Art is risky. Art is dangerous. It threatens power structures and the establishment, and thus controlling who is allowed to produce art is an essential feature of fascist governments. We see this conflict today playing out around the world, both abroad and domestically, with the president attacking the press, journalists, and artists critical of him. Censorship and control play a fundamental role in fascism: in the mid-twentieth century, the Nazi German government purged art and artists alongside the other peoples they deemed undesirable. It is this era Courtney Maum transports readers to with her third novel, Costalegre, which explores the question of who is allowed to produce—and control the production of—art.
Costalegre is set in the seaside Mexican town of the same name just before the onset of World War II. Lara and her mother Leonora have fled Europe for their beachfront mansion, and have brought with them a bohemian bunch of artists and misfits wanted by the Führer for existential crimes. Among them are the surrealist painters Konrad Beck and Antoine Legrand, the writer C., and sculptor Jack Klinger. These characters, while fictional, are loosely based on heiress Peggy Guggenheim, her daughter Pegeen Vail Guggenheim, and Max Ernst, André Breton, Djuna Barnes, and Constantin Brancusi.
The novel unfolds through the diary of fourteen-year-old Lara, who punctuates the narrative with her drawings and asides about gardening. Lara distills the world for us; by the same token, her limited life experience limits our point of view. But she also frees us from the predispositions of the adults around her. She is well aware, for instance, of her own lack of control. Her bedroom in the house is separated only by a curtain. She wants a door, and spends much of her time agonizing over getting one before eventually realizing her mother will never allow it. That frustrated desire epitomizes Lara’s struggle through the novel. She is a girl surrounded by powerful adults. She is denied opinions, denied education, denied her desires. Lara’s only power comes as narrator, writing down the events unfolding in the novel. Her privileged position allows her to serve as a curator, like her mother, who collects artists so that she may control her own world as well.
The novel’s plot is a latent force, a distant threat, but never a distraction—which isn’t to say there are no conflicts. Lara’s brother and father remain in Europe, and their condition remains uncertain throughout the novel. News of the coming war occasionally punctures the group’s isolation, but more often the absence of news causes the characters more anxiety than any news itself. Even when they learn of Japan’s military expansion, the news “brightened everyone,” since none of them actually knows anyone there. Removed from the dangers of Europe, the ragtag artists and their benefactor focus on their own narcissistic anxieties: they’ve extricated themselves from danger, so news of the world on the brink of global war doesn’t bother them. This privilege undermines our sympathy for them. While they are refugees—Konrad escaped an internment camp—they seemingly have little regard for the crisis facing anyone else. This reflects back an ugly picture of our own time, in which the privileged, the wealthy, and the financially successful can rise above threats to humanity.
Wealth is central to the group’s survival. Leonora pays to extract her artists from Europe, but their colony is far from some kind of survivalist homestead. They have exited Europe for a comfortable life where they possess time and opportunity to paint and write. Only Lara seems to acknowledge this privilege by recalling the servants left behind in Europe, like Henri, a driver made redundant by the lack of a car to drive in Mexico where “the staff comes with the house.” They make overtures of class consciousness—Legrand convinces Leonora to dismiss the servants. However, despite their intentions, the household falls apart. Even making coffee is a struggle—Lara compares life without servants to living in a “coal bunker.” Konrad might want to do away with hierarchies, and Legrand may feel self-conscious making art around servants, but they are also dependent on these class structures. Even when the servants are hired back, the artists never see the irony of their privileged position. However, the privilege to produce art comes at a cost, Maum suggests. The artists serve the whim of their patron, Leonora, who controls the wealth. It’s a catch-22; wealth provides the means, but access to wealth has restrictions. There is no real freedom to create art, only the obligation to wealth. Even Lara enjoys the privilege of journaling because of her mother’s wealth.
Leonora has amassed a collection of artists, which doesn’t seem all that different from amassing a collection of artworks, objects she prizes. She’s the arbiter of who and what should have the benefit of salvation. Her artists lack the power to escape Germany without the help of Leonora’s money, and although superficially they are riding out one of the worst periods in history in relative comfort, they do so only at Leonora’s pleasure.
Leonora awaits a ship filled to the brim with art smuggled out of Europe. She’s tied up a small fortune in pieces by the artists she has smuggled out, and in some cases, the sum of their portfolios. She curated the collections, though, and the contents of the ship represent her power, her authorship over these artists. If the art she has selected survives, she will have written the story of these creative works. If the ship fails to arrive, her power will be diminished. The ship pops in and out of the narrative, marking the relentless passage of time and providing a rhythm to the group’s exile. It also reminds us of the imminent threats that remain: like the art aboard the ship, Stephan and Papa are absent from the safety of Mexico.
If there is anything resembling a plot, it is Lara’s struggle to discover who she is, or who she might become, and her struggle is a commentary on art itself. “I’ve brought along my art supplies and of course I have this diary, but other than writing and painting and looking nice for Mumma, it’s unclear what I’m supposed to do,” Lara writes as the novel opens. Isn’t this the question all artists ask themselves when faced with a blank canvas, a blank page, or an instrument? What are we supposed to do? It is through Lara’s innocence that this truth is exposed.
In Costalegre, Maum warns us about the threat of concentrated power, and by extension, the threat of wealth on freedom and art. Leonora’s wealth gives her power. She has, after all, leveraged her wealth to save herself and her favored artists. She is the gatekeeper, and her wealth essentially decides the value of the art—not the artists, whose agency in the matter has been removed. Leonora alone determines the success or failure of a work of art, and although she’s carried along her menagerie of favored artists, they concede the power of judgment to her. Leonora dictates her opinions to Lara, making her complicit: “Mother never expects me to comment on the paintings, to say they’re good or bad. She needs a witness to hear her call them something that they aren’t. And then that’s what’s said in public. That will be the impression that is decided on.”
Leonora doesn’t care about Lara’s opinions any more than the artists’. She merely uses her daughter as a means of furthering her own control. Wealth can be wielded to dictate ideas, Maum warns us. There are few warnings more dire in an era of oligarchs, concentrated wealth, and the rise of fascist governments. Although the artists Leonora has collected at her estate in Costalegre have the advantage of avoiding the horrors in Europe, they’ve sacrificed their agency and the liberty to create without the weight of Leonora’s criticism.
With Costalegre, Maum demonstrates her adroit versatility. Her first novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, is a literary romantic comedy that also happens to be dark and sad. Her second, Touch, dips into the near future to offer up a technological dystopia. With Costalegre, she has given us a dystopia from the past, more relevant and frightening today than many of us thought possible.