An excerpt from the novel Double Portrait
by Agneta Pleijel
Translated from the Swedish by
Dana Durasoff and Harald Hille
The following is an excerpt from Dubbelporträtt (Double Portrait), the latest novel from Swedish author Agenta Pleijel, based on the meeting of Agatha Christie and Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka in London in 1969.
At first, neither Christie nor Kokoschka want to meet, much less to have the painter render a portrait in celebration of the mystery-writer's 80th birthday. But eventually multiple forces bring these two personalities together, both in real life and in the novel. And this is where our exclusive excerpt begins.
The room is full of tobacco smoke. Kokoschka gets to his feet, bows over Mrs. Christie's hand and kisses it. She finds it comical, but he is Eastern European. Mrs. Christie is tall, he notes, and wrapped in something that looks like a light red tablecloth.
She sits down with a light puff in the armchair.
Be a good girl now, it won’t hurt. Max caresses her lovingly across the cheek and leaves them alone. Kokoschka sits down in front of her at the easel. She takes note of his lanky appearance. They look at each other and do not talk for a moment.
Mrs. Christie, he begins in a kind voice.
Mr. Kokoschka, she answers with a slight grimace.
You don’t think our meeting is a coincidence, do you? he says.
Of course, it is a coincidence, she answers. You have received a commission and are fulfilling it. I'm not particularly fond of the idea - just as well to admit it.
He gets up and moves the easel a bit restlessly. Then he takes out a folded striped apron from the paint box and ties it around his waist. It makes him look like a skinny scullery maid. His face is reminiscent of an old American Indian. Like someone described in a book by Karl May. Winnetou, probably.
I think we often overestimate chance, he continues. In fact, everything is interdependent and connected to what has happened before, and this determines the future. Let's get to know each other a little before we start work, Mrs. Christie.
I thought I was just going to sit still and be quiet.
You can change position whenever you want. It's just nice if you talk.
About what, Mr. Kokoschka?
Anything that comes to mind.
Nothing comes to mind. I do not like to have my portrait. Period. Unfortunately, I'm not much good at talking. But feel free to talk yourself.
Kokoschka lights a cigarette. He extends a glass of whiskey towards her. She shakes her head. She has never learned to drink whiskey, even though she has tried. She has also never managed to learn to smoke.
Have you really tried?
I have really tried. But you may drink. Go ahead and smoke. And talk as much as you want. Personally, I rarely come up with any topics of conversation.
Kokoschka bursts into laughter.
Let's talk about death, love and art, he suggests, in any order.
Mrs. Christie gives a faint smile. My grandson Mathew claims that you paint characters. That sounds gruesome. Unfortunately, I have not seen your paintings myself.
Kokoschka digs into the paint box and finds the childhood photo he received from Fischer and holds it out to her. She leans forward in the armchair to be able to see it and frowns. Then she shakes her head crossly.
Yes, that's me. A very long time ago. Let's not talk about death.
Then we’ll take art, Mrs. Christie. Who are you as an artist?
Mrs. Christie sighs. I'm deeply embarrassed, Mr. Kokoschka, that my husband and grandson have persuaded us to do this. I was violently against it. I write simple detective stories. My mother-in-law, my first mother-in-law, found that shameful. Write biographies of famous men instead, she suggested. In her opinion that would be more appropriate for a woman. Phooey.
Who would be an artist, Mrs. Christie, if not you?
Kokoschka looks at her from his chair with one leg crossed over the other.
Artist? It sounds pretentious, Mrs. Christie answers. I suppose you are. Mr. Kokoschka. And Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. They are admirable, I have read them. I've also seen some of Beckett's plays. To sit with sand up to your neck tossing off comments about nothingness. Nice and profound, and not for me. I've done the only thing I could, told stories about people.
Writing has allowed me to be let alone.
Kokoschka notices her hands. The fingers of her right hand are drumming against the armrest of the chair, lively and a bit arrhythmic. She does not seem to notice it herself, but it reflects irritation. The movement fascinates him.
Then we take love, Mrs. Christie, he continues. When did the girl in the photo first fall in love?
Mrs. Christie's features show a hint of annoyance. It is a cheap question; as if it came from an old geezer offering a little girl sweets during a train ride. One was constantly being warned about those old men. She shakes her head. She thinks for a moment and makes up her mind.
Mr. Kokoschka. Tell me about Alma Mahler. I’ve heard you knew her.
He's taken by surprise. Also by his own reaction. Alma, that was really a long time ago. He looks down at Mrs. Christie's feet in her sturdy shoes. He imagines water flowing over them. She's a water creature. The first impression always contains a truth. Mrs. Christie's fingers continue to drum.
He puts the photo back in the paint box.
There are no childhood photos of him, the boy Oskar. He was born in the small town of Pöchlarn but the family soon moved to Vienna.
No photos; one has to imagine sunlight shimmering in a gutter in Vienna's proletarian district.
A ten-year-old on a wooden staircase in a district without sanitation.
With grunting pigs around the houses and drinking water that must be fetched from a pump. People throw their trash everywhere. He sees his mother Romana coming with a heavy bucket of water. She hands him a piece of bread from her skirt pocket.
He chews on it absentmindedly. His tattered-looking father comes out of the house and settles down on the stairs, and the boy moves a bit out of the way. He catches sight of something amazing.
A dead baby squirrel!
It is floating on top of a half-disintegrated newspaper in the ditch. A little wet body, how did it die? An insect bite? A rat bite? The green morning light in the water forms a coffin of beauty around the baby squirrel, which disappears along with other rubbish.
Disgusting, says his father, everything ends in putrefaction and dissolution.
It is his father Gustav, a prematurely broken man with a caustic tongue. Comes from a family of goldsmiths, known not only in Austria but with offices in Paris and Madrid. Several in the family are well-off. Gustav has not gone much further than selling watches in the suburbs of Vienna. Later he had a subordinate position as a bookkeeper.
And then unemployed. He does not lack education, but mostly sits at home and drinks and finds support for his melancholy in his books.
If it hadn’t been for Oskar's mother, much younger and of more modest origin, who hustled around the neighborhood, working as a laundress here and occasionally as a mover there, making bread for bakeries and hawking tobacco, there would have been no food on the table. He has two younger siblings. Their mother is resourceful and hardworking. Her eyes can flash with anger. But she always finds a way to get by. He worships his mother.
He can no longer stand his father's gloomy predictions and can’t save the dead baby squirrel. He grabs his backpack with schoolbooks and slings it over his shoulder and leaves without a word. A house wall flares up in orange. He sees a carriage with a blue horse and a green coachman and a girl in a rose-colored dress in an avenue with purple shadows. He is not particularly good at schoolwork, but he draws and paints.
On a whim, he submits samples of his work to the Kunstgewerbschule when his schooling ends. Not an academy, rather a school for arts and crafts. He is accepted from among hundreds of applicants. It is accompanied by Gustav's whining: Are you going to become an artist?
The hell with that! You want to go around with a beggar’s knapsack like me?
But Romana is proud as a peacock. You are my son. You have been chosen to be great. We are both fire souls.
It's true: They were both born during outbreaks of fire.
Nothing can shake his conviction that the world speaks to us through light and color and that the eye was created to interpret them. That can be seen in a late photo of him and some painter friends, Schiele and Oppenheimer.
The others in suits. He in white tights and a cheekily cut-off formal tailcoat, and his head is bald. Hands in his trouser pockets and a self-conscious look on his face.
First exhibition: He covers the walls with black paint, so that visitors enter a dark room and the paintings have a shocking effect.
They are considered to be shapeless. Incomprehensible.
Offensive and shrieking.
All of that is racing through Kokoschka’s mind as he gets up from his chair by the easel and takes a few hesitant steps on the floor in front of Mrs. Christie. Memories swirl unexpectedly inside him. He is walking with his friend Loos in the swirling snow on Ringstrasse. His friend, the architect Loos, quite a bit older than him, contacted him after his first exhibition, which he found brilliant. Oskar represented the new Vienna, in opposition to the current stagnation in art, literature and philosophy.
Within his young self-confidence, however, there was a wound: women.
Sex drive and brothels. That was what was available. When his senseless love for a friend's sister ended with her breaking it off, he was thrown into an abyss of despair, melancholy and suicidal thoughts. He had by then begun to write, and his plays for Vienna's cabaret performers became ferocious and bellowing. About the superiority of women. The flatness of men.
No grammar, insane syntax. As in Murderer, The Hope Of Women. The man kills the woman. Before she dies, she stabs him with a knife, and he gives up the ghost. The sexes are so far apart that they can never reach each other. Everything has cracks. Every surface can burst, and every bond can be torn apart. Nothing is what it pretends to be. The only thing to hold on to is art.
He's unhappy, and Loos is supportive.
But not only Loos, also Karl Kraus finds him brilliant as a painter. Karl Kraus praises him in his magazine Die Fackel, which keeps track of the pulse of the times. Kraus is Vienna's sharpest critic and pulls the pants off double standards, the dual monarchy and anti-Semitism.
Kokoschka sits down at the easel, with Loos's voice still in his ears: look around you, Kokoschka. Vienna is full of shit. Statues of shit and busts like shit sausages. Castles like piles of shit and opera houses of crenellated shit.
All of this deserves to perish. He remembers what Loos called meaningless decor: a crime. Pompous bragging--Atlases with bulging muscles, goddesses with swelling breasts, cherubs and grape vines--surrounding a reeking interior.
Loos designed factories and residential buildings in restrained austerity and a total lack of shit. He was not just a friend but like a father.
They agreed on the ability of genuine art to tear down a stage curtain and penetrate falsehood. They both adored Gustav Mahler's music, it grabbed them by the throat. Trumpets, percussion and drums, a roar of thunder. Storms and crescendos that escalated to orgasm soon to turn into tenderness, a sincerity and simplicity that brings tears to one’s eyes.
Kokoschka does not know how to tell the ironic, austere Mrs. Christie about Alma. He takes his stick of charcoal out of the paint box, weighs it in his hand but does not use it.
Alma Mahler, he says slowly, as if tasting the name. It's true that we had an affair for a few years.
Yes? Tell me.
The simplest thing is probably to say that I was affected by a love that was too big for me. It must be called an obsession.
They sit in silence for a while.
Say a little more about obsession. That interests me, Mrs. Christie continues.
Kokoschka takes a sip from the whiskey glass and pushes his hands through his sprawling mop of hair.
You should know, Mr. Kokoschka, adds Mrs. Christie, that I don’t know a thing about Alma Mahler. We don’t need to talk about her. It was your idea that we should talk. I am content to sit quietly in the armchair thinking about my own matters.
You think it is chance that has brought us together, Kokoschka answers. I do not think so. It is also no coincidence that you ask me to talk about Alma Mahler. I was just not prepared.
As a young man, I was an unripened apple, Mrs. Christie. A piece of roughly hewn wood. Still, I was no longer a kid - I was nearly 30 when I first met Alma and was seized by a love that overturned my life. Do you really want to hear this?
Only if you yourself want to tell me, Mrs. Christie affirms.
I do nothing that I do not want, he replies.
He was not acquainted with Gustav Mahler's widow, but everyone in Vienna knew who she was. She was notorious, a magnet. She was the daughter of a dead painter, Emil Jacob Schindler: quiet landscapes and a fine colorist. And stepdaughter of another painter, Carl Moll: rather boring but respectable and sociable.
He himself soon acquired a certain reputation among painters, and the year Gustav Mahler died, Moll asked him if he wanted to paint Alma's portrait. There was a dinner at the home of Moll and his wife, Alma's mother.
Alma sat across from me at the table. She spoke of Nietzsche whom she adored. And about Wagner, who was a house god. She was different from all the women I had met. A strong jaw line indicated willpower.
Small mischievous locks peeking out from under her hairdo spoke of female coquetry. Lively glances were exchanged across the table.
Until then, I had barely seen my female companions; for a long time, I saw only myself.
Only idiots, Mrs. Christie, believe that eroticism is about conquest and exhaustion. Nothing could be more wrong. Eroticism is something completely different. In true eroticism, everything is just devotion.
We stepped into the music room where my easel stood. I can not just sit still and be watched, Alma said. She sat down at the piano and played--she was a composer herself--and sang from Tristan and Isolde. Do you know it, Mrs. Christie?
Yes. Mrs. Christie has heard Wagner in Bayreuth.
Tristan and Isolde is Liebestod, the death of love. The absorption into the whole. That was what it was all about. Alma was considered one of Vienna's most beautiful women. But it was not about that. She already felt as close as my own breath and at the same time like an opening to the unknown and to what is everywhere present. I lifted her from the piano chair and kissed her.
She returned my kiss. A river of light enveloped me. You probably know that yourself. On a street, in a forest, anywhere. The sky cracks open. The world opens up. From that moment, I saw her everywhere, on every street, in every stream, in every cloud.
We made love in her apartment in Vienna. On her small farm in Simmering, with a large photograph of Gustav Mahler by the headboard.
We could not tear ourselves apart, Mrs. Christie. We drank and breathed each other.
But the mourning period for Mahler was still ongoing, and she insisted that we must observe decorum and not show ourselves in public together. She traveled alone to Munich to attend the first performance of Das Lied von der Erde. When she got home, she was upset. Moody and absentminded.
This led to conflicts. We would get married, she assured me, when the year of mourning for Mahler was over. But we got into arguments. Then we made love. He stops talking.
Tell me more, Mr. Kokoschka.