Fatal passions: An interview with Lewis Crofts
3:AM: When did you first encounter Egon Schiele and what led you to write The Pornographer of Vienna?
Lewis Crofts: I first came across Schiele’s paintings when I was living in Hanover in 2001. The blatant nudity was the first thing to catch my roving eye, but, artistically, I didn’t think much of the pictures at the time.
It was only a few years later on a visit to the south Bohemian village of Cesky Krumlov that I learnt of the story behind the man. Schiele’s mother was born there and the artist took refuge in the village for some time. I wandered into a gallery and read a 200-word summary of his life hanging next to one of the pictures. His story seemed worth telling.
3:AM: You say in your acknowledgments that “nowadays art thrives off coffee tables” and that for you it was no different. The Pornographer of Vienna strikes me as incredibly well researched. How much work did you put in before you committed pen-to-paper? Was it organic for you; that is, did you find yourself adding more as your novel progressed?
LC: When I decided to look into his story more closely I found that there was already a mass of information available in coffee-table books. And many of them were exceptionally well written and researched. It quickly became clear that his life was rich in all the dramatic elements needed for a novel: poverty, infamy, rebellion, love, death etc. The anecdote that his father had infected his mother with syphilis on their wedding night seemed an irresistible way to start.
Once I had the broad outline, I found myself adding more detail as I went through the drafts and my research progressed. Having studied German literature at university and spent several years living in central Europe, I already had a good idea of the period from the likes of Georg Trakl, Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka and Stefan Zweig. My writing was definitely organic and research continues to this day.
Some opportunities cropped up which I just couldn’t turn down. I remember blagging my way into Christie’s one summer when they were auctioning one of Schiele’s long-lost paintings. I think I claimed I was representing a Czech art collector. I couldn’t muster the 31 million euros it went for but I got close enough to see the brush-strokes.
3:AM: It’s based on a historical figure; would you describe it as a historical novel? Also, how many liberties did you take with Schiele’s (short) life and how did you decide what went into the book?
LC: In trying to recreate decadent Vienna on the brink of World War I, I’ve doubtless written a historical novel. But it was always the character of Schiele that interested me more than the historical backdrop. I needed to take numerous liberties, sometimes due to a lack of evidence and other times out of narrative necessity. It was always my intention, however, to capture the spirit of the man rather than give a roll-call of his girlfriends or the precise length of a paintbrush.
Although his life may be inherently dramatic, it doesn’t naturally follow the kind of narrative arc which can sustain a reader’s interest over 300 pages. Also, in any life, there tends to be a surplus of characters playing bit-part roles. I had to make tough decisions to keep the scope of the novel manageable but at the same time ensure that the essence of Schiele – the tortured iconoclast we know from the paintings – remained.
3:AM Why did you choose to portray Schiele’s story as a novel, rather than a straight biography?
LC: I am not a historian. And certainly not an art historian. My interest always lied in the narrative power of the events of Schiele’s life – rebellion, fatal passions, imprisonment, fame, death – and the way the paintings seemed to evoke each of those stages.
Also, biographies often have to reach conclusions about why and when. They have to unearth new facts not previously covered in previous biographies. They have to analyse and explain.
I felt that a novel was the perfect way to explore some of the ambiguities in Schiele’s story. Did he or did he not sleep with his sister? That’s a question which I never wanted to answer. As a novelist, I could simply hint at the kind of relationship they had and let the reader make up his or her mind. The novel revels in the gaps in the story, the grey areas, the fluidity. Biography tends to seek light and stability.
3:AM: “While on honeymoon in Trieste, Adolf infected his wife with syphilis”. As opening sentences go, yours is very striking. It sets the tone – of sex and of death – for the novel nicely. I’ve heard a version of the first paragraph set to the music of Elton John’s ‘Daniel’. Have you heard that? What do you make of it?
LC: Yes, I’ve heard it. In all the times I’ve read and tweaked that line it never occurred to me that it scanned so perfectly with the iconic hit. I’m flattered. I’m not sure Elton is. I’m trying to shoe-horn the opening line of my second novel into the la-la-las of ‘Crocodile Rock’.
3:AM The Pornographer of Vienna explores Schiele’s key relationships – with his sister Gerti, with Gustav Klimt, but most importantly, with Valerie “Wally” Neuzil, his muse and model to his most-loved paintings. Yet little is known of her. How difficult was that, to flesh out the character of Wally?
LC: Valerie is the true tragedy of the book and I’m delighted we managed to get her picture onto the front cover. So little is known about her historically yet at the same time she’s one of the most famous women in all of art. Her poster is on the bedroom wall of virtually every art student in the world.
It was the gulf between the few details we know – a low-born girl, probably given to Schiele as a ‘gift’ by Klimt – and the proliferation of her image in Schiele’s work that made her the most interesting character to develop in the novel. Both in pictures and in actions, she is the canvas onto which Schiele depicts his changing desires. Everything is projected onto her and she ends up as the main victim.
After Schiele splits up with her, we never really relate to the painter in the same way again. Something snaps within the reader. The end to Valerie’s life – when she dies of scarlet fever as a nurse on the Balkan battlefields – is the story’s greatest tragedy.
3:AM: Much like the enfants terribles of the contemporary art world – Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers – Schiele was regarded by the public as degenerate. In your novel, Schiele is told to “live a little. Soak it up. Eat it. Drink it. Fuck it. Revel in it. And then paint it,” advice he seemed to follow to the letter. How do you think Hirst and co compare to Schiele, if at all?
LC: Avant-garde artists always provoke. Schiele certainly did and Hirst & co have done so, too. Tracey Emin is probably the closest modern-day comparison to Schiele. She has openly acknowledged her debt to the artist and her self-portraits as well as the infamous condom-laden bed, exhibited in 1998, succeed in presenting her troubled intimacy as art – a step Schiele also made in his own haunting and disfigured self-portraits.
That said, Schiele still shocks some people almost 90 years after his death. I am not sure Hirst & co will.
3:AM: Does Schiele perhaps share something with the English fin-de-siècle artist Aubrey Beardsley – “gaunt, dandified, racked by disease [he] mirrored the perverse yet elegant distortions of his art.” The only lesson Schiele seemed to take from art school was, “We are great but we are doomed.” How much do you think Schiele adopted the role of artiste maudit?
LC: The two artists do indeed share a fascination with human sexuality and the comparison is one that might be worth pursuing. Beardsley’s work, however, reminds me more of the playful, frolicsome Parisian fin-de-siècle rather than darker, introspective Viennese fin-de-siècle which was so characterized by Schiele, Mahler, Freud et al.
I think Schiele was happy to wear the cap of an artiste maudit but that was not necessarily his intention. Anyone who sticks two fingers up to the establishment – and suffers for his insult – is branded maudit. The most interesting part of Schiele’s life, however, is when he decides against this life and opts for stability through marriage to a bourgeois wife. He turns his back on life as the ‘maudit’ outsider and nestles into the bosom of the world which is collapsing around him.
In many ways, this is inconsistent with how we like to see our artistic iconoclasts. In a Hollywood bio-pic this would be glossed over and the painter would be a resurgent rebel to the end. But his denial of the ‘maudit’ life is what makes Schiele’s story different.
3:AM: Can I ask about the cover of The Pornographer of Vienna? It’s rather cheeky and has, in itself, been causing some fuss. What’s your reaction to that? How much have we changed from the days of Oskar Kokoschka, Schiele’s rival who tagged him “pornographer”?
LC: The jacket was designed by Will Webb, a very talented designer and the man behind striking covers for the likes of Carlos Fuentes, Will Self, TC Boyle and Margaret Atwood. I was set on having a picture of one of Schiele’s women on the cover and once we’d found the right one we saw that if we folded it around the book, it made the spine – an often overlooked part of a book – all the more punchy.
Some disgruntled folk from Tunbridge Wells kicked up a fuss since the spine exhibits the section between the model’s legs. When I heard about it, I couldn’t stop laughing. Firstly, the genitals are clothed, and secondly you’d need a doctorate in anatomy to work it out from the spine. I find it ludicrous. But I do enjoy watching people pick the book off the shelf and realize, as they turn it over, that they have their finger and thumb on Valerie’s nether regions.
I don’t think the huffing and puffing of Tunbridge Wells folk says anything particular about today’s society. But there have been plenty of other instances where The Pornographer of Vienna has tested people’s sense of decency.
One magazine refused to publish a review of the book because they were frightened of scaring off advertisers; a TV station projected the cover of the book onto a backdrop and then took it down, thinking it too racy; and, MySpaces removed several of the Schiele pictures I uploaded, judging them illicit. What’s more, my ‘spam’ filter at home is clogged with all sorts of filth. Google is an unforgiving archivist and my name will forever be associated with porn.
3:AM: Schiele headed the group of artists to succeed Klimt, yet it is Klimt who is more of a household name. Why do you think that is? Is Klimt’s work a little more comfortable for the viewer?
LC: If Schiele had lived to be as old as Klimt , he might have challenged his mentor for the mantle of Vienna’s greatest painter. Or perhaps he would have disappeared into middle-aged mediocrity. We’ll never know.
Unlike Schiele, however, Klimt was acclaimed and at the forefront of Viennese art for most of his long life. He was given a gong by the Emperor and made an honorary member of various universities. His work was all over the city on murals, in palaces and on gallery walls. His works were grand and possessed by the grandiose. And although his works created a scandal, he was never publicly shamed and imprisoned like Schiele. That, I’m sure, helped establish his legacy. In short, Klimt is more palatable for the art establishment.
3:AM: Have you seen the John Malkovich movie Klimt? What did you make of Nikolai Kinski‘s portrayal of Schiele? If there was a movie of your novel, who would you cast as Schiele? For some reason, I can’t get the idea of Sebastian Horsley out of my head…
LC: I found the film Klimt tedious and painful. Nikolai Kinski’s portrayal of the Schiele was, however, one of the rare highlights. Being a marginal figure in such a film will perhaps inevitably result in caricature, but that aside, I thought Kinski nailed the sense of tortured obsession which we remember Schiele for.
I’ve never met Sebastian Horsley but I could see how he might interpret the role. However, my impression of Schiele is of a deeply introspective and troubled soul, yet bubbling with creativity. I think someone like Giovanni Ribisi would do a good job. I know he happens to be a big Schiele fan.
3:AM: I know it’s bad form, but The Pornographer of Vienna is a cracking debut so, have you settled on what your next project will be?
LC: Thank you. That’s very kind. I’m working on my second book at the moment and although I’ll probably write another historical novel at some point in the future, my current project is straight fiction, set in an imaginary dictatorship. Traces of my interest in central Europe will certainly be visible. Apart from that I can’t really say. Anyway, you know how it goes: Draft 1 starts off as a heart-rending tale of unrequited love between a young soldier and a farmer’s daughter, and by the time you get to Draft 7 you’re inserting multiple car-chases and a sex-scene in a chip-shop.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 15th, 2008.