Category Archives: Lernet-Holenia, Alexander

“Put it down to the dreams, yours and mine, that they can be far more authentic than life itself.”

Mona Lisa, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

Charming isn’t a word I get to use often enough on this blog.

I liked but didn’t love Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer and it’s fair to say that I like but don’t love Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For me the Louvre contains far more interesting treasures. The painting has become a form of celebrity – a canvas Kardashian. Obviously it’s good, but I’ve never thought it merited its peculiar fame.

Put those views together and I’m not a natural reader for Lernet-Holenia’s novella about, in part, the Mona Lisa. That was very nearly my loss as, and here’s that word again, it’s one of the most charming books I’ve read in years.

Pushkin have done themselves particularly proud with this edition. The book itself is up to their usual exceptional standards but as well as the usual good quality paper and attractive cover they’ve also included some rather charming (there’s that word again) line illustrations by artist Neil Gower throughout the text. There’s a picture of one at Jacqui’s Wine Journal’s review (link at the end).

As the book opens King Louis XII is sending one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille, to the relief of his French governors in Naples who are being harried by the Spanish. The king’s orders are a small work of comic brilliance:

“And I trust, sir,” the King went on, “you will be able to acquit yourself of this commission with your customary prowess. You shall not be left wanting anything. I send you forth not only with my own blessing, but also hereby give you leave as you make your way through Rome to seek the Holy Father’s blessing. However, in case the Holy Father should refuse to anoint your arms, I give you full permission to urge His Holiness, with the help of those selfsame arms, to vouchsafe them his blessing. Furthermore, select as many of my noblemen as you deem fit to accompany you on your way. The flower of my nobility will be honoured and pleased to serve under you and personally to provide armour and equipment for you and your retainers. Also, you will have at your service a number of clerics whose upkeep and maintenance will devolve upon the Church. I shall take the sin of that upon myself. Additionally, I expect the good people of Amboise in Milan to cast the requisite number of ordnance, furnish the requisite number of ensigns, standards and trumpet banners, and supply a sufficient quantity of drums, kettledrums and trumpets. The cost of the undertaking is to be met from the municipal funds. You will of course have at your disposal as many horse and foot as you shall need, fed and nourished off the land, so help you God.”

With such assistance how could the expedition be other than a glorious success? M. de la Trémoille and such lesser noblemen as he is able to persuade to join him set off across France and into Italy.

The king also gave M. de la Trémoille orders to seize such treasure along the way as he is able. With his small and ill-equipped force M. de la Trémoille hasn’t been able to gain anything of consequence so when he reaches Florence it seems a good opportunity to pick up some local art. He takes a few companions and calls upon the famed Leonardo da Vinci, who sadly seems rather more frivolous than expected:

“My investigations,” Leonardo said, “led me, after my enquiries into the density and flow of water and air, to other things, and for a few days I was preoccupied with the weight of God.”

Leonardo seems as distractible as a child. His study shows no signs of current work and he seems to have musicians and dancers attending on him whenever the French call. However, a chance argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille changes everything when one of M. de la Trémoille officers, the young Monsieur de Bougainville, is instructed to catch a fly to settle an argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille as to how many legs it has.

Monsieur de Bouganville disturbs a curtain at the back of the room and behinds it catches a glimpse of glory. It is the Mona Lisa, unfinished, as yet imperfect, but already beautiful. M. de Bouganville falls instantly in love.

From there the story moves to M. de Bouganville’s attempts to discover the model for the painting. He’s told it might be based on a woman known as La Gioconda, third wife to local nobleman Francesco del Giocondo. She is said to have died some years previously of the plague but:

It struck young Bougainville as totally improbable that Leonardo would have painted a woman who was no longer alive.

M. de Bougainville convinces himself that La Gioconda must be the real model for Mona Lisa and that she remains alive. Before long he’s causing outrage; he exhumes her tomb and raids del Giocondo’s house believing her imprisoned there. He is mad. He is in love.

With another writer or perhaps even with Lernet-Holenia in a different mood this would all make quite a nice little historical thriller. Here it’s obvious that M. de Bouganville’s quest is hopeless. Leonardo insists that the picture is based on a composite of various women and there’s no reason at all not to believe him. No reason except love, which is its own reason.

Mona Lisa (the book) becomes a short comic meditation on love and art and how both can make us lose ourselves in something better than we would otherwise be. It’s a lovely little tale. Funny, fast moving, and to return to where I started this piece, utterly charming.

Other reviews

There are loads and I’m sure I’ve missed a fair few of them. The ones I had noted were from Jacqui’s Wine Journal here, which includes a nice picture of one of the illustrations; from His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here. Please feel free to let me know of others in the comments.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, German Literature, Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Novellas, Pushkin Press

One doesn’t step into anyone’s life, not even a dead man’s, without having to live it to the end.

I Was Jack Mortimer, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

As a kid I used to love the British TV show The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. For those who haven’t seen it Perrin is a moderately senior businessman loved by his family and respected by his colleagues who decides he just can’t face his own life any more. There’s no crisis as such, no determining event, it just gets to the point where he can’t live with the tedium of the everyday.

Perrin fakes his own suicide, but discovers that escaping yourself isn’t as easy as it looks. Ferdinand Sponer would sympathise.

MortimerVertigo

Sponer is a taxi-driver in 1930s Vienna. He has a steady girlfriend and there’s an expectation they’ll marry, but there’s no urgency to it so as yet they haven’t. He finds himself attracted to a young aristocratic woman he picks up as a fare, Marisabelle von Raschitz. She’s beautiful and aloof and doesn’t notice him at all. He tracks her down hoping to make a connection and strikes up a conversation with her. He’s good-looking but he’s not remotely part of her world and while he manages to briefly impinge on her awareness she walks on dismissing him from her life as she might a cat she’d stopped to stroke in the street.

Soon Sponer has picked up another fare. This time it’s an expensively dressed young man of similar age to Sponer himself. To Sponer’s horror when he turns round to ask his fare a question the man’s dead, shot twice. Sponer realised that someone must have leaped on the running board while they were in traffic and that the noise of passing trucks must have masked the sounds of the shooting.

Sponer panics. He fears the police will blame him and so decides to dump the body, but then he realises that once the body is found it won’t take long to discover that the dead man was last seen taking a taxi, and the other drivers will describe Sponer and the police will want to know why he dumped the body. The only answer is to make sure the dead man is seen alive at his destination. Sponer has to become the dead man, check into his hotel and create a visual trail so the police won’t trace the body back to him.

Ok, that makes no sense at all, but it’s the premise of the book. The dead man is Jack Mortimer and Sponer has to assume his identity to cover up his own inadvertent part in Mortimer’s murder. If Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have realised that people might come to the hotel looking for Mortimer and that impersonating an American tourist isn’t your best idea when you don’t actually speak much English, but if Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have called the police in the first place and then carried on with his life.

I have a rule for books with unlikely premises – I’ll generally give them one gimme. I think most readers work much the same way. There’s no point reading a book about vampires and getting hung up on the fact there’s no such thing. You have to accept vampires or there’s no book.

Here the gimme is that Sponer decides his best bet is to become Mortimer. You just have to accept that or there’s no book. The trouble is, Lernet-Holenia spends a fair amount of time setting out Sponer’s chain of reasoning and the circumstances that push him in that direction. That makes for a slightly slow start as frankly however much justification is established it still never makes much sense, and the reality is if I weren’t already prepared to accept that outcome I wouldn’t have picked this up. Lernet-Holenia could learn here from Edgar Rice Burroughs. If your book is about the centre of the Earth, there’s really no need to waste too much time describing how everyone gets there.

Once Sponer is Mortimer the book finally kicks into gear. Sponer receives a phone call in his room from a clearly distraught woman, but she calls in English and he can’t understand her. Soon she’s in the lobby and he’s wondering quite what he’s got himself into. To make things worse he’s not considered the point that somebody wanted Mortimer dead and that when they hear Mortimer somehow made it to his hotel after all they might come back to finish the job.

The meat here isn’t whodunnit, but whoisit? As himself Sponer was a nobody, a working class joe making enough to get by but never enough for any more than that. Now he’s staying at a high-end hotel with money in his pocket, and while things start going downhill very fast he’s not just some guy anymore. Ironically, it’s by losing his own identity that he’s finally become somebody.

I Was Jack Mortimer works reasonably well as a thriller, but like a lot of crime fiction the murder and its consequences are just means to an end. Here that’s the exploration of issues of wealth, class and identity. Sponer’s journey through the Vienna night takes him from cheap late-night bars back to Marisabelle von Raschitz’ apartment and much in between and the book is at its best when conjuring up this now vanished Vienna.

Right there on the left was a slot-machine bar. He went in. It was a large, circular, dome-shaped room with slot machines around the perimeter and tables in the middle at which people were eating and drinking. A radio was blaring. He walked past the machines and studied the labels. Over one of the taps was the inscription “Sherry”. He picked up a glass, held it under the tap, and inserted a coin in the slot. The interior emitted a hollow gurgling and spluttering sound, and sherry—somewhat unappetisingly, he thought—gushed from the metal tap into the glass. There are many people who don’t enjoy the luxury of having desert wines served up elegantly. Slot-machine bars are meant for the likes of them.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is that Lernet-Holenia describes every street Sponer drives down and every location he goes into, so that my distinct impression was that if you wished you could walk around Vienna holding a copy of the book and following Sponer’s trail. It’s a classic example of a novel where the city is just as much a character as any of the people.

Where the book works less well is pacing. After that slow start I mentioned the book picks up and becomes a lot more fun, but then at around the half-way mark switches continent and characters so as to explore the background to Mortimer’s killing. Conan Doyle does something similar in A Study in Scarlet where early on the focus moves to Mormon Utah and for a large chunk of the book Holmes and Watson are accordingly nowhere to be seen, with the story returning to them only after it’s fully explored the American backstory to the London crime.

Here Lernet-Holenia does something similar, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it did for Conan Doyle. Just as I’d really bought in to Sponer and his situation I found myself following a bunch of new characters I didn’t really care about in a setting much less interesting than 1930s Vienna. Fortunately we return to Sponer reasonably quickly and from there the book gets its momentum back, but it’s a distracting midpoint wobble.

I’m at risk by now of making it sound like this isn’t a good book, which would be unfair. It’s not a great book and it has some definite structural issues, but it’s short enough that the digressions never take too long and overall it’s a light and fun read. Sponer’s girlfriend gets involved and helpfully is both more interesting and more sympathetic than Sponer himself, and there’s genuine interest in Sponer’s transformation in the eyes of Marisabelle von Raschitz as his identities ebb and flow.

I’ll end with a final quote. Sponer is attracted to Marisabelle von Raschitz as much for what she represents as what she is. Sponer’s father was an infantry officer but died when Sponer was young, leaving his family to slide into poverty. Marisabelle is part of the world he could have had. Here he visit’s his girlfriend’s family, who live in the world he got instead:

The air in the room was stuffy and it smelt of food. On the stairs it had smelt the same, just as in the flat he rented from the Oxenbauers, and in the flats and on the stairs of the friends he had, and the acquaintances he sometimes visited. The air was stuffy and it smelt of food. Here people lived and then married, and their children in turn were brought up in flats where the air was stuffy and it smelt of food and a few other indefinable substances. Such was their life.

Faced with that, who wouldn’t be tempted to put on a dead man’s clothes?

Other reviews

I Was Jack Mortimer has been widely and well reviewed. Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed it here, Guy of His Futile Preoccupations here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader’s here and Stu of Winston’sDad’sblog here. I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, and if anyone reading this has also reviewed it please feel free to include a link in the comments.

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Filed under Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Pushkin Vertigo