Archive for the ‘Alexander Lernet-Holenia’ Category

Baron Bagge

November 8, 2021

Last year New Directions reissued Alexander Lernt-Holenia’s novel Count Luna, originally published in 1955 and translated into English a year later. That 1956 publication also included the earlier novella Baron Bagge (1936), translated by Richard and Clara Wilson, with the subheading ‘Two Tales of the Real and the Unreal’. Both were reprinted in the Eridanos Library edition of 1988. The novella begins with the Baron being challenged to a duel, a challenge resulting from a rumour that two women have killed themselves after falling in love with him. The story which follows is his explanation of why he cannot marry – because, though no-one has seen his wife, “I am already married.”

It begins in the midst of the First World War when the Baron is a Lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army. His commanding officer, Semler, is “a temperamental, unpredictable character”, and when the squadron are sent on a reconnaissance mission, his recklessness sees them riding on in the dark, and planning an attack on a bridge even though they should not be engaging with the enemy unless absolutely necessary. All Bagge and his fellow officers can do is ask Semler for his orders given that “the likelihood is that within half an hour you will be lying on the ground, and probably not you alone but most of us.” The attack takes place and Bagge is surprised to find that, not only has he survived, but the enemy is routed:

“Suddenly I found myself stopping in the middle of the village and was conscious of a tremendous astonishment at still being alive. A cavalry attack against infantry is normally doomed to fail. But this one had succeeded.”

Shortly after they advance to Nagy Mihaly, as their orders instruct them, a town where Bagge’s mother has friends:

“…she had remarked there was a girl I might well marry one of these days; she was already a pretty young thing and would come into no mean fortune.”

When they arrive at Nagy Mihaly, Bagge is surprised by the sheer number of people – “every single family was extraordinarily large” – but decides that “all of them had thronged into the town because of the presence of the Russians.” Bagge meets the young lady mentioned by his mother, Charlotte, and is surprised to find her already in love with him:

“You have simply become for me the person of whom I have dreamed.”

Soon, however, Semler decides that they must move on in search of Russians (“Semler seems to think he can’t live without the damned enemy”) and so Bagge and Charlotte are hastily married, Charlotte telling him:

“If you go… you will not come back.”

If the story sounds a rather ordinary one of love and war, that is because it centres on a twist which you may or may not see coming (and if you do not want to know, read no further, though the introduction to the Eridanos edition reveals it), which is that, although Bagge is still alive, Semler and his comrades died in the attack, and he has somehow crossed over with them into the land of death. Lernet-Holenia does, of course, provide numerous clues before this is revealed, from the moment after the attack when Bagge notices Semler is ‘transformed’ – “quite unlike himself in manner, completely calm and composed.” When, shortly after, Bagge comments to his fellow officers how lucky they were in the battle “the two of them suddenly averred in an impatient, rather sullen manner that it had not been so extraordinary at all; they at any rate had guessed long ago that it would turn out as it had.” Our attention also is drawn to the possibility that the town is inhabited by ghosts ironically when Bagge comments on the ‘excessive’ population of Nagy Mihaly: “It was as if nobody died here.” Of course, the opposite is true, as the landscape around the town suggests:

“The plain lay before us utterly lifeless, and the bank of clouds that veiled the sky was unusually low-lying, gloomy and oppressive… The rest of the population had completely vanished… Even the stables appeared to be empty.”

Charlotte, too, is dead, and when Bagge leaves and returns to the land of the living, crossing a bridge “covered with sheets of metal that gleamed like gold”, he will never see her again. Despite this, he still regards himself as married, hence the disappointed lovers. Baron Bagge is a wonderful example of a novella: a story which would feel diluted by greater length, but rather thrown away if it were any shorter. It utilises many of the skills Lernet-Holenia demonstrates in his novels – the atmosphere of war, the constant tension, and the sympathetic narrator – and manages its twist expertly with neither too many nor too few hints stitched into the narrative. Now difficult to find, it would make an excellent beginning to a collection of his shorter fiction.

Count Luna

November 16, 2020

Readers will likely know Alexander Lernet-Holenia from Pushkin Press’ publication of I Was Jack Mortimer and Mona Lisa. In fact, these are only two of a number his novels to have been previously translated into English, and now New Directions have resurrected another, Count Luna, originally published in 1955, and translated a year later by Jane B Greene. The novel opens with Alexander Jessiersky entering the catacombs in Rome and, so it appears, failing to resurface, despite having booked a passage to Buenos Aires in the days that follow. A search can find no trace of him:

“So there was no alternative but to give him up for lost, to assume that yet another dead man had been added to the ranks of the ancient deed, and to call a halt to the investigations.”

The chapters that follow tell the story of what leads Jessiersky to undertake this dangerous journey into the underworld. We begin with a lengthy summary of Jessiersky’s family which takes us back to 1806 and seems an unnecessary detour in a writer who is usually so adept at pace. (The same will happen with the family of Count Luna which Jessiersky researches at length, and there are what would now be called ‘info-dumps’ on the catacombs both in the opening and closing chapters). The story proper begins during the Second World War when the transport business which Jessiersky has inherited – but largely leaves for others to run – needs Count Luna’s land, which he refuses to sell. The company arrange for Luna to be “accused of belonging to certain monarchistic and, therefore, anti-German circles and put under arrest” thus forfeiting the land. By the time Jessiersky discovers what has happened, Luna is in a concentration camp:

“Jessiersky found the whole episode extremely painful. He told himself that, though he himself had not done anything, he had, out of his very inactivity, failed to do what should have been done.”

Unable to get Luna released, he sends him food parcels, and instead vents his anger on the company directors whom he blames for Luna’s imprisonment, doing everything in his power to get them sent to the front:

“It was not until one of them was killed in France that Jessiersky experienced a measure of satisfaction; the more he thought about it, in fact, the more it pleased him.”

That Jessiersky so easily rejoices in another’s death is a warning, however, of what is to come.

When the war is over, Jessiersky attempts to discover Luna’s fate, but is unable to unearth any information: “He was definitely not among the living, but neither was he among the dead.” A few years later, however, he becomes convinced that Luna is not only alive, but is seeking revenge. Leafing through a volume of engravings he comes across the picture of a man who looks very like Luna only for one of his children to exclaim, “That’s he!” It soon transpires that his children have met a similar looking man when out walking with their governess. Jessiersky immediately assumes the man must be Luna, forgetting that his discovery relies on the portrait of an entirely different man. The next day he follows them to the park, but the man never reappears. When one of his children falls ill, however, he blames sweets the man has given her:

“Perhaps the man had conceived the diabolical plan of killing the children not all at once, but one by one. It would be like Luna to do something like that.”

The final sentence gives us a sense of Jessiersky’s loss of perspective – after all, he knows very little of Luna, and nothing that would make him assume that he would kill children. If anything, it sounds more like a plan Jessiersky would come up with. Initially his reaction is to communicate with Luna and convince him that others are to blame for his imprisonment:

“As far as I am concerned, he can pay back those scoundrels of directors and he can mete out punishment to them. But he’s not going to persecute me and my family.”

Such is his fear of this persecution, however, that he believes it has already begun, and he is prepared to do anything to stop it. His guilt, we assume, is the real driving force behind this belief, and his actions to ‘defend’ himself and his family seem more likely to inflict the punishment he so fears.

Bar the genealogical discursions (which again seem to reflect Jessiersky’s fears that he is not really noble onto Luna), Count Luna is a fast-paced ride which takes place internally as much as externally. Like Mona Lisa, it concerns a character who is convinced the dead live. Lernet-Holenia once again demonstrates his ability to look into the dark hearts of his characters for motivation, and that is what makes his novels superior to the average thriller.

Mona Lisa

December 20, 2015

mona lisa

In 2013 Pushkin Press had a hit with Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s thriller I Was Jack Mortimer, recently reprinted in their new Vertigo series. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they have released another of Lernet-Holenia’s stories from the 1930s, Mona Lisa, also translated by Ignat Avesy. Those familiar with I Was Jack Mortimer, however, will find Mona Lisa a quite different work: gone is the mid-twentieth century, middle-Europe setting, so associated with noir that it’s easy to believe life was lived in black and white; instead we are in the much sunnier streets of Renaissance Florence where Leonardo da Vinci is still adding the occasional brush stroke to his masterpiece.

The story begins when the King of France sends Louis la Tremoille to Italy – France had interests in both Milan and Naples at the time. Though the King offers to finance the expedition he also makes it clear that la Tremoille should “take every opportunity of recouping the cost of the campaign.” Little of worth is found to send back to Paris so la Tremoille opts to rest in Florence with his nobles while his army goes on before, hoping to acquire some Italian art. This inevitably leads him to visit the home of Leonardo da Vinci who, unfortunately, has rather lost interest in art at that moment, preoccupied instead with siege engines, submarines, and “the weight of God.” The conversation between la Tremoille and da Vinci illustrates the light-hearted tone of the novella, particularly a disagreement over the number of legs a fly possesses, but Lernet-Holenia also introduces his more serious topic:

“I’ve resolved to depict the essence of love in verses and, in order to probe onto the anatomical origins of the same, I too have had arms and legs lying around in my workshop – in short I dissected the bodies of two women. The only thing is, I failed to discover anything of note.”

It is on this visit that we first glimpse Mona Lisa, revealed when Bougainville, the youngest of la Tremoille’s entourage, is engaged in attempting to catch a fly in order to settle the above mentioned dispute:

“A fantastic effulgence greeted his eyes. At the first instant he believed it to be flame, or the radiance of jewels. Only the luminance came from the perfectly flat surface of a picture, propped up at an angle on a chair…”

Bougainville falls instantly in love – “Not with the painting…With the lady” – only to discover that she died a number of years ago, news he finds difficult to accept: “Looking at the painting, he could not imagine she was dead.” He becomes further convinced she still lives when he visits her tomb:

“It seemed impossible that a full-grown woman could have been buried there, for otherwise the wall would have to be more than an arm-length thicker.”

Faced with the choice – accept what everyone is telling him, that Mona Lisa is deceased, or pry open her tomb just to be sure – he does what any self-respecting fictional character would and returns with a crow-bar and some friends. Bougainville’s efforts to prove Mona Lisa lives (and to locate her) are also (unsurprisingly) detrimental to French-Italian relations in the city as his passion makes him headstrong, to say the least, when questioning her husband.

Mona Lisa is a short (less than 100 pages) suspenseful entertainment, a tribute to both the power of art and love. As Bougainville says near the end:

“Love does not need any comforting. It does not even need requiting. All it needs is itself.”

Therein lies its beauty, and its danger.

I Was Jack Mortimer

January 11, 2014

jack mortimer

Alexander Lernet-Holenia was an Austrian writer who had the misfortune to be of an age to fight in both the first and second world wars, and the good fortune to survive both. He was a prolific author, writing not only novels but poetry and plays; even his novels can be apparently divided into those that are intended to be serious works of literature and those that are primarily entertainment. It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Pushkin Press has unearthed I Was Jack Mortimer (one of his entertainments) for translation given their previous success with Mitteleuropean writers such as Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler.

I Was Jack Mortimer uses the now familiar (though, no doubt, less so in 1933) starting point of many a thriller: the ordinary man innocently caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Its protagonist is Frederick Sponer, a taxi driver, whose life is turned upside down by one unlucky fare. That fare is, of course, Jack Mortimer, whose journey to the Hotel Bristol is interrupted by the three shots which kill him. Sponer is at first oblivious and then (when he discovers the body) panicky: after two failed attempts to tell the police he becomes anxious they will simply assume that he is the murderer. He decides, therefore, to dispose of the body and spend the night as Jack Mortimer in the Hotel Bristol to throw the police off his trail, a plan that goes remarkably well until Mortimer’s lover turns up, closely followed by her husband.

The novel begins relatively slowly with Sponer’s fascination for a wealthy young woman, Marisabelle, who rebuffs all his advances, but proceeds to a frenetic pace the moment Mortimer’s death is discovered. What I particularly liked about it was not simply the twists and turns of Sponer’s story, but the author’s willingness to interrupt that and take us elsewhere. There is, for example, a sudden change of scene when we are presented with the back story of Mortimer’s lover’s husband before that character has even appeared in Sponer’s story. This happens more subtly later when we leave Sponer and follow his girlfriend, Marie, as she attempts to aid him. (Although it has to be said that the competition between Marie and Mrisabelle is far from subtle in the way it is played out).

I Was Jack Mortimer may not be a neglected classic, but it is an excellent thriller – it is no surprise to learn that it has been twice made into a film (in the 1930s and 1950s). In Lernet-Holenia, Pushkin Press has discovered yet another writer that I, for one, want to hear more from.