I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

German literature monthAnother entry in German Literature month 2013, and this time it’s I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976), an Austrian writer.  The flap of my gorgeous Pushkin press edition states that the author’s “uneasy relationship with the National Socialist Party resulted in his fall from prominence in 1944.” Apparently Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, The Blue Hour was banned by the Nazis, but as a screenwriter he was connected to an agency which produced propaganda films.  He published numerous novels, and I Was Jack Mortimer (1933) is particularly loved by the translator, Ignat Avsey, who calls the book “the most magnificent thriller ever written.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I did enjoy the book, and am, once more, grateful to Pushkin Press for putting another obscure title into print.

I came across this title thanks to Tom from A Common Reader , and it sounded like a perfect read for German Literature month. Primarily this is a story of identity for our main character steps into the shoes of another man. It’s the sort of scenario tackled so well in Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. Sometimes our lives can be difficult and we daydream about running away and becoming an entirely new person, but what happens if the life we step in to is more problematic than the one we already have? Personally, I think it would be a crap shoot to assume someone’s identity; you’d be walking  into a minefield–one false step and everything blows up in your face.

I Was Jack MortimerViennese taxi driver Ferdinand Sponer picks up a fare and becomes instantly fascinated with the glamorous expensive young woman in the back seat. Her name is Marisabelle von Raschitz–obviously a young woman from the highest echelons of Viennese society, and the kind of woman who wouldn’t give Sponer the time of day.  In spite of the fact that Sponer has Marie, a wonderful, kind, loving and generous girlfriend, he becomes obsessed with the unattainable Marisabelle and hangs around outside of her apartment building, hoping to catch  a glimpse of this elegant young woman.

It’s interesting that Sponer makes such a pest of himself with Marisabelle as it reveals a lot about his character. He is confident enough to know that Marisabelle is attracted by his looks, and he hopes that means she’ll overlook his lowly status. Meanwhile, in spite of Marie’s devotion, or perhaps even because of it, his relationship with his long-standing girlfriend is stale:

They were planning to get married, but kept putting it off for various reasons: if the truth be known, only because they’d already known each other for too long. In the meantime she’d lost her job as a shop assistant, had then been unemployed for months at a stretch, and was now helping out here and there at a friend’s, taking in washing and doing mending and stitching jobs.

There’s a poignant scene between Sponer and Marie, as they sense “how unhappy they were,” and she seems to know and accept that the romance has gone. However, fate intervenes in Sponer’s life when he picks up a fare, a man about his own age, who wishes to be taken to the Hotel Bristol. Not long into the journey, Sponer discovers that his passenger is dead–shot through the throat. With an escalating sense of panic, Sponer makes a series of mistakes. He steps into his passenger, Jack Mortimer’s life, and finds himself in a mess….

The plot shows that even though Sponer’s life isn’t what he wants, at least it’s a life of his own making. When you step into the shoes of another, you find yourself dropped into unpredictable situations and unfathomable relationships that have nothing to do with you. Someone, after all, murdered Jack Mortimer, and that fact alone indicates that Sponer is stepping into a situation fraught with danger. But Sponer also discovers that a certain glamour opens previously closed doors, and wearing Mortimer’s clothes proves to be disorienting. A nightmarish sense of unreality sets in, and this is marvelously expressed even as Sponer begins to lose his sense of identity.

He paid with his own money what Jack Mortimer hadn’t. Or was it Jack Mortimer’s money he paid with? He didn’t know, the silver had got mixed up in his pocket

I Was Jack Mortimer,  with its street scenes of a slightly faded Vienna, is a good read. I particularly liked the way Sponer, as a lowly taxi driver, had a certain anonymity. He negotiates the street of Vienna with ease. This situation is transformed, however, when he assumes the dead man’s identity–suddenly he is recognized even as he wades through the unchartered waters of another man’s messy life. There’s a plot-driven anticlimactic feel to the resolution of the story, and while that is deliberate (you’ll know what I mean if you read it), nonetheless I felt a little deflated by the conclusion. While there’s a thriller aspect to the story, the underlying issue is arguably, identity. Sponer is a lowly character when we first see him, and in spite of the fact he’s handsome, the Viennese socialite doesn’t think he’s worth her time. Sponer discovers the hard way that sometimes it’s better to be an anonymous peon, for when you’re shabbily dressed and a taxi driver, people tend to ignore you. And that’s sometimes not a bad thing….

As a sort of addendum to the book, I found myself chewing over a statement I disagreed with:

She disarmed him by not making any secret of the fact that she no longer loved him. Jealousy can only exist when one hopes one has made a mistake.


Filed under Fiction, Lernet-Holenia Alexander

24 responses to “I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

  1. Hmm… Doesn’t look much promising… In general, I don’t like stories where characters assume a different identity. It seems to me that, as a result, the plot would rely too much (to my taste) on coincidences to make it stick.

    • The coincidence here is that the driver and the dead man are more or less the same age. That’s not too much. I liked this but I didn’t love it, if you know what I mean.

  2. I’d never heard of this book before, and to be honest I hadn’t heard of Alexander Lernet-Holenia either, so thanks for introducing us ;). This sounds like a good read. I might just put it on my list for the holidays!

  3. I don’t remember hearing about this writer and oh surprise, French translations are available!
    If my TBR weren’t that high, I’d buy it.
    Jack Mortimer isn’t a particularly Austrian name. Is this character a foreigner?

    PS: having a lot of fun with Penguin Lost. Thanks again.

  4. Playing with identities has been a staple of literature since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, yet it still fascinates us. I think that assuming someone else’s identity, I think would lead to catastrophe, no matter who they were.

  5. acommonreaderuk

    Thanks greatly for the reference back to me. I really enjoyed this book and reading your review reminded me of why I enjoyed it so much. I loved your quote “Jealousy can only exist when one hopes one has made a mistake” which is not something I remembered from the book.

    Great review., Tom.

  6. leroyhunter

    I have this and planto read it soon – so have skimmed. Sounds promising, even if it’s not “the greatest thriller ever written”…

  7. I’ve read another review of this, (not Stu’s), before that and was surprised that I’d never heard of him. So I’m glad Bettina, who lives in Germany, hasn’t herad of him either. I’d say he’s a totally forgotten author but I’m quite keen on reading him. I usually like Austrina authors of the era quite a bit.
    Contrary to some other commenter’s I’m a sucker for changed identity stories. Isn’t that, to a lesser degree, what we anonymous bloggers do? At least it appears that way sometimes.

  8. It’s actually out of print in German which might explain why we’ve not heard of it.

  9. It sounds fun, but not amazing. So I might read it, but I probably won’t go out of my way too. Still, somewhat tempting.

    Of all the people whose lives I might step into, somebody who’s just been shot in the throat would be distinctly low on my list. The fear would have to be that the shooter on hearing that their target appeared still to be alive would have another go.

  10. I’ve never heard of this author before either. I think during that period, thrillers and spy novels revolved around (mistaken) identities a lot. The whole wrong man thing.

    Btw, isn’t Rogue Male the film with Peter O’Toole? I saw part of it as a kid, but never forget him hiding in that fox hole. Is the book good?

    • I’m about halfway through the book and it is marvelous. I haven’t seen the film yet as I thought I should wait to finish reading the story. That way I can concentrate on the film interpretation.

      Makes sense that spy/thrillers would revolve around mistaken identity. After all, there wasn’t a lot of technology to use, so you’re left with the basics, I suppose.

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