By Joanna Scott
Linden Press/Simon and Schuster
283 pp. $18.95
JOANNA SCOTT is a young novelist in a hurry, but she's not taking any shortcuts. She has published three novels in the past four years. And where too many of her contemporaries are content merely to skim off the top of their recent experience, Scott has undertaken narrative challenges of a high order. Her first novel, Fading, My Parmacheene Belle (the title refers to a fishing lure), is a picaresque romance told in the voice of an old man whose wife of 53 years has just died. Chivalric and crazed, he falls in with a teenage runaway, and their adventures might have been recounted by an Ozarks Cervantes. Her second novel, The Closest Possible Union, is in another key altogether. Its narrator is the 14-year-old apprentice on a 19th-century whaling ship secretly engaged in the slave trade. If there is any novelist on whose example Scott has modeled her ambitions, it would be John Barth -- his fictive ingenuities, his stylistic virtuosity.
From the start it was clear that Scott is a brilliant writer, but that is not the same as being a gifted novelist. There was a little too much flour in the sauce; her style, always rich and often demanding, made her first two novels seem, for all thir clever details, rather mannered, even ponderous. Her new novel, though, is a haunting success. Perhaps because Scott's subject here -- the life of the Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele -- and her own febrile style match, Arrogance is both a convincing portrait of tortured artistic genius and a dazzling literary performance.
"Arrogance" was the word for Egon Schiele. Even as a young student at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he rebelled against the artistic conventions and social proprieties of the age. As a young man he thrust a sheaf of his drawings at Gustav Klimt and asked the master, "Do I have talent?" Klimt studied the drawings and answered, "Much too much." Though influenced by Klimt's sensuous icons of the unconscious, Schiele used his talent to create a new, pathological realism. The etiolated, flailing, cramped figure in his series of voyeuristic self-portraits became an allegory of modern existential death-in-life. His erotic drawings still have a disturbing effect, and in his own time caused a scandal. In April 1912, Schiele was arrested and tried, and his work confiscated, on charges of "immorality" and the "seduction" of his child models. "Have adults forgotten how corrupted, that is, how sexually driven and aroused they themselves were as children?" Schiele wrote. "I have not forgotten, for I suffered excruciatingly from it."
Sexually precocious himself (he began with his younger sister Gerti), from the start he used women as his models and muses. When he abandoned his thickening mistress to marry a younger woman, he drew up a contract whereby he'd divide his time between the two. Both women, sensibly, refused to sign. He survived as a soldier in the First World War, and by 1918 had gained both some celebrity and an income from his paintings. But in October of that year, his pregnant wife succumbed to the influenza epidemic. Three days later Schiele himself died. He was 28.
It is a story with both pathos and melodrama, hysteria and high purpose. A less talented novelist might have tried to reduce it all to some Agony and Ecstasy formula. Instead, Scott has devised a mosaic narrative, juxtaposed bits of the story told in different voices and out of chronological order. Each voice, each point of view, is given its own characteristics. Schiele's, like his art, flickers and seethes. The women in his life are the other narrators: his put-upon mother, Marie, his blowsy mistress, Vallie Neuzil, his wife, Edith, and a mysterious unnamed girl. It is this last who spies on Schiele and Vallie, watches through the window one night as the lovers take brushes and begin painting each other: "They dueled with colors, they blotched, striped, bruised themselves, until the hues distracted Egon and he grew more interested in the designs than in his own desire. He began to study Vallie with a critical, appreciative eye, the way he evaluated all his unfinished work. His erection softened and he urged his lover to remain still while he painted gold haloes around her nipples, a silver belt around her waist." Spellbound by what she sees, the girl joins the household, and later -- because of her frustrated desires -- betrays Schiele to his accusers.
MUCH OF the novel turns on Schiele's imprisonment and trial, and Scott powerfully evokes the artist's prison cell, a metaphor for both society and his genius. There are other scenes, other characters, of course -- patrons, teachers, friends, hangers-on. And Vienna itself, from the liver dumplings and mocha cakes in the Ringstrasse cafes to the skinned hares strung up in the market stalls, is an iridescent backdrop -- eine schone Leiche, a lovely corpse. Scott's flair for poetic detail, her ability to render extreme psychological states, her sensitivity to the making of art and the unmaking of the artist -- all of this helps make Arrogance a compelling tale. With so many psychobiographies of painters around now, this book could pass for art criticism. But what makes it a novel -- and an exceptional novel -- is Scott's portrait of Schiele himself, his vanity, his cruelty, his corruscating flair, the satiny beetle inside the dung ball. The girl who betrayed him was finally his subject matter itself. But all along he knew he could not make beautiful pictures because the beauty of the world never lasted long enough for him to finish his drawing.
J. D. McClatchy has two new books appearing this fall, a collection of poems, "The Rest of the Way," and an anthology, "The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry."