If you tried to imagine what a novel set in the lead-up to the second World War, that revolves around an heiress-art patron who makes a last-ditch effort to save some of the 20th century's most important artists (and their art), would be like, you'd probably conceive of something grandiose, overwhelming in its heft—both moral, and probably literal. What I'm saying is: It's easy to imagine a big book.
What you might not have anticipated is the slim, tiger-fronted Costalegre, Courtney Maum's third novel, which might seem slight upon description—the story is told via the diary and letters of a 15-year-old girl—but which is impactful in its spareness, and all the more evocative of the wild freedom of creation because of its restraint, like a perfectly defined Brancusi head.
Costalegre is a war novel, yes, but it is also about the conflicts between art and commerce, mothers and daughters, sexual awakening and alienation, and our collective urgent need to be seen, to be known. It is a subtle and nuanced story about immoderate people and gross excess, and it is a pure pleasure to read, as it offers the opportunity to steep yourself in a place and time that are unfamiliar, but recognizable. Its reality is grounded in absurdity, but that only makes it feel more real.
Narrated by Lara Calaway, whose wealthy mother Leonora has absconded from Europe to Mexico with some of the world's most prominent artists, Costalegre was inspired by the lives of heiress and art patron Peggy Guggenheim, who did the same thing in the late-1930s, and who had a fraught relationship with her own daughter, Pegeen. Read it and be prepared to find yourself researching the women upon whom this story is based, whose lives were both ecstatic and tragic in ways that are captured in Costalegre, though not precisely replicated.
Below is my conversation with Maum about the novel, the appeal of writing from the perspective of an adolescent girl, and how the environment of the actual Costalegre informed the tone of the book.
What was your entry into telling this story from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl?
So originally, I was looking into the history of the Guggenheim—specifically the Peggy Guggenheim—lineage for a completely unrelated project that did not see the light of day. And what happened was, I started reading Peggy Guggenheim's memoirs, and I saw this very visible erasure of her daughter [Pegeen]. A young woman who wanted to be an artist, and she was nowhere. She's mentioned here and there in the memoirs, but in the way that someone would mention a good friend's pet or something in passing. And, especially knowing that Pegeen Guggenheim wanted to be an artist in her own right, I became very obsessed with the idea of a young woman having art as a rival for her mother's love. I was really interested in what it would have been like for this young woman to be surrounded by not just talented artists, but the world's most talented artists, and they all have her mother's attention. Every artist has her mother's attention, except her.
But I didn't act on this sort of obsession right away because I wasn't sure I was up to the task of writing a historical novel. I had an idea in my head of what a historical novel is and sounds like and information that it contains. I think I was thinking at that point of what a commercial historical novel is. And I didn't want to write that. I didn't want to get mired; I knew I wanted to set it in Mexico. And I was so overwhelmed by what the research would look like to replicate what pre-World War II Mexico would have looked like and how information would have arrived and how people would have gotten around that I just didn't go there.
But the idea of this—of Pegeen—basically, it just wouldn't leave me. And so I started… I call them "sketches." I mean they're verbal sketches, but I like to play around using handwriting on the page to try to get the voice right. And once I thought, Well, I could write it from her point of view and it could be a diary, then I had my in.
I felt, as a writer, that I know I can write that way, because I understand that the things that would be important to her are things that I can write in a really universal manner. And, you know, if she's 15, and basically raising herself, her front of mind preoccupation is actually not going to be the war. It's going to be these more immediate things of how people are treating her and whether her mom is ignoring her or whether people like her or not, think she has talent or not—the war coming, it's just going to be this background thing. And that, I knew I could do. I could do it in a way that I thought would honor this particular character story. So that's how it all started.
I think what's so striking about writing a book that's grounded in history and real people, but subverting the reality of what happened by adding surreal touches—like, even Costalegre's cover has a tiger on it, and there's no tigers in Mexico—means that you get to have a strange kind of freedom, where you can get at a different kind of truth in terms of the story and the characters.
It's funny, while I was doing the research—and I researched this for almost a year; I wrote it very quickly, but I researched for a very long time—a lot of the work, when it came time to write the book, was letting go of the facts that I had learned, because some of them were so weird and so cliché surrealist, that I knew it would read as fiction, actually... I would think, Oh, that's so over the top surrealist. It's an obvious like surrealist metaphor.' And so what was fun was researching up to a point—and I've read actually that Amelia Gray used the exact same approach when she wrote Isadora—until you have just enough room to feel that you can take your creative liberty to invent the rest.
There's a lot of composites in the book of artists who actually existed, and every single one of them—without exception—is worthy of their own book, many books, many biopics just about their life. So I had to watch out that I didn't fall in too deeply with my own interest and admiration or horror for these people, because then they take the book over. So that was both fun and the challenge; reining it in was one of the challenges.
When you do know anything about the artists of that time, there's just not that much that's incredibly subtle about their behavior. But I guess that era lent itself to kind of over-the-top symbolism.
Well, you know, I was thinking about this morning because I was speaking to an artist about behavior, how creatives have to behave now. And we were talking about that, like, the wild behavior—what seems to us as wild behavior—of surrealists, specifically during this time period. And I was thinking the thing about creative people today is that we have such an awareness of personal brands, and writers especially are encouraged to build this brand. And we live in this surveillance era where you can be outlandish, but only to a point because you might end up trying to go for a tenure track position and some costume that you wore, the way that you behaved, or something you said at a lecture, these things are recorded. They're shared. And I'm not sure that the artistic freedom—what people understand artistic freedom to mean—I think it's changed a lot. So it certainly was a thrill to imagine these people, who are just cloistered in the middle of the jungle, acting very badly.
There really is so much brand-building going on these days, which is particularly necessary, it feels, as means for creative people to make money. But what Costalegre shows is a different type of interaction between art and commerce, in terms of the patronage that Leonora offers the artists she's sequestered, which led to a really complicated power dynamic. What was it like exploring that?
It sort of made me nauseous a little bit, like the way you get from motion sickness, because it did seem like with Peggy Guggenheim—and I think this is probably true for a lot of patrons of artistry out there—that there'd be these periods where the artist felt on equal footing as the patron. And that would go on until perhaps they had spent too much time together as an energy shift, as the dynamic shift and then the patron might wield their power in a way that made the artist feel like a second-class citizen or something or that their footing was very tenuous.
So, specifically with Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst, that was very difficult to read about, because my understanding—the way that I read it—was that Peggy Guggenheim was really taken with Max Ernst, as a man and as an artist, and really fell for him. And she basically said, "Marry me and I'll get you out of this internment camp." So basically, like, "I'll save your life."
Meanwhile, he's in love with Leonora Carrington. It was mutual. And he, I mean I think there was an initial chemistry [with Peggy], but from what I read, he did not love her back, and, in fact, resented her most of his life for sort of being under her heel. And that was hard to read, because I think it's true of writers, it's true of artists. We want to feel free, we need to feel free, to do our best work. I really believe that.
I mean the reason I think I wrote this book in the manner in which I wrote it—which was a pretty pure, unfettered manner—was because no one was waiting on it. I basically wrote this book in secret. I wasn't under a book contract. I was pretty sure that the book was not going to go to my regular editor because it's just not quite commercial enough. And so I had this intoxicating sense of liberty, because no one was waiting on this book. But now the book belongs to a publishing house, so now it is my duty to promote it. And it's a very funny thing that artists, regardless of whether they're 18th century, 19th century… this dance that you have to do—especially if someone like myself, and you have had a child, or anyone really with a 9 to 5 daytime responsibilities—you have to do this weird shape-shifting thing where during your working hours, you're untethered and feral and wild and free. But then you have to turn into this person who responds to emails promptly and can be put on a panel or speak intelligently about their book.
That's not to say at all that I'm not grateful for any publisher support—of course I am. But it is a really, really weird thing that creative professionals have to do, where they're all weird and funky while they're making their work, and then they snap into this hyper-professionalized brand ambassador [role] to support it. That's super weird.
Among the many different tensions that exist within Costalegre, that one between art and capital—and different kinds of capital too, because there is also social capital, like the power of protection of being able to marry someone—or, basically, freedom and responsibility, must have been a particularly instructive one for a 15-year-old girl to witness. What was interesting about writing about these things from her perspective?
Basically, the entire story is about a young girl who's trying to find a place in the adult world and is coming to terms with the realization that she might have to bring herself up alone. And, specifically a 15-year-old in 1937, your future is very much tied to your sexuality and your attractiveness and whether or not you're getting a husband and how soon are you getting that husband and what family is he coming from and all these things.
So, especially because Pegeen Guggenheim was a very attractive person. She really has this look to her that is quite striking. And her mother played off that and really made quite an ado about her looks. She had blonde hair, which was an anomaly in the family. And so I thought very much about this person who she's among, a lot of men. You have artists saying they want to do nudes of her—of a 15-year-old—in the book. So I was also thinking of someone who's coming to terms with her sexuality, her body, the power of her looks versus the sort of limited power of her mind, because she was undereducated. She kept being pulled out of school by her mother and what does she have?
When the world sees you as a woman, men see you as something to consume and possess. And someone her age—despite her elevated position in society—is going to have to come to terms with that. And poor girl just doesn't have any relationship experience, not just romantic but platonic. She has no stable relationship from which to draw energy or solace or comfort to help her navigate what a healthy relationship is and isn't.
And so I think it's such an important age. I think it makes sense to have her tell the story at this specific age. If she had been much younger, then you don't have the sexual awareness that makes the book dark, and if she had been too much older, it would have been too late. What I like about the age that she's at in the diary is that we still hold out some hope for her that someone will step in and protect and mentor her or just befriend her in a way that tells you.
Well, I do have that hope for her in some ways.
I do too.
Maybe Lara is off somewhere, she got to California alone.
I think she's a Reiki practitioner. [laughs]
Beyond the vivid depictions of all these artists, the environment of Costalegre is so alive, and I think you capture so vividly the beauty that's inherent to living in the jungle, basically. Did that dominate a chunk of your research time?
It definitely did. I am terrible with anything that has to do with gardening or botany. I live in Connecticut, basically in the woods. And now that I have a 5-year-old it's only more evident how very little I know about the natural world. So this was certainly a personal challenge. Luckily, Lara is 15, and although she's privileged, she's undereducated. So she is in a situation where she can ask other people—just like I have asked other people—"What the heck is this?" And then she sort of marches around the book and instead of pulling the names for things out of her head, she's actually pulling them out of a book that existed. It's no coincidence that my narrator doesn't really naturally know things about botany either.
But I will say the place that this book is based on that exists, Costa Careyes, is somewhere that I've actually been lucky enough to spend a lot of time. So, the sensation to what it's like to sleep there, for example, or wake up in the morning, or the wild animals that are there… that all comes with my direct experience. The kind of heat, the moist heat. The very weird stables. The insane insects.
And so the tiger on the cover, for example… some people are like, "There's no tigers in Mexico." And my response is like, "Well, are you sure?!" This place where I spent a lot of time… maybe two years ago when I was in Careyes researching, and I was with my family—I brought my daughter who was 3 at the time—there's this moat around the house. And we were walking across the moat—it's not like a castle, but there is a moat—and there was the biggest serpent I've ever seen in my life, just beheaded.
And I mean, a really large snake. Like a cobra. And it was beheaded... And then you have these mapache, which are kind of like these wild raccoon monkeys that will take over your house. And in fact, they took over the house while we were there and we were living in it. You had to lock yourself up basically at night... When we were there with our daughter this last time, there were tarantulas all over the place, there were scorpions. Every night you really have to be on guard in a way that you don't have to be in Connecticut. Well, we have those ticks.
Yeah. You do have ticks.
We certainly have ticks, which, perhaps they're even more dangerous. But, that was thrilling to me and I really, really wanted to communicate the awe and terror I have toward the nature in this particular part of Mexico.
Costalegre is available for purchase, here.
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