Lost Books – Between Nine and Nine

Between 1989 and 1996 Harvill published eight of Leo Perutz’s ten novels in English translations: he was being rediscovered, as Stefan Zweig, another Viennese writer (Perutz was born in Prague but lived in Vienna until 1938 and the Nazi Anschluss) has been more recently. His first novel, The Third Bullet, has (as far as I can ascertain) never been translated into English, but his second, From Nine to Nine, certainly had – in the 1920s. Having collected all of the newer translations of Perutz’s novels over the last ten years, it was galling to know that another was out there, especially with its intriguing 24 type premise, being set over twelve hours in the life of its protagonist (as it turns out, this isn’t entirely the case). Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered last year that a small American publisher, Ariadne Press, had brought out a new translation (by Thomas Ahrens and Edward Larkin), with the slightly altered title Between Nine and Nine.

Perutz has always reminded me a little of Robert Louis Stevenson – a serious writer who writes adventure novels. A fellow Austrian writer described his style as “the possible result of an illicit union between Franz Kafka and Agatha Christie.” Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, among others, were admirers. Though many of his novels are historical, Between Nine and Nine is set in Vienna at the turn of the century – in fact, much of it can be read as a satire of Viennese society. However, it is presented in the form of a thriller, with the initial tension created by the inexplicable actions of our protagonist:

“…a certain Stanislaus Demba who entered the store and whose strange behaviour provided the two women with much to talk about for weeks to come.”

His ‘strange behaviour’ includes entering the store warily, looking around, ordering numerous items of food one after the other but not picking them up, and leaving suddenly when the owner is out, but not without first having placed the money owed on the counter. The reason for his strange behaviour, which continues throughout a number of scenes, is not revealed until almost halfway through the novel. Needless to say I will be revealing it soon. If you would rather not know, don’t read on – I certainly had great fun not knowing (which is Perutz’s intention, mirrored in the fact that the narrative is never from Demba’s point of view, but always from that of those he encounters: seven of the first eight chapters begin with reference to a secondary character prior to Demba’s appearance).

As Demba eventually confesses to the only person he seems to trust, a young woman called Steffi, he was arrested at nine o’clock that morning and placed in handcuffs. Though he escaped through an attic window, sliding down the roof and falling to the ground, he has been unable to remove the cuffs and must keep them hidden if he is not to be caught. This has given him enormous problems with the basic requirements of life, like eating (hence the visit to the shop; later he asks a waiter to bring book after book to his table so he can eat unseen). Even common courtesies become an insurmountable problem:

“’I’ll wait,’ said Demba.
‘In that case, kindly remove your hat, Stanie. At our office, people take off their hats,’ said Etelka Springer.
Stanislaus Demba stood there with his hat on his head, broad and boorish, looking anxiously at Etelka Springer. A bead of sweat was dripping from his forehead.”

To prevent Demba simply remaining in hiding until Steffi can get him a key (at nine o’clock that night), Perutz gives him an urgent quest. Having discovered that his girlfriend, Sonja, is going on a trip with another man to Venice, he feels that if he can raise the necessary money to take her she will go with him. The second half of the novel is filled with near misses as he comes frustratingly close to the cash without being able to lay his hands on it. (It was an attempt to sell a stolen library book that first brought him to the police’s attention).

Demba is therefore an intensely sympathetic character: a betrayed lover, on the run, with two taxing problems to solve in twelve hours. Throughout his adventure Perutz also pokes fun at Viennese society; Demba’s position as an impoverished tutor makes him something of an outsider. The novel ends with a further twist I won’t reveal. This may not be Perutz’s greatest novel, but it is both tense and genuinely amusing. It’s time he was rediscovered again.

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One Response to “Lost Books – Between Nine and Nine”

  1. The Master of the Day of Judgement | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] War. Nine of his eleven novels have made into English, however, most recently a new translation of Between Nine and Nine, a novel which takes place over twelve hours, and which I like to think of as the precursor of 24. […]

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