April Book of the Month - Ecstasy by Mary Sharratt
Author: Mary Sharratt
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 10, 2018)
How acquired: Edelweiss
What’s it about? In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era
Gustav Klimt gave Alma her first kiss. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight and proposed only a few weeks later. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius abandoned all reason to pursue her. Poet and novelist Franz Werfel described her as “one of the very few magical women that exist.” But who was this woman who brought these most eminent of men to their knees?
Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?
Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasy reveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, author, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.
My take: I was first introduced to the story of Alma Schindler in the 2001 film Bride of the Wind starring Jonathan Pryce as Mahler and Australian actress Sarah Wynter. Frankly the movie was not very good. The film takes its title from the painting by Oskar Kokoschka which he dedicated to Alma. Alma is a cipher in this film; she wanders wanly through with men throwing themselves at her and then going crazy with jealously as she tosses them aside. The movie can’t decide whether she’s a femme fatale or a woman with thoughts, feelings, or ambitions of her own. For years, I thought that this was an accurate depiction of Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel. Thankfully, Mary Sharratt has written Ecstasy: A Novel which does a great deal to rescue Alma’s reputation as some kind of Helen of Troy leading men to their doom.
The novel doesn’t seek to tell a cradle to grave story of Alma’s life. It concentrates on the years 1899 when Alma is 19 years old and ends with Mahler’s death in 1911. This is Alma is on the brink of womanhood. She’s impulsive and naïve but filled with ambition, she wants to be a great composer like her idol Wagner. Unfortunately for Alma, her mother doesn’t share the same ambition for her; a marriage to a respectable man with a good income is more what she wants for Alma. And unfortunately, there were very few role models for Alma to follow. Her mother warns her about becoming one of ‘Third Sex’ women who are unmarriageable because they’ve gone to University or stepped outside societal norms. Alma is bowled over by the attentions of the painter Gustav Klimt who awakens her burgeoning sexuality only to have her hopes dashed by her mother who opens her eyes to what Klimt is really like. Alma is full of passion but she has no idea where to direct it. Her dreams of composing are thwarted not only by her mother but also by her teacher.
She falls in love with another young composer who she wants to marry, until she is swept away by meeting Gustav Mahler. But marrying Mahler means giving up her dreams to support Mahler. At first she is happy to help the great man achieve, but she soon realizes what a devil’s bargain she has made. Mahler is selfish, capricious, demanding but also tender and loving at times. Alma's job was to arrange the world so that nothing interfered with Mahler's creative life. Mary Sharratt has painted a very realistic picture of the toll this "job" takes on Alma. At times, the book is frustrating just as Alma is frustrated in her attempts to have any semblance of a life that doesn’t revolve around her husband. She’s part housewife, nursemaid, hostess, stenographer, lover, mother and muse. The novel accurately depicts how women’s lives in this era were controlled and crushed by men. Throughout the book Alma is torn between the what society wants and expects of women, and her own desires and ambitions. Throughout her journey Alma meets women who she longs to emulate but it's almost as if she's afraid to take the risk to be those women.
The novel has a tendency to get a bit repetitive at times, Alma yearns for a creative outlet, she suffers from depression, Mahler composes and conducts, careens from triumph to tragedy. Some of the transitions between scenes are a bit abrupt but that just may be the way that the ARC I received was formatted. Alma and Mahler suffer a great loss but instead of it bringing them together, it pulls them apart. One of the best scenes comes late in the book when her mother admits that she made a mistake keeping Alma from attending a music conservatory as well as a scene where Alma and her mother have a frank conversation about marriage and the toll that it takes on women, particularly those married to a genius. Alma pours so much of herself into Mahler and his work, that when she finally sits down at the piano later in the book to compose, she finds that she has nothing to say. Ecstasy lets Alma step out of the shadows of Mahler and into a spotlight of her own.
Anyone who is interested in Fin-de-siècle Vienna, the world of Klimt, and Schnitzler should pick up a copy of this novel. It gives a vibrant portrait of the bohemian, artistic world and the sacrifices that artists have to make to get ahead (Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism). The novel also offers a glimpse of what life was like in New York in the early 20th century, a snapshot of the Metropolitan Opera and the nascent New York Philharmonic. Ecstasy is a thoroughly enjoyable, impeccably researched book.