At first I thought this post would be entitled “Imbued with obsession”, but as I read my way through the second title, I encountered many more psychological strangenesses than that. Let me explain.
Lernet-Holenia is an Austrian author from the mid-C20th. Like many, he was blacklisted by the Nazis, but, unlike many, he survived those dark years. After the war he went on to receive many literary awards. 2 of his works from the 1930’s before he was blacklisted, both translated by Ignat Avsey, have recently been reissued by Pushkin Press (and at this point let me request more.) The stories are reasonably straight-forward but the main characters make some strange, puzzling decisions.
No more so than in the 80-page novella Mona Lisa (1937), and I refer not only to the puzzle of that smile. Set at the beginning of the C16th, the young French nobleman Bougainville travels to Spain to wage war for Louis XII. The costs of the campaign are to be met entirely by levies and reparations “be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, costly tapestries and such things”. With this in mind, Bougainville, together with his commander, Le Trémoille, visit Leonardo da Vinci’s studio. Whilst there, a pesky fly buzzes overhead. During the ensuing hunt, Bougainville opens a curtain to discover an unfinished painting. Yes, it is the lady herself and Bougainville falls head over heels in love with her. He immediately begins to ask the questions that have rung through the centuries. Who is she? Why is she smiling? Not only does he ask, he investigates, doesn’t always like the answers he finds and this leads him down some very strange paths. Paths that are and would remain comical, if they weren’t to prove fatal for the poor man. Who in their right mind would let an obsession with a painting go that far? But that’s the point, somewhere along the way he loses his mind. Nor is he the only one, as Lernet-Holenia points out in the closing paragraphs. Is that why the lady smiles as she does?
I was Jack Mortimer (1933) is the better known work, first released as a Pushkin Classic in 2013 and again in 2015 as part of the new Vertigo imprint. In it, the eponymous Jack is shot to death in the back of a taxi. The driver notices nothing (Vienna can be a noisy place) and so has the shock of his life when he discovers the corpse at the end of his hire. Instead of reporting the crime immediately, he drives away, disposes of the body in the Danube, and assumes Jack Mortimer’s identity. The consequences of that action are what drive the rest of the novel.
There is quite a long setup in which the taxi driver, Ferdinand Sponer, falls in love at first sight with a passenger, Marisabelle von Raschitz, a woman above his own social class. (Spot the link with Mona Lisa?) He begins to follow her around – it’s not stalking – it’s more like a puppy following his master, waiting for a kicking. This despite being in a long-time relationship with Maria, a woman of his own class, who is obviously expecting him to marry her.
All of that an obvious prologue to the main Jack Mortimer plot. For a long while I wondered about the point of it. In the first instance, let’s just say that Sponer wouldn’t escape the scrape he gets into without having these two women to turn to. Secondly, there’s an underlying theme of class. Sponer and Marie are working class, Marisabelle is upper class and it turns out that Jack Mortimer is an American gangster! If there is a lesson to be learned, it is not necessarily that climbing the social ladder is good for you. Thirdly there are multiple love relationships: obsessive unrequited love, unexciting but long-standing loyal love, and cynical married love.
Sponer’s adventure is not only a murder mystery but also a surreal Bildungsroman in which he must determine where he belongs and which kind of relationship he wishes to pursue.