Cathleen Schine’s LA Historical Novel ‘Kunstlers in Paradise’

On the shelf

Künstlers in Paradise

By Cathleen Schine
Holt: 272 pages, $28

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Novelist Cathleen Schine is at home in Venice, nestled in a Craftsman bungalow on a boardwalk with only her wife, Janet Meyer. But it took her a long time to settle on the West Coast. Shine has been a New Yorker for decades, and although Mayer works in Los Angeles as a film producer, they’ve been back and forth. The red-eye commute couldn’t last forever.

“I was kind of indecisive for 20 years, while my kids were still in school,” Schine says, speaking from her home near Abbot Kinney Boulevard. “At a certain point, I realized that I was no longer really excited by all the excitement of New York.”

After her mother died in 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home, Schine began thinking about a novel that would depict a different kind of New Yorker who grows up enchanted by the neighborhood—and not just present-day Venice, but lower-slung version of past decades. Soon, Schine’s story opened up to an often-overlooked story: the World War II era, when refugee artists like Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg made Los Angeles a kind of Mitteleuropa in exile.

“Künstlers in Paradise” brings 20-year-old Julian Künstler to Venice as a more modern kind of expatriate. His not-elderly grandmother and her devoted housekeeper, Agatha, are housebound by the pandemic, and Julian’s parents send him west—to help his grandmother and perhaps to end his pointless East Coast romp.

“I know a lot of these young men who are in a somewhat awkward stage, like Trollope’s hobbledehoy, somewhere between childhood and adulthood,” says Schine. “My love of that stage comes from raising two wonderful young men, though I’m careful not to write about them. I don’t want to steal all their material!’

The story opens, however, in 1939, when 11-year-old Salomea “Mamie” Künstler – Julian’s grandmother – lands in Los Angeles with her family. The sophisticated Künstlers (German for “artists”) have left Hitler’s Vienna and arrive just as the Nazis invade Poland.

On the day the world changes, Mamie experiences a new world through her car window – a world that today, in many ways, no longer exists. “People did whatever they wanted back then,” explains Schine. “There were houses with turrets, places designed to look like castles or farmhouses, and you never knew what would be around which corner. And you had all those places that were completely fictional, like the Brown Derby, built in the actual shape of a hat.”

Then there are Mamie’s immigrant colleagues – the künstlers of the Pacific. “All these brilliant people, conductors and composers, writers and artists, ended up in Los Angeles, and I was completely fascinated reading about them,” says Schine. “But I didn’t want to write a simple historical novel that might get too fussy.” Furthermore, “one of the great things about writing novels is that you can do the research until you stop understanding or get bored.” (Schine pursued a master’s degree in medieval history at the University of Chicago, but dropped out and “ran away” to New York. “I was the worst historian,” she says.)

He also came late to LA’s artistic heritage. For too long, Schine admits, she was “a prejudiced New Yorker who felt that Los Angeles was a cultural wasteland and that it had no history. Wrong! But what interested me even more was that when these people came from Europe they did not always know success. Schoenberg, the expressionist composer, considered himself one of the most important figures in modern music, but in Los Angeles he can’t even be arrested, let alone become famous.’

The Austrian ended up teaching at USC and UCLA before there were even independent music departments, influencing generations of composers. He appears in Mamie’s stories, as does Mann, whose beautiful Midcentury Modern house remains an important part of the cityscape.

The book draws a subtle parallel between Schine’s ranks of refugees—those in the 1930s who watched Europe burn from afar and those who weather the pandemic as it ravages the East Coast.

“One day, after the isolation began, I was sitting in our garden in Venice, smelling the jasmine and seeing hummingbirds and butterflies,” Schine recalls. “It was very quiet, no cars on the roads, no planes in the skies, a kind of eerie calm. Meanwhile, when I was talking to people in New York, there were sirens in the background, day and night.”

He stops for a moment. “I’m not trying to compare the pandemic to the Holocaust. They are completely different. But I know this guilt of exile. The feeling when you’re safe and the world you love explodes, collapses and dies.”

Mamie, like a 90-year-old Scheherazade, seduces Julian again and again with her stories, knowing exactly how much she needs to tell him to keep him interested and on her side. She shares photos and anecdotes with the gusto of a top pusher, saving one of the most remarkable for last: a story about the reclusive Greta Garbo, whom she and her grandfather meet on the beach.

“Künstlers” is Schine’s 12th novel, but she admits that, with its temporal shifts and deliberate unfolding, it was particularly difficult to calibrate. “I don’t describe my books,” he says. “I’m just thinking, ‘What happened next to Mamie?’ How will Julian react?’ I think the sort of gradual layering of various details became part of the structure.”

Her relaxed process has its advantages. It “always” boils down, he says, to “a kind of peripheral character that ends up being my favorite.” In this book, this is Agatha, whose origins are murky but who never disappoints her cantankerous employer and always has a purse dangling from her arm. “I had no idea what was going on with Agatha until the end, but she became more and more important to me as the script progressed. It could have been a character. Instead, it’s more of a load-bearing wall.”

Schine is not the type of writer to schedule herself a minimum number of pages per day. he can go three months without writing a word. But he thinks of a book, “something like ‘Buddenbrooks'” (a reference to Mann’s masterpiece, written before his tenure at Pacific Palisades). Schine’s tribute is to a mercantile family in Bridgeport, Conn., where she grew up and where her father owned a lumber company.

“It’s very close to home and a lot of it will be based on my family’s wealth,” he says. “I’ll see if I can make it.” Meanwhile, after two decades of commuting and three years of isolation, she tries to learn more about the city she now calls home. “I had to train myself to read the LA Times instead of the East Coast papers. It’s only been a few years. Old habits die hard!”

He confesses that he only recently learned the exact coordinates of the San Fernando Valley. “No wonder I keep getting lost! When I leave this neighborhood, it’s Google Maps, double check. It’s always an adventure. It took me a long time to feel like I live here.” But he has studied. “I do now.”

Patrick is a freelance critic, podcaster and author of the forthcoming memoir ‘Life B’.

Cathleen Schine will be in conversation with Michelle Huneven at Vroman’s in Pasadena on March 21 at 7 p.m.

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