Ulli Lust, in her mid-twenties, an aspiring artist in Vienna, is in love with two men: Georg, the 20-year-old actor, with whom things have fizzled out in bed; and Kimata, the Nigerian refugee, with whom she flirts at a party and falls into a madly passionate affair.
Then, there is a third man in the background – her son, Philipp, age five, who is raised by his grandparents in the country and whom she visits so infrequently that he hardly recognizes her as his mother …
This web of relationships has immense potential. Ulli Lust’s direct, sketchy drawings, which defy virtuosity, unravel a sense of urgency and power that the reader can scarcely avoid.
Ulli Lust caused a furore with Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life about her self-destructive trip to Italy as a teenager. The book was translated into 13 languages and won numerous awards.
Now, the native Austrian who lives in Berlin, has unveiled another chapter from her youth. In How I Tried to Be a Good Person, she processes an explosive ménage-à-trois in early 1990s Vienna that culminates in an attempted murder.
Casting taboos and consideration aside, she probes deep into one of the darkest abysses and links her experiences to grand themes: love and sex transcending age- and cultural boundaries, women’s sexual self-determination, alternative models for families and relationships, ethnic prejudices, policies on refugees and the dream of a different society.
That is convincing because Ulli Lust neither paints herself as a victim nor a perpetrator, but as a young woman who is at times immensely naive, egotistical and sexually demanding and overwhelmed by the situation and her roles as partner, lover and mother.
Lust deserves plenty of credit for daring to address cultural prejudices and for embracing the ambivalences and stereotypes in her perception and her behaviour towards Kimata, instead of paring these back to be politically correct.
Her African lover endures her independence less and less and his jealously and demands lead to violent episodes that plunge her into fear and shock – nevertheless, she repeatedly lets him back into her bed. Paradoxically, precisely the repeated and lengthy staging of their sexual ecstasies undermines the intensity and complexity of “How I Tried to Be a Good Person”. In comparison to the rest of the story, they become curiously stereotypical.
Lust’s attempt at being “good” in the middle of this confused situation must be seen as a failure. At the end of the book, she doesn’t stand before us as a good person, but she is free and has regained her self-determination. The quality of these autobiographical memoirs is the openness with which Ulli Lust reflects on her failures and her complicity in them with great clarity and artistry.
By Christian Gasser
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
How I Tried to Be a Good Person
Written by Ulli Lust
Published by Suhrkamp Verlag (367 pages)
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 24 January 2018.