Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Two Souls: when introverts write about divas, a guest post by Mary Sharratt, author of Ecstasy

I'm pleased to welcome Mary Sharratt back to Reading the Past.  Her new novel Ecstasy, set in a richly imagined fin-de-siècle Vienna, focuses on Alma Schindler Mahler, a bold, musically gifted woman controversial in her own time as well as ours. I especially enjoyed its depiction of Alma's passionate nature and her struggles to define herself with regard to her considerable talents and her relationships with men. Ecstasy is published today by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Welcome, Mary!


Two Souls: When Introverts Write about Divas
Mary Sharratt

Alma Schindler Mahler, the heroine of my new novel Ecstasy, was everything I am not. She was larger than life. An exuberantly extroverted diva. The It-Girl of fin de siècle Vienna. When Alma stepped into the salon in her white crepe-de-chine gown, the air crackled with electricity, so mesmerizing was her presence. Artists, architects, and poets vied for her attention.

Gustav Klimt chased her across Italy to give her her first kiss when she was just a teenager. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at a dinner party and proposed only weeks later.

Her subsequent husbands and lovers included Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, artist Oskar Kokoschka, and poet Franz Werfel. But she was her own woman to the last, polyamorous long before it was cool, one of the most controversial women of her time.

I, however, am a wallflower. At parties, I struggle with small talk. I don’t covet Alma’s impressive list of paramours either, as much as I respect these men. I’ve been happily, faithfully married for nearly thirty years. While I certainly don’t judge or begrudge Alma for her adventures, I love my quiet married life.

Personality-wise, I have far more in common with Alma’s first husband, Gustav Mahler. Not that I presume to claim his level of genius—far from it. But he was an introvert after my own heart. In the woods near their summer home on Lake Wörthersee in Austria, he build a composing hut where he spent his mornings composing in pristine solitude. No one was allowed to disturb his creative trance. To me that sounds like heaven on earth.

Some Mahlerites blame Alma for his downfall. Despite the fact that Mahler died aged fifty of a hereditary heart condition, they appear to believe that Alma’s adulterous affair with Walter Gropius hastened Mahler’s demise. I think the most fanatical Almaphobes would love nothing better than to dig her out of her grave in Vienna’s Grinzing Cemetery and burn her remains at the stake for her perceived sins against Mahler.

Yet Mahler loved Alma as passionately as some of his fans seem to hate her. We can feel her indelible presence in his music from his Fifth Symphony onward. His most tender adagios are declarations of his devotion to her. In his tenth and final symphony, we can literally hear his heart breaking for her. He scrawled on the score, “To live for you, to die for you, Almschi.”

How could one woman could inspire such extreme emotional reactions? In the popular imagination Alma is the mercurial femme fatale. A voracious, man-eating seductress. But I knew there had to be so much more to her.

The introvert in me saw Alma’s other side—her secret self hidden in the pages of her diary. This Alma was a cerebral and paradoxically lonely young woman. Though lacking in formal education, she devoured philosophy books and avant-garde literature. She was a most accomplished pianist—her teacher thought she was good enough to study at Vienna Conservatory. However, Alma didn’t want a career of public performance. Instead she yearned to be a composer. Her lieder, composed under the guidance of her mentor and lover, Alexander von Zemlinsky, are arresting, emotional, and highly original and can be compared with the early work of Zemlinsky’s other famous student, Arnold Schoenberg.

But the odds were stacked against her. Women who strived for a livelihood in the arts were mocked as the “third sex”—the fate of Alma’s friend, the sculptor Ilse Conrat. When a towering genius like Mahler asked Alma to give up her composing career as a condition of their marriage, she reluctantly succumbed.

Yet underneath it all she was still that questing young woman who yearned to compose symphonies and operas. Shortly before her marriage, twenty-two-year-old Alma wrote in her diary, “I have two souls: I know it.” Born in an era that struggled to recognize women as full-fledged human beings, Alma experienced a fundamental split in her psyche—the rift between herself as a distinct creative individual and herself as an object of male desire. The suppression of her true self to become the woman Mahler wanted her to be was unsustainable and inhuman. Eventually the authentic Alma erupted out of this false persona.

What emerged was a woman far ahead of her time, who rejected the shackles of condoned feminine behavior and insisted on her sexual and creative freedom. Alma eventually returned to composing and went on to publish fourteen of her songs. Three other lieder have been discovered posthumously. Now her work is regularly performed and recorded.

Like unconventional women throughout history, Alma to this day faces a backlash of misinterpretation and outright condemnation. She was complex, transgressive, ambitious, and often perplexing.

Which leads us back to why introverts write about divas. The Urban Dictionary defines a diva as a woman who exudes great style and confidence and expresses her unique personality without letting others define who she should be. A diva is a woman who stands in her sovereignty and blazes a trail for other women. Even introverts like me need to claim our inner diva to truly dance in our power.

Delving into Alma’s complexities allowed me to embrace all the shadows and light in my own character. For Alma was neither a “good” woman nor a “bad” woman, but a woman who insisted on being fully human, whatever the cost. A woman who recognized that pure and impure, faithful and loose, madonna and whore are simply poisonous projections used to deny women their full expression of being. Alma was not any one color, dark or light. She was the whole spectrum. So it is with all of us. Regardless whether we’re cloistered introverts or glamorous socialites, every woman contains the totality, the heights and the depths.

This is why Alma deserves to be the center of her own story. She was not only a composer but what in German is called a Lebenskünstlerin, or life artist—she pioneered new ways of being as a woman that was in itself a work of art.

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her novel Ecstasy is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com


  1. Anonymous3:23 PM

    I hope to see her at B&N next week.

    Sarah OL

  2. Thanks so much for posting this, Sarah!!

    1. My pleasure, and thanks for the excellent post, Mary!

  3. Sarah, thank you for posting this guest post! I'm so excited to read Ecstasy -- it sounds fantastic. And I loved The Dark Lady's Mask.

    1. Hi Carrie, me too. Alma is a great character, and I love the term "Lebenskünstlerin" (it fits). Hope you'll enjoy this one, too!