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.