Book Review: 'Costalegre' is heart-felt tribute to real WWII heroine

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"Costalegre" by Courtney Maum, author of "I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You" (2014) and "Touch" (2017) is a fictional take on Peggy Guggenheim’s bold move to rescue an important group of Dada, Cubist, and Surrealist artists from Paris, where their existence and their art was threatened by the imminent invasion of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1937. Hitler labeled these artists “cultural degenerates.” In this story, the loosely associated group of artists are relocated to Costalegre, “a mysterious resort in the Mexican jungle,” where Leonora Calaway (Peggy Guggenheim) had lived in a previous life.

Calaway has included her 15-year-old daughter, Lara (Guggenheim’s daughter, Pegeen), in the exodus and Lara tells the story from her own point of view in diary form. Her clear expressions of dismay at the artists’ eccentric behavior and crassness is mixed with a fair amount of her appreciation, and even awe, of their works of art. She is at times distressed and at other times comforted by one or another of this very quirky cadre of expatriates. But her story takes a big turn when they finally meet up with one familiar to them all, “the outcast Dadaist sculptor Jack Klinger,” who has been living for years before their arrival in self-imposed exile near Costalegre.

Klinger is at once brilliant and taciturn. But he naturally takes on a kind of parental guidance for young Lara that she comes to thrive on and is often disappointed by, as is the necessary way of things for such a young soul in pursuit of an identity. His natural ability to have an honest, sincere and sometimes bracing impact on Lara is contrasted by her mother’s almost complete inability to parent her daughter. A mother’s love and appreciation are far from Leonora’s natural abilities and Lara suffers from this neglect in many ways.

The novel is a wonderful depiction of an impressionable, lost and yearning young artist in a strange and exotic land. But when finished reading this very original work, we come to see it as a serious investigation of how art and literature play such an important role in shaping culture and society, and how evil dictatorships are threatened by this creative influence. When writers and artists must scatter under threats to their lives and art, the situation is chaotic and unmooring. The big question looms about how this chaos influences the creation of the art and writing.

It was Guggenheim’s dream to find a place to create a museum for the purpose of housing great and ground-breaking art forms to be appreciated by the world. This novel is a heartfelt tribute to the heroic actions of a great woman and tells the tale of what happens in between times when cultural freedoms are at risk and the whole deal is witnessed by a young and talented girl.

Courtney Maum will appear at 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, with Sarah Trudgeon, "New Poems" and Brendan Mathews, "This Is Not a Love Song" at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar, 11 Housatonic St., Lenox.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at charrington686@gmail.com

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