Monday 18 April 2022

Guest review by Alison MacLeod: THE FLAMES by Sophie Haydock


"Haydock explores both the exhilaration and the pain of life lived outside society’s norms..."

Photograph: Kate MacLeod
Alison MacLeod has written four novels and two story collections, including Unexploded, which was Man-Booker longlisted, and Tenderness. A Book of 2021 for The Spectator and The New York Times, Tenderness is the story of the creation and unexpected aftermath of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Alison is Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester, where she lectured for 30 years in literature and creative writing. Find out more from her website. 

A painting – like a song, film or dream – is notoriously difficult to convey in words. On the page, it can easily elude the translation across forms. How can a writer evoke the live force of a painting, as we first experience it, across time, on a canvas or in a frame? In this accomplished first novel, Sophie Haydock plunges us into the heat and complexity of Egon Schiele’s art, and offers a remarkable sense of what Schiele’s sister, in Haydock’s story, calls ‘the magic in his fingertips’.

The Flames is the story of a rare and provocative talent cut short by illness; Schiele was just 28 in 1918 when he died of ‘Spanish flu’. But, more than this, it’s a tantalising story of life itself – of life seized and spent by each of its main characters. Haydock explores both the exhilaration and the pain of life lived outside society’s norms.

We are taken to Austria in the early years of the twentieth century. Here, Haydock reveals Egon Schiele, boy and man, largely through the stories and shifting perspectives of his four principal models: his younger sister Gertrude; his ‘muse’, Wally Neuzil (or Vally, as she is here); his wife Edith; and his sister-in-law Adele. Through their eyes, in an inspired story-collage, we discover Schiele’s childhood and his early compulsion to draw. We witness the harrowing descent of his stationmaster father, raging and ill with syphilis, and the poignant aftermath of his death for the Schiele family. Liberation for Egon comes with art school and the influence of his mentor, Gustav Klimt.

A fifth young woman, Eva, will meet the elderly, down-and-out Adele in flash-forward scenes set in 1968, when Eva looks back on the stories of all four women with the appraising eyes of modernity. She is perhaps a stand-in for Haydock herself as she comes face to face with the four women on the walls of a major Viennese exhibition, where she tries to unravel the enigma of each model. It’s a tribute to Haydock’s talent and the depth of her writing that her model-by-model approach never feels exercise-like or schematic. On the contrary, her rendering of the model-as-muse scenario is vivid and intriguingly ambivalent.

Who or what is a muse? A sought-after commodity? A powerhouse of energy transmitted to canvas? An object offered up for the male gaze? Haydock triumphs in nuanced, visceral evocations of the experience of modelling – possibly the best I’ve ever read. She reveals the weary spines, contorted limbs, cold hands, bared thighs and exposed breasts. She evokes, with precision and force, the queasy mixture of sacrifice and self-possession; objectification and intimacy.

The story of Egon’s sister, Gerti Schiele, is compelling. Haydock’s imagining of the incestuous element between sister and brother is restrained, layered and impressively unsensational. Indeed, her handling of it is so skilful I felt she might have dared slightly more in the development of this storyline. Instead, as Egon outgrows his sister, the characterisation of Gertie is flattened somewhat into minor displays of jealousy, and I wondered if something stranger or darker in this material was perhaps short-circuited.

The story of Vally is delivered with subtlety and grit, and she’s a beguilingly memorable character. In her story, too, the dark seams of controversial events – namely, a stint in jail for Schiele and unsavoury accusations – might have been mined a little more, to take us closer to Schiele’s flaws or contradictions. This said, the story of Egon and Vally is tender, fresh and involving – and was my personal favourite.

Throughout The Flames, the period detail is lovingly rendered, a quality that shines above all in the stories of Adele and Edith Harms. I thoroughly enjoyed the window on Secessionist Vienna, with its rigid etiquette, illicit outlets, and battles between commerce and art. At times perhaps, the sisterly relationship between Adele and Edith veers a touch unsteadily between bourgeois predictability and high drama but, in Edith’s story, something radical ultimately emerges. Under the day-to-day pressures of married life, Egon Schiele’s boundless charm and sensitivity give way. He becomes more objectionable to the reader, but more powerful as a character, with sharper, darker contours. We watch uncomfortably as he instructs Edith, his new wife, to masturbate as she poses naked for him. On another canvas, disturbingly, he immortalises her as a stiff, puppet-like figure.

Story by story, woman by woman, The Flames is kindled by mystery, desire, and Haydock’s own resonant prose. It’s an absorbing encounter with Schiele’s struggle, art and intimates, and it reminds us that his work still has the power to startle today, with its uncanny modernity and unselfconscious sexuality. In this auspicious debut, Sophie Haydock brings a striking sense of Schiele’s life and talent, blazing, to the page.

The Flames is published by Transworld.

Alison MacLeod's Tenderness is reviewed here by Jane Rogers.

No comments: