Imagine someone wrote a book in which they imagined they were a boy from the countryside who went to the second-biggest city to study art. And imagine that imagined boy met another boy there who he’d known in the countryside but who’d reinvented himself as Jean – not the kind of name people have in the countryside – and become a successful art student. Would the first boy get along with Jean or would he be forever in his shadow? There you have it: Teresa Präauer's Johnny and Jean.
Boy number one renames himself Johnny, “the quiet one”, and watches as Jean climbs the cliché ladder to art-world fame. At first he imagines a friendship between the two of them and after a while they really do become friends, or at least I think they do. But every now and then Teresa Präauer gives us a jab to remind us it’s all in someone’s imagination:
I say I have to brush my teeth, shave, trim the hair in my nostrils and between my legs. Careful, careful, call Marie and Valérie.No, don’t forget, I’m a young man! A man never says between his legs of his penis or his testicles. That’s a phrase only girls use. I think I just leave the hair there as it is; it’s the late nineties after all, and people have a relaxed attitude to these matters.
And more and more as the book goes on, famous artists and fictional critics and even works of art walk into the room or stalk out of it, building on conversations with our imaginary narrator Johnny. Salvador Dalí tells him he’s a fool to dismiss his work just because it decorates a million provincial bedrooms, the New York art scholar Mary Schoenblum offers advice and Pippilotti Rist helps shy Johnny shed his virginity, although not in person.
There’s a lot of art and a lot of amusing pontificating and opinionating about art, as one might expect of a short novel about art students. There are some sweet side-stabs at practices and poses in the art world, from rich, bored wives opening galleries to poor, ambitious students working in them for free. Or white rooms with huge white lecterns at the entrance, at which ambitious art students’ heads hide behind open black laptops. Or performance art – performance art! – that fails to get videoed.
It’s hard, with Johnny telling the story, to dislike firebrand Jean with his mispronounced French and his gold tooth, the result of a punch-up between the two of them over a woman with two different names. When I was a teenager my neighbour told me never to trust a man with a gold tooth (and he should have known because he had one too and he styled himself a Trinidadian wide boy). I followed his advice here and sure enough, that Jean is not to be relied on, ultimately. But what fun there is to be had with him! Why not drink pastis in quayside bars, even if only in doubly imagined long nights? And why not let your art languish in a container while you tell stories in a New York pop-up exhibition space?
Präauer finishes her novel, which is not strictly plot-led but does have a plot, with a cryptic reference to a Cranach painting. It’s a delightful structural trick that made this already special book just that bit more special, to me. The writer is a visual artist herself, as you can judge by the cover, and I know the novel contains crumbs of authentic detail from her own time at art school. It also contains a great deal of fun with words and language, as did her debut Für den Herrscher aus Übersee. And it might just be a wonderful way of looking back at youth, that time of confusion, discovery and excitement, reinvention and imagination, with nostalgia but a good pinch of irony.