Pornographer of Vienna – Lewis Crofts

I have been keeping a note of which books I’ve read since I’ve been offline – or mostly offline – but only titles, so I’m not writing from much more than my fading memory. Which gives a different tint to things, I guess, because it’s coloured a little by what I’ve read since. This is the first of several novelisations of actual historical characters – not chosen as a theme at all, surprisingly.

The subject of the book is an achingly talented painter, son of a syphilitic railwayman in Austria at the start of the 20th century. His name is Egon Schiele. No, I’d never heard of him either. The cover promises a “reek of wet paint and sex” and “opium pipes and absinthe chasers”. Well, there are some, I suppose, although it’s extremely disingenuous to suggest that the book is crammed full of them. Worse, the writing doesn’t “reek” of anything, it’s quite flat and humdrum.

I can’t decide if Schiele actually had an interesting enough life to justify a book. He appears to have had (a) a lot of talent and (b) an obsessive desire to paint girls in the nude (girls often here being children, and he seems to have been unaware why anyone would have a problem with this). But he also had a complete lack of common sense (see above) or any commercial imperative, leading to him being apparently chased out of town by outraged parents and/or loan sharks. But he often gave up on a good thing and died of flu, quite young, but not so young he couldn’t have done something real.

Was he a misunderstood genius? A unique but flawed talent whose destiny was to fall short of the greatness he might have achieved? Maybe he was, but I can’t bring myself to get too excited about it.

I think the problem I really have is that I can’t get over how clearly made up the conversations are. I can’t see any way that the author could know what he would have said in any given situation. I will accept that he may have been in a place where he could have had any or all of the conversations in the book but they all feel fake. Having read similar books since, I still think there is something missing from this one. I get the impression that there may be something to be said either about Herr Schiele, or by Mr. Crofts, but this book ain’t it.

See also:

Last King of Albion – about Harold II and the Norman invasion.

The Damned Utd – about Brain Clough and his time at Dirty Leeds

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