any other. But at last the dishes wereempty and the nice napkins were marked with our sticky mouthsand lying in a heap on the table. Outside, there were flat grayclouds, sliding in quickly. It was that terrible moment, whenyou've gobbled all the sweetness in the world and there'snothing left but queasiness and regret.
We left without speaking and started walking back across thedunes. The rest of my life, I always remembered that walk. Therewas a path through the sand made of heavy boards. The fence oneach side was staves of wood fastened edge to edge with twistedwire. The wind put a cold palm on my face and pushed me back.There was thunder, and I had a taste in my mouth.
"I don't feel well," Gretl said. "I don't feel well at all."
I said, "Let's run."
When we got to the cottage, we found the front door hangingopen. There was no one in the front hall, no one in the parlor. Weflew upstairs. Through the wall came a noise. We turned and allat once a doctor was there, thrusting us furiously aside. He raninto Papi's room and we had a glimpse, just a glimpse, of aswollen red thing in the bed, eyeless, like a newborn puppy, anddressed in my father's pajamas. It seemed to have been bornfrom the warm wrinkles of our parents' bedclothes. It rolledunder Moll's hands, its red jaws clamped. And then Moll ran atus, huge, and cried, "Girls! Your father isbusy!"
He swept us back from the doorway and bustled us to ourroom. Through the wall came Mami's pleading. I was ashamedof the taste in my mouth. Moll stood at the door like a jailer, hisbig eyes stuck upon us.
"What," I whispered, "what did youwhere is he. Where ishe going."
Moll's big lips moved.
"I can't hear you," I said, and I began to weep.
Excerpted from The Artist's Wife by Max Phillips. Copyright © 2001 by Max Phillips. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Max Phillips is the author of the highly acclaimed novel Snakebite Sonnet. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Village Voice, and The Threepenny Review. He lives in New York City.
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