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A woman brilliant and beautiful

A novel of a true figure who attracted famous men and treasured them for their brains.

By Angela von der Lippe

Counterpoint. 282 pp.

$14.95 (paper)

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Reviewed by Michael Harrington

Fate, it seems, condemned Lou Andreas-Salomé to be known not as much for her writing or her psychoanalytic work, but for the men she associated with: Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud.

She was brilliant and beautiful, and in her time as in ours, it was the latter that drew attention and caused her to be seen not as a colleague to the geniuses she was drawn to (and who were drawn to her), but as a potential conquest or, worse, a coquette. And perhaps she was. What she truly seemed determined to be was a complex human being not easily reduced to a footnote of literary gossip.

In her novel The Truth About Lou (first published in 2006, and recently reissued in paperback) Angela von der Lippe, who edited a collection of letters between Andreas-Salomé and Rilke, presents a rich reimagining of her life.

Born in 1861 into privilege - she was the daughter of one of Czar Alexander II's generals - she early on demonstrated an independence of mind and a passion for the intellectual that got her in trouble.

To break her of the habit of making up stories and questioning their Protestant faith, her mother, a cold and distant woman, brought her to the local pastor. The young girl became enamored of the discussions of theology and astronomy. The much older, married cleric fell in love with her, necessitating a move to Zurich.

And so it went for Lou Salomé: She found fascinating men, men found her fascinating. But their aims were different. Her ardor was, it seems, entirely intellectual.

In Italy, she formed a close friendship with philosophers Paul Ree and Nietzsche. After an Alpine walk, Nietzsche wanted to marry her - not the relationship she was seeking with any man at the time. Once his overprotective sister Elisabeth discovered her brother's intentions, the young woman intellectual was cast out amid a cloud of innuendo.

She did get married, to the philologist Carl Friedrich Andreas, but theirs was a celibate relationship. It wasn't until her 30s, when she met the much younger Rene Rilke, that she fell in love body and soul. They had a tempestuous three-year affair (punctuated by two visits with Tolstoy), and remained close friends for the rest of their lives. It was Andreas-Salomé who renamed the poet Rainer.

Late in life, she became interested in psychoanalysis and engaged Freud as her mentor.

She died in 1937, having seen her world of sophistication and fevered learning shattered by war and revolution, Nazis and Bolsheviks.

Von der Lippe has found an ingenious way of telling this story, one that will delight those familiar with its outlines and undaunting to those with only a passing familiarity with the famous names drifting through.

This is a novel, after all, with the real events recreated and embroidered upon. To underscore the artifice of realism, von der Lippe frames the story with a narrator, a Skidmore comp-lit professor working on a book about Lou Andreas-Salomé while on a winter-long sabbatical in an Adirondack cabin.

The source of the scholar's interest is a book left to her by her Danzig-born grandmother, a volume of Rilke inscribed by the poet "To Lou." The grandmother had escaped from the Nazis with not much more than this, some postcards, and a doll's arm.

As the narrator settles into the snowbound cabin to work, listening to Dylan records, fretting about her divorce and the impending war in Iraq, she finds that Lou's voice takes over: "Quiet now, I'm the one writing this book. 'You are, my dear, but not without me.' "

And, with von der Lippe's skill, it's easy to become caught up in that voice, to believe that this is Lou herself telling the tale, full of wonderful vignettes: the Czar's sympathy for the workers ending in a grenade's explosion, Nietzsche trying to write on a crowded train while dealing with the cacophony of the passengers and the "houndstooth-like lightning" of a migraine. A childhood memory of a ballroom's "multitiered crystal chandelier, once illuminated like a birthday cake, [hanging] like an exquisite ice sculpture, precariously suspended in the blue darkness of late afternoon." Or a miniature describing the emotional sanctuary she creates for a while with Paul Ree: "We had our pet names, our own language, like children really. We had made our home in each other against a judgmental world."

As the narrator completes her telling of the life, she finds she has unexpected connections to Lou Andreas-Salomé, and has, in fact become part of the story. The truth about Lou or any of us, von der Lippe's marvelous novel reveals, is difficult to apprehend. It's only in fiction that we can gain some illusory grasp of what a life was all about.