Mary Sharratt has made an impressive career fleshing out the lives of women rendered one-dimensional in the pages of history. In “Illuminations,” she raised sainted Doctor of the Church Hildegard Von Bingen from theological obscurity. In “The Dark Lady’s Mask,” she plumped out Shakespeare’s most beguiling muse, Aemilia Bassano Lanier. In her latest novel, Sharratt explores 10 years in the life of Alma Maria Schindler, wife of composer Gustav Mahler and an accomplished musician in her own right.
When “Ecstasy” opens, 19-year-old Alma is reading Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (much to the chagrin of her mother, who considers the novel scandalous). Alma is “rapidly losing patience with Emma Bovary,” finding the dissatisfied woman “incomprehensible. Her madness, her degrading love affairs, her endless lying to herself and others — was this woman flighty,” Alma wonders, “or simply coarse and common?”
We could ask the same of Alma. During the portion of Alma’s life presented in this thoroughly researched novel, the restless woman moves through Vienna attracting men, attending concerts, maintaining a spirited independence. She enjoys a prolonged kiss with artist Gustav Klimt, flirts with director Max Burchard, ogles architect Joseph Olbrich, shyly stammers upon meeting Gustav Mahler, and falls in love with Alex von Zemlinsky, her tutor. With Zemlinsky she enjoys a blissful romance of mutual support and heart-thumping passion. But Zemlinsky is poor and Mahler is esteemed and when Mahler fawns over Alma’s compositions, Alma shifts loyalties and marries Mahler, who, “My God, under all that tweed … has the body of an athlete!”
From that point on, Alma is torn. Though Mahler tells her upfront that he won’t support her career (he considers her compositions sentimental), young Alma perseveres, hoping that to be Mahler’s “inspiration, an indelible part of his work” will be enough to satisfy her.
Turns out it’s not.
Alma and Gustav’s marriage has ups and downs — she bears two children, one of whom dies of diphtheria. He writes symphonies; she longs for her piano. His passion for her waxes and wanes. She doubts her ability as a mother; he spends weeks alone in his composing hut. They move back and forth from Europe to America, where Gustav directs the Metropolitan Opera and later the New York Philharmonic. Alma suffers miscarriages, recuperates at sanitariums, meets accomplished American women and handsome men — all the while feeling alternately smitten and trapped.
The emotional vacillating can get tiresome (all these crescendos and decrescendos without a finale), but such is historical fiction — you can’t manufacture narrative arc. The good news is that Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel did more with her life after these very vividly fleshed-out years and that Sharratt, with this fine work, has us wanting more.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.
By: Mary Sharratt.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 387 pages, $26.
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