Thursday, September 10, 2020

How I Tried to Be a Good Person by Ulli Lust

Turning life into art can take a long time. Ulli Lust's first comics memoir, Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, covered events from 1984 but was written and drawn about twenty-five years later.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is the "sequel" to that earlier book, in the sense that it's another big book in which Lust looks back at a time in her younger life. This time, the Ulli in the book is a few years older -- say five or so, placing these events around 1989 -- and the original German edition of Good Person was published in 2017, so she's still running about twenty-five years in the past.

But Good Person is different from Today: the first book covered one trip in detail, each day remembered in the bright detail only available when you remember the high points of your teenage life. Good Person is about a stage of life, and longer-term relationships as they shift and flow and bounce off each other.

Good Person is the story of young Ulli's relationships with two men and one boy -- her long-term boyfriend Georg, her eventual husband Kimata, and her son Philipp. But saying that implies a certain shape of story, and Ulli's life was nothing like that story.

Ulli and Georg lived in Vienna, maintaining separate apartments. Philipp, about four years old, lived with Ulli's parents, far out in the countryside, and she only saw him intermittently. That was mostly by choice -- she was trying to establish herself as an artist in the big city -- but her feelings were clearly complicated.

Georg, on the other hand, was much older than Ulli -- almost twice her age, on the verge of his forties. He was a great intellectual match for her: artistic, loving, thoughtful, connected to the theater world. But their sex life was ebbing, and Georg admitted that's what always happens with his long-term relationships. That was unacceptable for Ulli: sex was important to her, and she wanted more of it (and more of that closeness and physicality) than Georg could give her.

They were both modern and bohemian, though, so multiple relationships were on the table. And so when Ulli met Kimata, a man around her age and an immigrant from Nigeria, she fell into a relationship with him. He moved in with her, and she eventually married him to give him legal residency. But Kimata was never quite happy sharing her with Georg, or with anyone, and that drives most of the events of Good Person from the point he leaps onto the page.

The story of Good Person is about Ulli's dance among those three -- mostly with Kimata, as the most demanding and loud, the closest and (eventually) most dangerous. She wanted a life balancing all of the things she wanted most, and more-or-less got it, at least for a while.

And, as she tells the story at a remove of almost three decades, young Ulli was mostly honest and mostly fair, saying what she really meant and giving up secrets as the relationships moved forward. She wasn't perfect -- the older Lust writing and drawing this story makes that clear -- but she knew what she wanted and she advocated for herself almost all the time.

Lust's art is loose and flowing, driving nearly four hundred pages of complicated story and a lot of characters. But the core of Good Person is the words: what she and Georg and Kimata say to each other, in various permutations, over the course of the year or two this all took to play out.

Good Person isn't as immediate as Today was: Today was the story of a moment, and Good Person is the story of a time of life. But it's perhaps deeper and more thoughtful, asking whether it's possible to have all the things we want, and what it might cost to have them -- or what we have to do when the things we do want are in conflict with the things we think we should want.

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