introducing readers to writers since 1995

July 21, 2005

Author2Author: Susann Cokal & René Steinke, pt. 3

by Ron Hogan

Rounding out her thoughts on yesterday's question about Breath and Bones, Susann writes, "All of Famke's posing and philandering is in service of her great quest for love, another nineteenth-century plot element. But I think that, almost from the first, the reader has to realize that Famke is chasing the wrong man, so I hope it's not giving too much away to say this is an anti-love story, with the sort of ending I might have preferred for a book like Jane Eyre--if there were no 'Reader, I married him.'"

Susann Cokal: I'd love to get more of your reflections on the same issues: Baroness Elsa's independence and her artistry--both her work as muse and model and her own self-transformation, as she was her own greatest artwork. I'm also interested in the way you represent her syphilis and its effects not just on her life but on her artwork as well. In sickness, a person is at her most physical--the most focused on her body--and when she makes art, she's living in her mind (I'm taking these ideas somewhat from Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain). But there seems to be a lot of overlap between Baroness Elsa's art and her physical being; how do you think of their relationship?

holyskirts.jpgRené Steinke: I'm fascinated by your discussion of Famke and how you handled her manipulation of her sexuality for power or at times simply survival. I'm rooting for her in all of those scenes you mention.

As for posing, I also got very interested in the phenomenon of the tableaux vivant. The Baroness is a "Living Statue" at the beginning of Holy Skirts ( a version of "Living Picture"), basically a nude Greek statue. And I believe that this early experience (being seen as a sex object and a work of art) affected her later manipulation of her outrageous costumes. Wearing these outfits--the tin can brassiere, the flashing taillight, the birdcage necklace--she is sometimes a sex object, but she is always a living, breathing work of art of her own making. That was very important to her, and her way of asserting herself as a sexual agent and as an artist. For Elsa, the two energies were often intertwined.

In the early part of the novel, I struggled with Elsa's dependence on men, but I decided that when I read her autobiography, she didn't seem dependent at all--she seemed in control. So in representing her inner life, I try to show Elsa's independent thinking, even as she may be economically dependent on a husband or lover. She is such an independent thinker, finally, that no man will have her for long. She's too threatening. This is one of the sad things about her life. The more self-realized she becomes, the less attractive she is to the men she desires.

On the issue of Elsa's syphillis, she believed that it freed her mind for art, just as other artists of the period (and earlier) also believed that syphillis might even be a source of genius. I read a lot about syphillis, which at the time was rampant and often undiagnosed because the symptoms are so varied, both in kind and intensity. Elsa also believed that her mother had infected her with the disease in childbirth, and she felt a spiritual connection to her artistic, sensitive mother all her life, so the syphillis is a way that she's reminded of that legacy. So, like sexuality, sickness (in Elsa's case, syphillis) is all tied up with the art she makes.

If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.