‘I don’t think I have ever been contemplated. Or maybe I mean considered.”
So says Lara, the fifteen-year-narrator of Courtney Maum’s new novel, “Costalegre.” Lara is speaking of her own highly specific situation: a girl who longs for stillness but whose mother, a domineering and eccentric modern art collector, yanks her from one continent to another; a quiet teenager surrounded by hard-drinking, bon-mot-spouting, highly neglectful adults — painters and sculptors who, it seems, can only teach her “how to be upset with everything and turn things upside down.”
But Lara could be speaking for all precocious, unappreciated kids. They know what it’s like to feel yourself, as Henry James’s bright young protagonist Maisie does, “a little feathered shuttlecock that [adults] could fiercely keep flying between them.” Maum’s slender, intelligent “Costalegre” is about many things: art as spectacle and art as discipline; life as joke and life as tragedy; the role of unreason in paintings and politics. But most of all, it’s about the youthful desire to be, in Lara’s words, contemplated and considered — to be, in short, loved.
The novel opens in 1937. Hitler has declared a group of modernist artists “the most degenerate in Europe” ; Jews, homosexuals, and other “deviants” are being put in internment camps. And so Leonora Calaway, Lara’s mother and a supporter of modernism, decides to whisk a group of vulnerable artists away from Europe and to the Mexican resort of Costalegre, Lara in tow. (Leonora and Lara are largely based upon Peggy and Pegeen Guggenheim; Salvador Dalí, Leonora Carrington, and others appear in modified form.)
In Costalegre, the motley crew awaits a boat laden with more European avant-gardists — “all the other loonies,” Lara calls them — as well as Leonora’s treasured artworks. (“Waiting for Godot”-style, the boat is always en route, never arriving.) The adults drink and bicker, share dreams and make the kinds of oracular pronouncements surrealists tend to make, discuss the art market and act with self-indulgent absurdity, “putting papaya mush on their nipples and throwing the maid’s bell in the pool.” Lara is simply ignored. “Costalegre” takes the form of Lara’s various and lonely jottings: her diary entries, her sketches of local flora, her letters to the brother and the friend left behind in Europe. It’s a portrait of the young woman amidst the artists.
Despite her best efforts, Lara can’t win her mother’s attention. Perhaps it’s because she’s not crazy enough; it’s tough to compete for craziness with a thoroughgoing surrealist, and Lara’s surrounded by them. Perhaps it’s because she’s not genius enough: “I have been told that I have talent,” Lara laments of her painting. “But no one says I have a gift” Perhaps it’s because the adults make even the gargantuan egoism of adolescence seem like humility.
Maum wonderfully inhabits Lara’s in-progress sensibility. Of the plane ride over, Lara writes, “There was the sound of the engines and the propellers slashing through the night. Except for the views, which are dreamlike, as if you’re finally a bird, it’s terrible to throttle through the space and sky.” She intends to complain of the terror only to get distracted by the beauty, working things through as she’s writing them down. Some of the loveliest moments occur when Lara begins to register Costalegre’s loveliness: “the milk here already smells like flan, sweet and grassy, like hay that’s just been rained on.”
Lara often thinks in the romanticizing rhetoric of youth: “I think how nice it would be to have someone to hold you and to tell all your secrets to, instead of you, small diary, who has no arms at all.” Just as frequently, we hear the grumble of teenage pique: “I felt like screaming for it — was I truly so uninteresting that I didn’t make anyone curious?”
Things happen in “Costalegre.” Lara tries to run away; a goat is freed from the slaughter only to have “his throat gnashed by some horrid animal”; artists begin to go missing — maybe because they’re playing a joke, maybe because they too have had their throats gnashed. Most dramatically, Lara meets an artist unlike the others — a German Dadaist who has abjured silly painterly posturing for serious aesthetic discipline (and sculpture). He’s the one who might offer a way out of the madhouse that is her life.
But what happens is less important here than how it feels. Maum’s first two novels, including “Touch” (2017), were coolly satirical; “Costalegre,” though often funny, is warmly earnest — a sentimental novel in the best sense of the word. At one point, Lara writes, “The idea that someone thinks of me in private, thinks of how I could be happiest, fills me with both a name-day kind of excitement and a giant grayness.”
Youth is a time of excitement and giant grayness, when everything seems amplified. “Costalegre” makes us feel this time, and these feelings, again.
By Courtney Maum
Tin House, 240 pp., $19.95
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’