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Joanna Scott: Arrogance

Joanna Scott’s third novel is about the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who died in the post-World War I influenza pandemic aged only twenty-eight. While controversial in his time, he has come to be recognised as a great artist. While the novel does certainly contain many biographical details, this is not a biography but a novelist’s view of an artist. Scott gives an impressionistic view of his creative powers, his intensity, his love for what he can see, feel and touch, his life in the present, without any concern for the future or for what society thinks of him. We move backwards and forwards through his relatively short life, from his not always easy childhood, to his death in 1918 and beyond. Scott tells three stories. The first is a third person account of Schiele, the second a third person account of Vallie Neuzil, Schiele’s mistress, till he married Edith Harms, and the third an account by an unnamed girl, who spies on Schiele when he is with Vallie, and tells her own story, which continues to well beyond World War II.

Schiele was the son of a stationmaster in Tulln, about twenty kilometres from Vienna. His mother was Czech. Schiele had two older sisters, one of whom died. After her death, another girl was born, Gerti, of whom Schiele was inordinately found – there is an undertone of incest between them. Schiele’s father was something of a drunk and a violent man and on more than one occasion he severely struck his son. Even as a boy, Schiele took to drawing and painting but his father despised his work and destroyed some of it. His mother wanted only for her son to become an engineer. Though he was fascinated by trains, it was as an artist, not as an engineer.

While Scott certainly focuses on his childhood, she is more interested in his life as an adult. He meets Vallie when she is seventeen and he is twenty-one. It seems that she had been a model for Gustav Klimt and may have been his mistress. The pair moved to Český Krumlov, where Schiele’s mother had been born, but they were not welcome there. Vallie cavorted around half-naked and young girls were invited to model for Schiele, which the locals did not approve of. The girls were banned from visiting Schiele but many continued to do so without their parents’ knowledge. The pair moved to Neulengbach, where they had the same problem and Schiele was arrested for seducing a minor and producing pornographic drawings. He was taken to jail, first in Neulengbach and then to St Pölten. Life was hard in Neulengbach but easier in St Pölten. Indeed, he thought he might quite like to stay there. But the seduction charge was dropped and, after accounting for time served, he only spent three more days in jail for the other charge.

What makes this novel so interesting is not the biographical details of Schiele’s somewhat tempestuous life, but how Scott shows the artist, temperamental, yes, but also a man who is determined to experience life, such as when he takes Gerti off to Trieste when he is sixteen and she twelve, without his parents’ knowledge or permission, and is most interested in seeing the sea, or his sheer enjoyment of female company, partially sexual, of course, but not entirely. Scott is certainly interested in his life but is more interested in how his life made the artist that we now know and how the artist thought, behaved and reacted. And, as an extra, she shows the lives of Vallie and the unnamed girl, both of whom live on well past the death of Schiele and have their own lives, not just as reflections of Schiele’s life but with their own thoughts and concerns. There have been many novels of artists and their lives but this must be one of the best.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Ticknor & Fields