Archive for the ‘Leo Perutz’ Category

The Master of the Day of Judgement

September 8, 2015


This month Pushkin Press launch a crime imprint, Vertigo. The initial titles include Vertigo (of course) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia by Piero Chiara, and The Master of the Day of Judgement by Leo Perutz. Perutz was last revived in the UK by Harvill in the 1990s and seems a perfect fit for Pushkin. Yet another product of the Austro-Hungarian writing factory (he was born in Prague and lived much of his life in Vienna), he was a contemporary of Kafka and Stefan Zweig who wrote his first novel (the still untranslated The Third Bullet) while recovering from a wound received in the First World 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. (According to the Afterword, this was also written as Perutz recuperated from a war wound – as this was two year later, presumably a different injury).

The Master of the Day of Judgement begins not with a murder but with a suicide. Actor Eugen Bischoff leaves the party he is hosting and wanders into the garden, though not before recounting the story of a mysterious suicide:

“It was completely unmotivated, there was nothing whatever to explain such an act of total despair. He had no debts or other money troubles, no love trouble, and no illness – in short the suicide could not have been more mysterious.”

Bischoff does have money troubles – the bank to which he has entrusted his money has collapsed, but those around him, particularly his wife, Dina, have gone to great lengths to keep the news from him. When shots are heard and he is discovered drawing his final breath, it is assumed that his bankruptcy has been revealed to him, and our narrator, Baron von Yosch, is suspected due to a love affair with Dina predating her marriage. Yosch, who has also been wandering in Bischoff’s garden, denies having spoken to him, and there the matter would end were it not for the fact that his pipe is found smouldering next to Bischoff’s body. As the Baron has given his word of honour, it now seems he, too, will have to do the decent thing and take his own life. As Dina’s brother Felix tells him:

“It remains for me to assure you that you are under no obligation whatever to carry out in the next twenty-four hours the decision that you no doubt have already made. I shall in no circumstances inform the court of honour of your regiment of this business, should that step turn out to be necessary, before the end of the week.”

It is not the Baron, but a young engineer, Solgrub, who protests that Yosch is innocent and undertakes to investigate Bischoff’s death. One of the novel’s most entertaining features is the way Perutz uses Solgrub as the ‘detective’ hero while retaining Yosch as the narrator. At times Yosch follows Solgrub’s lead; on other occasions he strikes out on his own, pursuing some clue he has dredged from his memory, only to find Solgrub waiting for him. (It is rather like the Holmes / Watson dynamic, though as Solgrub is a stranger to the Baron before that night, and his social inferior, he is far less trusting). This allows the narrative plenty of twists and turns, as it is driven forward by the tension created by Yosch’s countdown towards an honourable death (at one point Felix appears with the promised letter) and the threat of a murderer who can compel his victims to kill themselves.

Perutz provides the novel with a conclusion that is both fantastical and plausible, one which draws on the horror genre without recourse to the supernatural. He does not forget his characters, however, the final lines focusing on Yosch and Dina, before an Editor’s Postscript casts further doubt on what we have read. Perutz is a wonderful addition to Pushkin’s list of forgotten writers; The Master of the Day of Judgement an exciting beginning for Vertigo.

Lost Books – Between Nine and Nine

February 18, 2012

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.