A new book from Pushkin Press is always welcome and in I Was Jack Mortimer, they have found a gem of a novel, written in 1933 but as fresh as anything written today. The book, a mixture of farce, murder mystery and character study is set in Vienna.
The book’s author Alexander Lernet-Holenia had an interesting life. As a conscript, he took part in the invasion of Poland but from this he wrote what is thought of as the only Austrian resistance novel which was banned by the government because it contained “an ideologically troubled central character, hints at the existence of active political opposition” (Wikipedia). He died in 1976 with a reputation for controversy which made him “the difficult old man of Austrian literature”.
Ferdinand Sponer, a young taxi driver picks up a fare outside the railway station who wants to go to the Bristol Hotel. When he arrives at the hotel, he turns to speak to the passenger and finds him dead with a bullet hole in his throat and other wounds leaking blood into the back of his cab.
Sponer’s efforts to tell the police are thwarted at every turn and realising how implausible his story is, he decides to dump the body in the Danube and forget the whole thing. Needless to say, this is where things start to go terribly wrong for Sponer. Before long, due to a convoluted series of events he finds himself taking on the identity of the dead man (thus the title of the book). I have to admire the author’s inventiveness as the story takes off on a wildly erratic route, with surprises at every turn.
The book has been filmed twice, once in the 1939s and again in 1952, but both times in the German language. The story is as fresh and lively today and would make a great period drama, with such visual scenes as the body being dumped in the Danube, police chases through the streets of the city, Sponer’s various and very peculiar courtships, some mysterious goings on in hotel rooms – and all set in the glitz and glamour of Vienna before the War. I’d love to see a film set based on Lernet-Holenia’s description of a “slot machine bar”:
It was a large, circular, dome-shaped room with slot machines around the perimeter and tables in the middle at which people were eating and drinking. A radio was blaring. He walked past the machines and studied the labels. Over one of the taps was the inscription “Sherry”. He picked up a glass, held it under the tap, and inserted a coin in the slot. The interior emitted a hollow gurgling and spluttering sound, and sherry—somewhat unappetisingly, he thought—gushed from the metal tap into the glass. There are many people who don’t enjoy the luxury of having dessert wines served up elegantly. Slot-machine bars are meant for the likes of them.
Did these bars ever exist of are they a creation of the author? I’ve failed to bring up anything in Wikipedia or Google. This was a very different world to ours in which even the brands of cigarettes have a mysterious air to them – “Khedive, Figaro, Dimitrino, Simon Arzt”.
I always enjoy books which are based on a recognisable geography, with names and places firmly set in the real world. For anyone who knows Vienna, or who just wants to follow the story around on Google Maps (yes, I am he). the book is full of location details:
“He drove up Lastenstrasse, turned into Marxergasse, crossed the Rotunden Bridge over the Danube Canal and, taking Rustenschacherallee, ended up in Lusthausstrasse. The huge oaks and poplars in the Prater rustled in the wind and rain”.
The book is translated in a direct and natural style by Ignat Avsey, who is to be commended for a transparent translation which leaves no sense of the book originating in another language.
I am writing a shorter review than usual because I Was Jack Mortimer is one of those books where to write much about it is to spoil it for other readers. However, I’ll finish by saying that I was highly impressed and am grateful to Pushkin Press for rediscovering this novel and arranging for its publication in English.
A Common Reader’s Bake-Off
A highlight of this time of year is the BBC series Great British Bake-off in which a group of contestants compete each week to make three horrendously difficult cakes, pastry and bread recipes. Inspired by the show we took to making Chelsea Buns this week and came up with these.
The recipe is from an old copy of Delia Smith’s Book of Cakes which made me remember how annoying it was working in the old imperial measures such as fluid ounces, table-spoons and “cups”. The metric system has made cooking so much more straightforward so longs as you have a set of digital scales.
It took a very long time to make them because as with most baking there’s a lot of hanging-around time. The yeast has to start working, then there’s a first rising and later a second rising, each one an hour long. Fortunately the end product made it all worth while but you do wonder how people find the time to bake regularly.