Toads and Tempest is a playful yet at times dark novel, telling the tangled story of three remarkable historical figures: Alma Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Kammerer.
Alma Mahler, the “femme fatale” who tries to compensate for the loss of her father by enjoying countless lovers, Paul Kammerer, the controversial father of epigenetics who takes the secret of his amphibian experiments to his early grave, and Oskar Kokoschka, the “enfant terrible” of the Viennese art world in the early 20th century, a man who turns to unusual but inadequate means to cure his lovesick heart. In her novel, Julya Rabinowich examines the longing and desires that bind the three of them together. A fascinating remix of fin-de-siècle scandals and events between Venice, Dresden and Vienna.
Julya Rabinowich, born in St. Petersburg in 1970, has lived in Vienna since 1977. She is a writer, artist, simultaneous interpreter and a columnist for Austria’s Der Standard. Her debut novel Splithead (tr. Tess Lewis) was published by Portobello Books in 2011 and the German original version won her the prestigious Rauris Literary Award in 2009. She writes for the stage, with her work performed widely, and published two further novels before Krötenliebe (2016). Her first book for young adults Dazwischen: Ich (2016) is already a great success.
Katy Derbyshire was born in London in 1973 and has lived in Berlin since 1996. She translates contemporary fiction from German and occasionally teaches translation. In Berlin, she co-hosts a monthly translation lab and the feminist literary cabaret The Dead Ladies Show.
He put the brush down. The sound of the wooden handle on the wood of the palette. The brush rolled across the slanting surface until it came to a still wet daub of paint. His fingers in a night-blue film of oil. When he returned to his work after a long break he wouldn’t be able to release the brush from the paint’s embrace. He didn’t care.
Out of habit he took a few steps back, away from his work, to view the easel in its entirety. It is delusory to rely on the euphoria unleashed by a small piece of canvas, that section one considers successful, even inspired, at that very moment but which cannot stand up after being incorporated into the whole. That’s the way with every passion, so why not with painting, Alma would no doubt say. Would she? he asked himself. The right-hand corner of the picture floated in white emptiness, borne by traced lines of charcoal. The blue dress worn by the female figure in the centre sheathed the spectral outline of an unfinished body. The sheath was to define what was inside it. He was undecided. His fingers clawing into his smock, he stood by, feeling the stickiness on his skin, breathing in the intense smell of oil paint that made him dizzy after several hours, consciously hazarded like a drug with all its side effects. That dizziness had already been translated to a number of portraits – in the form of intertwined smears of paint, skin particles, twisted bodies, flowing hair. Since the bullet to the head during the war, he had suffered severe dizziness attacks.
He turned slightly aside and reached for the twisted back of the stained wooden chair for support. Thonet chairs from his mother. Thonet chairs, Romana Kokoschka had once said long ago, were good enough for his Vienna studio. “So you can sit comfortably with your visitors,” she had said. Before that, however, she had threatened to murder Alma if she didn’t leave him alone. Alma had reported in horror that his mother had paced up and down outside her window. One hand moving conspicuously in her coat pocket − and hurling pregnant glances towards Alma, who was hiding behind a curtain. It was no use.
He had kept the chairs, nonetheless. Sitting comfortably. As if that was what mattered.
Comfortably! Sitting! No time, no time for that. Time is flying, it’s galloping, carrying a person away like the back of a horse, straight into the enemy’s bayonets, but one still closes one’s eyes and hopes to be a hero, a tragic hero whose fate is determined by outside factors. A horse that he hadn’t yet bought, hadn’t been able to buy because there wasn’t the money for the time being. In the first year of the war his mother prayed that money would never come together, still hoping he would see sense. Like any mother, she had no wish to see her son on the frontlines on the outbreak of war, not even as a handsome dragoon on horseback.
“What do you say, Almi?” he asked, facing the figure resting on a sofa covered in velvet cushions behind the easel, one pale voluptuous leg crossed over the other, a brocade caftan turned back at a mischievous angle. He tilted the easel carefully towards her.
No answer came.
He paused for a moment as if still waiting for a response. Then he yanked off his smock impatiently and buried his hands in it again, wiping leftover paint off his fingertips. He threw the smock aside. Walking towards her, he reached out a careful arm for the high, round bosom looming above her neckline.
Even the very first touch broke the spell entirely.
His fingers slid across moon-pale plush.
The doll’s eyes stared through him.
He clasped her and forced his tongue between her half-open, aggressively pink lips, tasted fabric softened by his saliva, to which his warmth had lent a temporary temperature of its own, a foreign body in his mouth. Her lips were fraying. He spat tiny balls of fluff onto the studio floor long after this inelegant embrace. He cursed as he did so, the curses emitted from between pursed lips; he wished he could spit them too onto the paint-strewn floorboards. He bit into her face, filled with hate, and shoved the doll aside; she fell onto the sofa and tipped slowly and smilingly back between the cushions, slid down the wall, came to a standstill with one arm bent at a ridiculous angle, legs still intertwined like a pretzel the way he had positioned her before the beginning of the session.
“You useless velvet orifice,” he said to her and turned away. “You miserable toad!”
Once the maid had sat the doll at the table in full regalia he stood up, bowed and edged the plate caringly in her direction. The doll smiled her benign smile, head slightly tilted. Her dressed hair fell to her shoulders in waves. On the table, a golden-brown roast chicken steamed in a porcelain dish with curved handles. Alongside it was a smaller dish with a large silver spoon immersed in potato salad dotted with cubes of bacon. He poured himself wine out of the carafe, filled her cut wine glass as well and imitated her head movement. His hair stood on end, still damp; he had just taken a bath. The wick of the candle crackled. Otherwise there was absolute silence. The maid moved off quietly towards the corridor that led to the kitchen. She was wearing good white gloves that he had bought her – touched by the tenderness with which she treated the doll, the care she took to lay the table. By the attentive gaze that often came to rest on his face, but also fairly often on his work.
“To us, my dearest,” he said and touched his glass to hers. The glasses clinked quietly; it had been a hesitant motion. Reserl sighed in the kitchen, echoing the clinking glasses.
“Come back,” he called out, “Madame has no appetite.”
In the night he woke with a start on the sofa in his studio. The smell of paint was still there. The room was swaying. He was shivering. The blanket was on the floor, presumably kicked off in his restless sleep. The candle on the chair next to him had burned out. His mother wouldn’t see the thick wax marks on her Thonet chairs for several weeks. The matchbox next to it was empty. Beneath the window, steps beat a rapid retreat. Someone was running. Someone screamed.
A drunk voice, several of them, perhaps an argument amongst drinkers. His heart raced. He didn’t reach for his chest, behind which it fluttered and juddered against his ribs. He reached to his side. He could see next to nothing in the semi-darkness but he knew she was there; he reached for her shoulder, felt silk, then once his arm had followed his hand to the place where the nightgown ended, the gentle plush of her
hand. Then he was wide awake and dropped the fabric hand. It fell like the limbs of the unconscious.
He wasn’t in Vienna. He was in Dresden.
Behind him lay war and Alma’s betrayal. He felt involuntarily for the scars on his torso and his head, new markings on the map of his body, his present, the future, witnesses to his misfortune and his fortune. The images of the fall and the terrible injuries never quite left him. He remembered the sound with which the bullet had pierced through his ear, only to leave his body via the neck. The crack of his bones, the shuddering of his entire skull. The feeling his head was finally about to splinter into all the fragments into which this love had broken him. He could still describe the colour of the bayonet that sank into his flesh, even in the middle of the night; often, the tones had unconsciously entered his paint mixtures and he had concealed them again with even darker colours and brutal brushstrokes. The dead horses’ cadavers, the bodies exploded into one another like a collage, comrades and enemies united in motionlessness and weight. Yet he had been rescued then, against all likelihood, and taken back to Vienna in a critical condition. Back towards her. He was certain it was only that expectation that had kept him alive, although the doctors were of a very different opinion. Worse than the pain from the wounds and the horrific dizziness – she had not once rushed to his sickbed, despite all his begging.
To be continued tomorrow…