Discussion With lori hyland
Author and Fine Artist Lori Hyland Discusses Sign of the Aleph and New York
Lori, what jumps out quickly is your deep, abiding love for Paris — as well as your interest in both its artistic and underground history, particularly during the Nazi occupation years. What was it like for you to write about this place you love so much, but to do so in a wartime setting? What qualities about Paris do you find so wonderfully endearing to emphasize in the novels?
For good reason, so much has been written about Paris reaching into all parts of one’s soul. Like all tourists, in the beginning for me it was the beauty, the ambiance, and the unification of all its parts as one. Paris offers so much, it can be overwhelming. At times it’s difficult to parse through and determine what’s touching you more.
As an artist, I thought my main focus would be the Jeu de Palme, because it was about the art stolen from the Jews and collected to be grafted on to Nazi hands. But for me, in the end, it all became Notre Dame, an enduring presence for nearly a century…. open, yet as I found, hiding its secrets well.
So ultimately it became a matter of curiosity and investigation. What did Paris in general, and Notre Dame in particular, witness during those years when the Nazis inhabited the city?
Can you give some insight into how true events from that era helped build the narrative arc of your story?
Like many writers, I asked myself, what would I do under these circumstances? There are many protagonists in Sign of the Aleph, all of which I have a deep affection for, but in the end I chose Arlette Benichou, a young Jewish woman with an Aryan appearance. Like most people living under the Nazi occupation, she is deeply traumatized; the death of her family and witnessing the Gestapo arresting her beloved grandfather elicited a vengeance that becomes both the narrative of the story and her motivating force.
You populate Sign of the Aleph and New York with strong female protagonists, flawed and strengthened by tragedies in their lives — Arlette losing her family to the Nazis in Sign of the Aleph; Madame Jamette losing her husband at a young age and then turning into a critical heroine in both books. Madame Jamette, Arlette, Maya and Rose Valland are all strong characters, each a heroine in her own right. Even superheroes. What qualities did you emphasize in creating such empowering women?
Each of these women represents a part of what every woman has inside her, given the circumstances. All acted with incredible will, generated from the events swirling around them and the passion that burned inside. Yet, even as each is so similar, each one is different; their causes and circumstances aroused a passion and expression of belief that needed to be told.
There is also a most memorable male protagonist across both books, French Inspector Tourette. As you developed Tourette, what enticed you most about him? What did you like most when writing his character?
I have a great affection for Tourette. He’s an idealized man who expresses himself with consummately fair action, even as he’s inwardly defying the pain and angst within himself. At every turn, he pro-actively did something to bring justice, nurturing those whose losses were an affront to their humanity. By trade a true investigator, Tourette has a consummate eye for the foibles of the Nazi enemies around him and a hatred for the French who collaborated. He knows his art, and a great deal more about many things, and nothing escapes his chiseled eye.
In New York, you present a trio of important secondary male characters in Chance and McDougal, both young men finding their way in a turbulent, racist, war-torn world. Both of them helped, and were then graced by, Jamette in Paris, and went on to assist her in a much bigger way in New York. Plus there’s New York banker Cyrus Montgomery, who enters Jamette’s life — and becomes central to the story. We also see through Chance’s and McDougal’s stories how Jamette, and their own experience as young black men in the 1940s, continually shapes them. What did you find most intriguing about these characters as you wrote them out?
Let’s not forget Peter, the savvy young gay man and Jamette’s buddy who started out as the paramour of a Nazi Officer in Berlin and ended up being the front man for The Ritz Hotel in Paris. Landing in New York only added to his “creds,” as everyone’s “one and only lover” and knower of everything. McDougal is a young black man who served in Patton’s Army in World War II, uneducated and considered insignificant, but who rescues one of the most important paintings in the world and is recognized as a hero.
Chance is mysterious, a man of many colors and races who knows just what Madame Jamette wanted and needed, and was there to serve her. Finally, there’s Cyrus, the rich banker who knew just what he wanted to add to his life: Madame Jamette.
If we’re discussing protagonists, we must also bring up the antagonists — and you’ve created a great one in Nazi art dealer Bruno Lohse, who emerges from a secondary role in Aleph to become the inimical force in New York. In writing about Lohse, you created a layer of sophistication, elegance and taste in a man who was, by all measures, an evil war criminal. Why was it so vital to show the human side of Lohse while also making it clear he was a monster who happened to deal in art?
Monsters are not monsters unless they have a flip side. The many art dealers who thrived under the Nazi occupation were the most despicable, because they stole for themselves and their patrons, the patrimony of the western world.
Nothing was off-limits, and no price – in money or human salvage – was deemed too high to get it. These people live for art, and no act is too heinous to have the coveted painting to satisfy a craving unfathomable to the normal mind. Lohse and his cohort Gurlitt acted with impunity;
Lohse was so elegant and impeccable, and Gurlitt so secretive, that they were left alone and unsuspected. They were well known by their colleagues and museums during the tumultuous years after the war, along with the collaboration of the Swiss banks.
What draws you, personally, to antagonists in the books you read?
Antagonists can be interesting, but many times are banal and one dimensional. Take Bishop Xavier, a product of his lonely early life who scrambled to the top position in the Church through cunning and advantage. His position brought the children of the wealthy into top positions in the Church as a payback to their patrons. And, of course, there are the sadistic and brutal Nazis; they, too, have to be known to be recognized.
It may surprise those who know you to see how graphically and directly you portray the Nazis’ heinous acts, both in Paris and New York. You wrote these sections very deliberately. What did you feel was most important to point out about Nazi actions and their occupation – and the perils and usually violent outcomes of authoritarianism?
Especially today, the acts of the violent right in America has its clear analogy in the genesis of the Nazi party: Berlin 1933. I find the January 6th storming of the Capitol analogous to the burning of the Reichstag. The right committed to violence with the accord of the Supreme Court, and millions of people, in supporting their agenda. This alone creates a cause for renewed action in support of our Democracy.
In Sign of the Aleph, you dive behind the scenes and lay out the shameless agreements of convenience made between Jewish film directors and Nazis.
The collaboration and camaraderie between Hollywood and Berlin was profitable for both sides. With the rise of the Nazi party, and the blatant and brilliant propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl, Hollywood was given an unequivocal signal to reckon with the Nazi Party. They didn’t, because there was too much for them to gain in the short-term.
It wasn’t until late in the war, when it was known that the Jewish population of Europe was being sent to death camps, that a shift took place. The most shameful part is that,
at that time, Hollywood was dominated by Jews.
New York is set in a bustling American Impressionism, jazz and be-bop post-war scene in the city after the liberation of Paris. Your portrayal of 1946 New York is such a contrast to the more downcast portrayal of a war-torn France. What about post-war New York fascinates you so much, and in what ways does Jamette reflect your own proclivity for bringing art, music and expression together in your own daily life?
There was euphoria in the air; America had triumphed over its enemies. The Cold War had not yet begun, the G.I.s were home, and it was time to celebrate. The times brought jazz and art to a zenith never before seen, along with a moral obligation to save Europe.
I savor this as a touchstone memory in my life that this is the way it is supposed to be — not just for that time, but to bring into our lives every day.
What surprised you most about that time period in New York as you were putting the book together?
The heightened hysteria fueled by the new jazz and art being titans of the renewed culture. Harlem was the center of the music, along with the reemergence of the great European conductors. And there was so much art that had never been seen before, making the public giddy.
Many novelists say that, when creating their characters, they include a little of themselves or what they wished for themselves. What aspects of Jamette and Arlette do you feel you personally embody, and which character qualities would you like to enrich or further illuminate within yourself?
It is no secret the author brings forth the hidden recesses of the mind when creating a story. Personally, I find it an honor for the character I create to act out my motives, dreams, anxieties, pain and everything else that makes us human. Arlette acts on her vengeance, perhaps not in a way I would do it, but I am clearly within her; I recognize and learn about myself through her.
I adore Madame Jamette as well, creating an atmosphere of warmth and elegance, bringing enemies together, and satisfying men’s lust. And, of course, there’s Jamette’s supreme accomplishment; saving herself, the girls who served her clients, and collecting art and artists that at the time were disdained.
Why did you choose to feature the particular, famed artists whose works you selected as set pieces for scenes, and for memorializing these artists (e.g. Schiele) in each book?
There was an art movement and school in early 20th century Vienna that produced the great artists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, turning points in the western art canon. Because I love them so much, I had to pay them homage. I feel the same way about the artists referred by the pejorative entarte Kunst, that were burnt by the Nazis and disparaged by western critics.
It’s safe to say that both Sign of the Aleph and New York portray just how far one’s character can rise – or fall – when faced with wartime conditions, an occupying force and shameless greed. What are the critical aspects of a good character that you enjoyed most writing about? How does this echo the crisis of character we’re seeing at all levels in society today?
Whether an antagonist or protagonist, I seek the essential part of what makes a character who they are. I don’t have to like them or hate them, but the story demands the truth about their character and who they are. Without this, no amount of narrative or description will save the story.
I see no “crisis of character” any different than any other time we have been telling stories. It’s all the same, just existing in a different form, reflecting time and place.
Not surprisingly, art plays a huge role in both novels, since you’re a fine artist and impressionist who has created many fabulous works. Can you describe your art to us, how your love of art and your personal artistic taste made its way into the books, and how art plays such a huge part in the plots of each book?
Art is my life. I reached a point where I could no longer paint, as my large-scale abstract paintings were too demanding of my strength. I switched to writing. It was a natural transition, as painting and writing are one and the same in many ways, each savoring its own form.
You only fairly recently began writing fiction, after years as an accomplished artist. What are the similarities and differences in the creative process between writing a story and composing a painting? Tell us a bit about your creative process, and why words and brush strokes are two of your favorite things.
I don’t give too much conscious thought to either, once I am in the process. I stand in front of the easel, place my materials, put on some really junky music so I don’t get too involved with my mind, and let the many materials I use speak to me.
After painting for a time, one gains a certain amount of rhythm and ability in using what is offered, similar to writing. You just have all these fabulous options; in a way, one is as good as another. It comes down to intent and spirit.