THE LUZERN PHOTOGRAPH is a psychological crime novel, a contemporary neo-noir mystery in which a notorious late-nineteenth century photograph impacts a contemporary murder. The novel is being published by SEVERN HOUSE (UK publication September 2015; US publication January 2016. French language rights sold to Rivages, Paris; Russian language rights sold to AST Publishers, Moscow).
Early pre-publication reviews just in from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, KIRKUS REVIEWS and LIBRARY JOURNAL:
William Bayer. Severn, $29.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8546-3
Three narratives propel Bayer’s crafty whodunit. In the present, performance artist Tess Berenson has just moved into an Oakland, Calif., apartment that was previously occupied by a professional dominatrix, Chantal Desforges. Tess, who realizes she met Chantal at a kickboxing class, is hit hard when she learns the woman was murdered. In 1912, a strange man displays an obsessive interest in Lou Andreas-Salomé, a prominent intellectual, who numbers both Nietzsche and Rilke among her romantic conquests and who has come to Vienna to study with Freud. Her pursuer became interested in Lou after learning of the eponymous photo, taken in 1882, in which she posed with two men—one of them Nietzsche—harnessed to a cart as if they were animals. Extracts from the unpublished memoirs of Maj. Ernst Fleckstein, a Nazi fixer, who crosses paths with Lou in the 1930s, add another layer to the puzzle. Bayer (Blind Side) keeps the suspense high as he artfully toggles among story lines and thoughtfully develops his characters. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management Literary Agency. (Jan.)
The Luzern Photograph, Author: William Bayer, Severn House, Pages: 288 Price; $29.95, PubDate: January 1, 2016, ISBN: 978-0-7278-8546-3
Edgar winner Bayer (The Dream of Broken Horses, 2002, etc.) continues his romance with psychoanalysis with a riff on Lou Andreas-Salomé’s persona as analyst and femme fatale. In 1882, three people who probably should have known better—physician Paul Rée, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and 21-year-old Lou Andreas-Salomé—memorialize their decision to live together in an intellectual ménage à trois with a photo showing the two men pulling a cart with the young Lou, who brandishes a twig fashioned into a whip. Years later, a young painter offers a now middle-aged Frau Lou, who’s come to Vienna to study with Freud, a watercolor based on the photo as a token of his admiration. Still later—in the present day—California dominatrix Chantal Desforges creates her own version of the trio with two naked, hooded young men pulling her in a chariot in the Oakland loft she calls the Eagle’s Nest. Into this simmering psychodrama drops Tess Berenson, a performance artist who loves the light, airy loft so much that she doesn’t mind the jail cell built into its corner. While she’s not studying muay thai martial arts or rehearsing Recital, a performance piece about a grande dame carried away by her own sense of entitlement, she learns all she can about Chantal. Her downstairs neighbor, painter Josh Garske, knows lots about Chantal’s work, since he monitored some of her sessions on a hidden camera. And Mistress Lynx, a fellow domme, fills Tess in on the personal side of Chantal’s life. But when Chantal turns up dead, Tess’ interest verges on obsession. Does the solution to Chantal’s murder lie in Oakland—or do its roots date back nearly 150 years to Vienna? Nazis, sadomasochism, and psychoanalysis always provide a heady mix, and a little murder thrown in pushes Bayer’s latest into the radioactive zone.
*[starred review]“…the time line moves between Vienna and Oakland as the plot unfolds and melds the two narratives. In this clever psychological thriller, Bayer (Switch; Mirror Maze) chillingly and skillfully depicts the divide between good and evil. Suggest to Thomas Harris and Michael Connelly devotees.”
The source of the title, THE LUZERN PHOTOGRAPH, is the famous carte-de-visite photo shown below.
This photo, taken in a studio in Luzern in 1882, depicts the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, his best friend at the time, Paul Rée, and, in the cart holding a mock whip, twenty-two year old Lou Salomé. Often described as “infamous, “scandalous,” and by at least one commentator as a “sexual minefield,” this historic photograph has been reproduced in almost every book about Nietzsche and Salomé, and also on several book jackets. In the novel, Tess finds the background story behind this photo fascinating…and even more so when she discovers that its imagery was appropriated two times: once in Vienna in 1913, and again shortly before Chantal’s death with Chantal Desforges playing the Lou Salomé role.
THE LUZERN PHOTOGRAPH: AUTHOR Q&A
Q: How did you come up with the idea of integrating the long deceased Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937) into a contemporary crime story set in Oakland, California?
A: Who knows where ideas come from? What I do know is that for years, ever since I first learned about this amazing woman, I wanted to use her in a novel. But I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I knew I didn’t want to write an historical novel; I’d done that with Isabelle Eberhardt (Visions of Isabelle). Then one day it came to me: suppose the “infamous” photograph taken in 1882 was re-enacted in the present day? So, starting from there, I worked out the idea that it was re-enacted or re-worked twice, once in 1913 during Lou’s year studying with Freud, and again a hundred years later in Oakland.
Q: What is it about this photograph? Why were you so fascinated by it?
A: I think it’s one of the most fascinating photographs we have from the nineteenth century. I think it would be interesting even if the three principals weren’t so famous. And remember that when it was taken they were virtually unknown. But there we have Lou Salomé, Friedrich Nietzsche and Paul Rée assuming strange poses in a configuration that can only be described as bizarre. What was going on between them? What were they trying to say? Many people have pondered these questions. I have my own ideas about this picture …which are laid out by several characters in the novel.
Q: Salomé is known primarily for her connection to famous men: Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud. So was she just an extraordinary muse, or was there more?
A: I believe there was a lot more. But first let’s look at her role as muse. You don’t cause Nietzsche to fall in love with you at age 20, then become the long-time lover of Rilke, then become a close comrade of Freud unless you are pretty extraordinary. Lou was extraordinary. For one thing, she was no kind of courtesan. For another, she was a serious intellectual. Her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, covers a wide range of topics and is almost always brilliant. She knew and was greatly respected by most everyone in her era prominent in the fields of literature, art and theatre. She was also, I believe, very neurotic, a truly troubled soul. The biographies will tell you a lot about her character. I’ve appended a short reading list at the end of the book for people interested in learning more about her.
Q: In the novel you have her intersect in 1913 Vienna with a young man who later played a huge role in 20th century history. Did they ever actually meet?
A: That would be a huge stretch. That being said, I tried hard to make their encounters in Vienna believable, and I used the famous photograph to seal the connection. This young man you mention (we won’t name him here lest we create a “spoiler”) was living in Vienna then, and there’s been a lot of fruitless speculation about whether he and Freud ever met. I took that idea and placed Lou Salomé between them. She was studying with Freud to become a psychoanalyst. He might have said to her something like: “You’re not ready yet to take on a patient, but if this young man, who seems obsessed with you, is so anxious to meet, then feel free to meet him. At the very least you’ll have direct experience with a transference relationship.”
Q: Lou’s quite a bit older than the young man. Did you consider having them have an affair?
A: Never! She would never have done that. In fact, the way I’ve written their scenes together, she finds him fairly repulsive. Anyway, at the time she was involved with a brilliant young psychiatrist and follower of Freud, Victor Tausk. No, her interest in the young man is strictly professional. She’s quite shocked when she sees the drawing he’s made for her, a drawing that perversely parodies the famous Luzern photograph.
Q: You’ve set the contemporary story in Oakland. Any particular reason?
A: I’m fond of Oakland. It’s become quite an interesting city that relates to San Francisco much as Brooklyn now relates to Manhattan. It happens I had a friend who had a large live/work loft in a downtown building there. Inspired by her loft, I changed it, upgraded the building and placed my main character in it. Then I started walking around the city, including the First Friday Art Walks, finding locations where I could set scenes. The more time I spent in Oakland the more I liked it and the more I felt it was right for my main character, Tess Berenson.
Q: You’ve written Tess’s sections in the first person, yet you’re a guy.
A: I had a very good experience writing two novels in the first person in a female voice (The Magician’s Tale and Trick Of Light) so I had no technical problems writing as a female. In fact, I started my first draft in the third person, but after seventy or so pages, decided to rewrite them in Tess’s voice to get close in and add intensity. I tried that and after fifty pages felt I was on the right track, so I stuck with it.
Q: You’ve structured the book by alternating historical chapters with present-day ones. Was there a reason?
A: I wanted the historical scenes to resonate with the present-day scenes. For example, when we see Lou in Vienna in one chapter, we have characters speaking about her in the next, etc. In fact, the novel could be restructured in a completely different way without my having to change a single word. I tried it and it worked, which presented me with a problem: which structure should I use? (The alternative structure would consist of four parts: I, The Photograph; II, Encounters in Vienna, 1913; III, Documents; IV, Oakland 2013.) By running the chapters together rather than alternating them with the contemporary story, I could create a more literary novel. In the end I decided to stick with my original concept and alternate historical and present-day chapters.
Q: Tell us about your character Ernst Fleckstein, a.k.a. “Samuel Foigel?”
A: I invented him because I felt I needed a character who would link the Lou Salomé story to Tess’s story. After I invented him and started to work with him, he took on a life of his own. I think Fleckstein may be one of the best characters I’ve ever created. His journal, excerpted throughout, tells the story of a man who truly changes…and all because (at least according to him) of a single and relatively brief encounter with Lou Salomé. Fleckstein (and his later self-created identity as Foigel) is, I believe, the glue that holds the story together. At one point I even contemplated writing a full-length novel in Fleckstein’s voice, but in the end decided he’d serve me best in his current role.
Q: There’s a lot about Freud in your novel. He’s spoken about a great deal, he appears in an important scene, and you’ve included a fictional letter from him to Lou Salomé. In the present-time chapters your main character, Tess Berenson, is in therapy with a neo-Freudian analyst, your invented character Ernst Fleckstein practices as a self-taught Freudian analyst, and near the end of the novel you introduce a Freud debunker. Why so many references to Freud and Freudian psychology?
A: Indeed, the book is “drenched” in Freud. Whether his theories are correct or psychoanalysis actually “works” are open questions, but I think it’s hard not to view him as a powerful thinker and writer. I was struck, when I visited the Freud Museum in Hampstead, to find a photograph of Lou Salomé on the wall of his reconstructed consulting room, exactly where he’d placed it when he lived and practiced in Vienna. (Their exchange of photos is documented in their collected letters.) Since they became such close friends, it seemed natural to bring Freud into the historical chapters, and then to echo his presence in the present-day Oakland chapters. On a personal note, I’ve long been fascinated by Freud and his ideas, and spent some years in therapy with a neo-Freudian analyst back in the 1980s when I lived in New York.
Q: A final question regarding Tess, your main character and first-person narrator: she’s a performance artist and you even integrate several of her performances into the story. What made you decide to make performance her profession?
A: The Luzern Photograph is basically a murder story, and in a murder story you need someone seeking to solve the crime. That role is usually played by a detective. I’ve written my share of detective novels, but in the last few books I’ve preferred to write about what one might call artist/investigators—photographers, a courtroom sketch artist, and, in this one, a performance artist. Tess becomes intrigued and then obsessed with the murdered dominatrix who used the name Chantal Desforges, and previously occupied her Oakland loft. I made Tess a performance artist to give her investigation a raison d’être: she needs to find out who killed Chantal and why in order to work through her obsession by creating a performance piece based on Chantal’s life. This is what is at stake for her, and, hopefully, it is this quest that propels the story.