An intriguing debut novel about the early life of muse and intellectual Lou Salomé.
Russian-born Louise von Salomé is determined to receive an education at a young age; unfortunately, her early instructor, Pastor Hendrik Gillot, falls in love with her, despite their 25-year age difference. Lou and her mother, Louise, flee to Western Europe to obtain more suitable, sexually untainted instruction for Lou. At Malwida von Meysenbug’s literary salon in Rome, Lou meets Paul Rée, a writer and gambler. They quickly form a cerebral partnership, and through Rée, Lou meets Friedrich Nietzsche. The three want to establish a commune but are deterred by family disapproval and the refusal of both men to accept Lou’s resolve to devote her whole being to intellectual pursuits, without the constraints of marriage, children or even sexual dalliance. Lou alternates between the two men but eventually grows frustrated with Nietzsche’s instability and his jealous, conniving sister Elisabeth. She and Rée move to Berlin, establishing a salon where Lou thrives, publishing her first book and attracting still more admirers, while Rée grows discouraged. In Rée’s absence, Lou is enticed into marriage—celibate by her insistence—with Persian scholar Friedrich Andreas. Author Atala, with a background in comparative literature and philosophy, brings life to 19th-century historical figures, although at times they seem unnaturally self-absorbed. Less convincing is Lou’s allure, her physical and intellectual gifts notwithstanding. Perhaps true to the spirit of the time, the prose is sometimes overblown and dramatic, like the characters themselves. Lou fears “any touching of loins” despite cohabitation and marriage. While Atala’s novel is well-written and researched, it would be enriched by additional context and depth for some of the secondary characters who may not be as well-known to casual readers. Similarly, development and description of the fabulous European settings are given short shrift. Still, Atala offers a captivating glimpse into a notable period of history and intellectual growth.
Fascinating fictionalized biography of a brilliant woman who should be as renowned as the men who loved her.