Category Archives: Lernet-Holenia Alexander

Mona Lisa: Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1937)

Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s playful novella Mona Lisa from Pushkin Press capitalizes on the mystery of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting by focusing on the facts and then cleverly blurring the details. The result is a delightful little tale centered on the alluring Mona Lisa smile, obsession, and the human desire to build a narrative around any mystery.

Mona Lisa

It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and we’re in the middle of the Second Italian War. King Louis XII sends one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille to Milan where he is supposed to raise an army, go to Naples and offer relief to the French governors who are fighting the Spanish.  There’s a big speech, full of pompous grandiosity from King Louis XII which boils down to the fact that the only thing Louis de la Trémoille is getting from the king is his blessing. The king stares “for a while into the indeterminate middle distance past the Marshal with the vacant expression of one who at all costs refuses to talk of money.” The Marshal is supposed to finance the campaign somehow:

“I trust that you will also take the opportunity of recouping the cost of this campaign. Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command. And so,” concluded the King, “goodbye and may god go with you!”

So Trémoille leaves for Italy with just a “few inconsequential counts and minor noblemen.” The First Italian War was a very lucrative affair, but the Second Italian War isn’t a booty-filled operation, and poor Trémoille  “was barely able to send to Paris anything of note.” He has to “content himself with fleecing the smaller towns” and decided to “concentrate on the purchase of objects of art.” This is how Da Vinci enters the picture.

Da Vinci is portrayed as a distracted genius, far more sophisticated and intelligent than Trémoille. While trying to catch a fly inside Da Vinci’s workshop, one of Trémoille’s entourage, a certain Monsieur de Bougainville, discovers the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. He falls in love with the woman depicted in the portrait and is determined to track her down….

The book plays into the mythology that’s grown around the painting, and at the same time, the narrative creates mystery and mythology of its own. Bougainville, dangerously obsessed and determined to discover the identity of the woman known as La Gioconda, takes Leonardo da Vinci’s words and builds a whole story around the woman who posed for the portrait. Da Vinci is frustratingly vague about his model:

“Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth us, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.”

This is a very light, bubbly read, and although there are some very serious consequences to Bougainville’s obsession, the story never deviates from its comic stance. De Vinci seems mystified by the French soldiers, their desire for booty, and Bougainville’s determination to create a palatable narrative regarding the model for his painting. The novella is written in such a way that readers connect with the rather bemused and distracted Da Vinci. Why is this Frenchman so determined to ‘save’ the woman who may or who may not have been the model for painting? After all, according to Da Vinci, the portrait is of an idealized woman. What is all this fuss about?

Review copy

Translated by Ignat Avsey

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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.

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