Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, November 25, 2013

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holena 1933

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia is an interesting set in Vienna novel in the noir mode.  I found the first third or 
so of the novel well done but after that I thought it went seriously down hill.   

The story is told in the first person by a cab driver.  One fine day he picks up a fare, an ordinary seeming m
man, well dressed is all he noticed.   When he arrives at the man's requested destination he discovers 
man is dead, having been shot several times.   At first he thinks he must of course report this to the
police.  Then he decides that if he goes to the police and tell them he did not notice a man being shot
several times in his cab they wil see him as a suspect.  He goes through the man's pockets and finds
out he is Jack Mortimer, an American.  In the next phase of the book the author takes us to the 
American west in cowboy country on the border with Mexico to learn about the real life of Jack
Mortimer.  Clearly the author knew nothing about American cowboys other than what he saw in 
movies of the 1930s.  The novel takes a turn for the stupid as it enters Mexico and Jack falls for
a beautiful señorita.  The longer the novel stays in America, the worse it gets as the author tries 
to set up a plausible reason why Jack Mortimer was murdered in Vienna.  Once we return to Vienna
it was interesting to see the narrator's angst as the police to begin to see him as a murder suspect.  

Overall I am glad I have read another book by an author from Vienna but I do not endorse
reading until you have read higher regarded Viennese writers like Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. 

I want to try to be fair to this book and I admire Pushkin Press for the many books they have 
published in translation so I am quoting their description of the book below.

"The cast of this brilliant thriller ... are pure Raymond Chandler ... but the Viennese setting gives it an extra, stylish twist. It's excellently written and fearsomely gripping." The Times A taxi-driver in 1930s Vienna impersonates a murder victim-with unsettling consequences "One doesn't step into anyone's life, not even a dead man's, without having to live it to the end." A man climbs into Ferdinand Sponer's cab, gives the name of a hotel, and before he reaches it has been murdered: shot through the throat. And though Sponer has so far committed no crime, he is drawn into the late Jack Mortimer's life, and might not be able to escape its tangles and intrigues before it is too late... Twice filmed, I Was Jack Mortimer is a tale of misappropriated identity as darkly captivating and twisting as the books of Patricia Highsmith.Alexander Lernet-Holenia was born in Vienna in 1897. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War and became a protégé of Rainer Maria Rilke. During his life he wrote poetry, novels, plays and was a successful screenwriter. His uneasy relationship with the National Socialist Party resulted in his removal from prominence in 1944, but after the end of the Second World War, he again became a vital figure in Austrian cultural life. He died in 1976."

In reading the works of German and Austrian authors who were adults during the Nazi era I do
want to know how they dealt with the times.  I know this does not impact the artistic value of
their work but it interests me.  Here is Wikipedia's account of our authors activities.

Lernet-Holenia participated in the Invasion of Poland as a reactivated and drafted lieutenant of the reserve, an experience on which he based his 1941 novel Die Blaue Stunde (The Blue Hour) which after the war became known under the title Mars im Widder (Mars in Aries). It has been called "the only Austrian resistance novel" because the plot features an ideologically troubled central character, hints at the existence of active political opposition, and because the Nazi government banned and quarantined the first edition of the book.

Although Lernet-Holenia made himself a lucrative business as a popular screenplay writer during the Third Reich, he was one of the few accomplished Austrian authors who kept his distance from National Socialism, and refused to endorse the Nazi political system or to participate in its notorious blood and soil literary efforts. However, to stay in business he had to make arrangements with the regime, which included becoming chief dramaturgist at the "Heers-Filmstelle" (the audiovisual media center of the Wehrmacht in Berlin, charged with producing propaganda films for military cinemas) after the Polish campaign. Robert Dassanowsky has stated that "[Lernet-Holenia's] early actions in the Reich were confused, appearing to vacillate between naiveté and the often clumsy, often shrewd acts of a survivalist ... a unique but not incomprehensible position." Lernet-Holenia became more outspoken as the war progressed. After his removal from his public position in 1944 he escaped service on the Eastern combat theatre through contrived illness and the help of the resistance network.


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