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.
It is 70 years since Stefan Zweig committed suicide with his wife in Rio de Janeiro and while he died despairing of the future of Europe and it’s culture, the ongoing popularity of Zweig’s books suggests that perhaps the future was not as bleak as he supposed. This month, Pushkin Press are publishing four Zweig books with elegant new covers designed by David Pearson and I am pleased to see that they have included Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, in a translation by Anthea Bell.
I have been re-reading Beware of Pity remembering how I originally came to it with some trepidation, not being overly keen on books which focus on unrequited romance. However, I was soon swept up into it’s unfolding drama and was surprised to find it difficult to put down, with a captivating but simple message: if you live entirely to please others you will bring disaster, not only on yourself, but also on those to whom you imagine you are so vitally important.
The novel, set in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early part of the 20th century, tells the story of a young second lieutenant, Toni, who finds himself embroiled in a relationship with Edith, a partly paralysed 17 year old girl. Edith’s family encourage the relationship and it is only when it is too late that Toni discovers that the girl is deeply in love for him and that she has embarked on a new course of medical treatment so that she can get better “just for him”. The young soldier is faced with the impossibility of breaking Edith’s heart, knowing that such a course would jeopardise her recovery from her disabling condition.
Thomas Glavinic is a young Austrian writer who has won various awards and scholarships in his home country. Pull Yourself Together is the third of his books to be translated into English. Its a sort of coming-of-age novel about Austrian teenager Charlie Colustrum, an over-weight boy with bad skin who lives with his alcoholic mother.
The book opens on the night Challenger space shuttle broke up in mid-flight in 1986, and finds Charlie about to lose his virginity with his first girl-friend. We then follow the course of Charlie’s youth and young-adulthood through to the night in 2003 when the space-shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry. I suppose that as far as marking the path of a life goes these markers are as good as any!
Although Charlie’s mother is an alcoholic he has a number of close relatives including the “aunticles” (a pair of stern and demanding sisters), and a very old great aunt who acts as a fount of wisdom and a refuge for Charlie when he needs top-ups of unconditional love or much-needed schillings (this is pre-euro days of course).
Each chapter records various events in Charlie’s life as he moves through seventeen years of his life. Despite his weight (a constant worry to him), he manages to get through several girl-friends during his progress through college and on to a variety of jobs. The story is told in the first person and Charlie has a self-deprecating, ironic voice which allows the readers to hear his inner commentary on the things which happen to him.
Charlie likes to think of himself as a philosopher and attempts to cover up his sense of inadequacy by wearing a black cloak and carrying around volumes by Nietzsche and Kant. In reality he is consumed with superstitious fears and has an unhealthy dependence on self-help guides. At the end of each chapter he tried to draw a life-lesson from episodes in his life in the form of a “note to self”, such as,
– Human sexual relationships are an ill-developed system showing grave deficiencies
– Sometimes when you’ve made a fool of yourself you’ve really opened the door to something new
– When you’re sitting there consumed with hatred, remember that youth and dependence will someday come to an end.
Young Gerber is a very welcome English translation of a novel by Austrian writer Freidrich Torberg (1908-1979). It is a substantial book of 350 pages or so but concerns a relatively small period of time and focuses on just one event, the matura, or graduation exam which all grammar school students must pass before they go on to university.
The matura consists of a set of written papers and those who survive those with a “pass” move on to the oral examination. This takes place before a panel of four professors who present the student with a set of questions of ferocious difficulty and see how he or she deals with them.
Kurt Gerber is an intelligent student but lacks application to his studies. He is in love with class-mate Lisa, a wealthy young woman with a rich social life – and more interest in the men she meets in expensive hotels while on holiday with her parents than in her fellow-students.
Kurt has managed to form a sort of liaison with Lisa but she always seems to have other men in tow and he finds it difficult to meet her socially. Also, it is now the start of the final year of school and he must face up to the ordeal of the matura, in which he will be tested in the subject he finds most difficult – mathematics, as well as difficult questions in Latin, German literature, history and geography.
Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was born and spent his early childhood in Bukovinia, in the Carpathian mountains, a region which, since the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has passed through several nationalities including Romania and Ukraine. Gregor von Rezzori likewise was a citizen of the Empire, and then became Romanian, Russian and finally Austrian (the latter after a period of statelessness following World War II).
Von Rezzori was a fine writer and I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before he is rediscovered as a classical author in the mould of other writers of his period such as Stefan Zweig. His current obscurity is shown by the ease in which it is possible to obtain second-hand copies of his mostly out-of-print books. I have found excellent hard-back copies at prices as low as £0.99 on both ebay and Abebooks, and I have managed to build up a set of von Rezzori’s main works with very little trouble at all.
In The Snows of Yesteryear (which has the sub-title, “Portraits for an autobiography”), von Rezzori recalls his Bukovinian childhood by presenting pen-pictures of his nurse, mother, father, sister and governess. Von Rezzori was born into a comparatively well-off family, but with more than a little of what we now call dysfunction. His father was a robust hunting-man, happiest when in the forests with his friends. When not hunting, he was womanising, much to his wife’s distress. He has what von Rezorris describes as a “pathological” anti-Semitism, but loathed National Socialism because of its socialism. When viewing a magazine cover containing a portrait of Adolf Hitler, von Rezzori’s father commented, “Germany rises once more. But have a look at this fellow: I wouldn’t hire him as a stable boy!” Continue reading
The Orient Express, was the last novel to be written by Gregor von Rezzori. It was published in 1992, six years before his death, and it allows his un-named narrator to reflect on his life’s journey as a wealthy business man, well into the last era of his life, as he travels the world alone, taking “time-out” from his marriage, his career and his responsibilities.
Generally Von Rezzori’s is thought of as a chronicler of the first half of the 20th century when Europe’s old alliances were crumbling and one war after another redrew the Continent’s boundaries. Von Rezzori was a mid-European, finding himself transferring nationalities every few years as the nations traded citizenship with one another. It is therefore strange to read this later novel, which is far more “modern” than his other work, being set firmly in the last decade and dealing with modern Western culture rather than pre-war Germany or the aftermath of the Austro Hungarian Empire.
We meet the narrator in Venice, a place that disgusts him with its faded splendour, its tourist-infestation and general seediness. His opulent hotel makes no impression on him, for his life has been spent in such surroundings. He finds his hotel room more like a bordello, with its mirrors tilted towards the bed and its gold-framed Birth of Venus on the wall.
While flicking through tourist brochures in the hotel lobby, he finds a brochure for the newly launched Orient Express. The narrator finds himself both intrigued and disgusted by the thought of reviving this once great expression of romantic European travel. For he had travelled extensively in Europe when such trains were the main way of transporting yourself across the Continent and he well-remembered their style and opulence. Continue reading
I have recently discovered the books of Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1988) and feel that I have stumbled upon a layer of gold down in the deeper mines of 20th century literature. Its just surprising that at this point in time that publishers of such authors as Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann, Gunther Grass etc, aren’t falling over themselves trying to get out a unified edition of Rezzori’s works, and I’m sure its only a matter of time before von Rezzori is well-known as a classic writer of 20th century mid-Europe.
I’ve filed this post under “Austrian fiction” on the basis that von Rezzori took on Austrian nationality after World War II, when his home region of Bukovina, originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had passed through the hands of Russia, Romania and Ukraine. Truly, von Rezzori was highly qualified to chronicle the maelstrom of mid-Europe in those tumultuous years, and as I read his books I find a unique voice which is quite impossible to pin-down as German, Romanian, Russian or Austrian.
von Rezzori is primarily a writer of novels. Even where the writing seems to be autobiographical, the reader is never too sure how authentic the memoirs are. In an interview with Bruce Wolmer, when asked about the conflation between the first-person narrator of his books with himself, von Rezzori replies, “this is such an old discussion: To what extent are books autobiographic? Its ridiculous. You can’t eliminate yourself totally unless you’re Shakespeare”. And yet, in von Rezzori, we find completely authentic voices, whether its “Gregor” in Confessions of an Anti-Semite, or Baron Peter in Oedipus in Stalingrad, von Rezzori’s characters have a convincing, if unappealing world-view. Von Rezzori understood these people, he knew where they were coming from, and he was unashamed to tell their stories without the need for constant corrective commentary – their words alone are their judge. Continue reading