Readers, especially Virginians, who follow him in this task will have the pleasure of feeling at home in many parts of the story: These include Hollywood Cemetery, an especially fascinating house that many will recognize, and a number of Richmond names that show up here and there.
However, those who expect a flattering picture of Virginia's Civil War obsessors should be warned: Their portrait is not what I am sure they would wish. Still, if the reader can face this and can handle a bit too many complications, this book should provide some fun. Rozanne EppsLove and a Doll
"The Silent Woman" by Susan Dodd (William Morrow $25) is a historical novel based on the life and times of OskarKokoschka (1886-1980). The story primarily takes place after World War I, when Kokoschka has been addled by war and distraught by the loss of his beloved Alma Mahler, the widow of the maestro Gustav Mahler, to another man during his absences on the front.
After the war, Kokoschka takes refuge in Dresden where he is a semi-guest of Herr Posse, the director of Dresden's art museum. Upon arrival, he is sickly and, at this point, only slightly deranged, but he is no longer inspired to paint. Enter Hulda, the young, simple housekeeper of Herr Posse's residents. Hulda is almost immediately drawn into Kokoschka's madness because he confides in her and calls her Reserl, the name of a girl he had an obsession with as a child. Reserl believes she can nurse his mind and body back into health with the delicate, tantalizing meals she prepares, and which Dodd meticulously describes.
Reserl knows that Kokoschka will never love her, but after several sensual encounters, she wants him to love her, even though she suspects his instability. As everything starts going awry, Kokoschka goes over the edge and commissions a life-size doll made in the image of his life's love, Alma Mahler. When the doll arrives after countless letters to the dollmaker detailing, erotically, his desires for the authenticity of the form and smell of the doll it's not what he described or expected.
It's intriguing that, even though he is tormented to the point of anguish over a lifeless, life-size, lump of a woman that he dresses in a costly fashion, he can still be true to art. As a professor at the art academy he instructs his students that, "Sight that is our weapon. All that is false must be destroyed by our eyes."
I admit that it took a few pages for me to sink into the book and Dodd's generous use of ellipsis, but in the end, Dodd does an impressive job of bringing this period of Kokoschka's life to light. She weaves all the fascinating relationships and interactions together with language that flows easily. Her descriptions of Dresden, Kokoschka's students' art work, and how he saw life when he was uninspired and finally when he chose to paint again, are vivid Heather FieldsHeads-Up:
The finalists for the 2002 Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction are: Jonathan Franzen for "The Corrections," Karen Jay Fowler for " Sister Noon," Claire Messud for "The Hunters," Ann Patchett for "Bel Canto" and Manil Suri for "The Death of Vishnu."