Alexander Lernet-Holenia - The novel draws its disturbing quality from an intimate interlacing of precisely described authentic combat episodes with a concept of a pervasive Otherworld that merges with our reality in a way that makes it difficult to determine whether one has already transgressed its borders






book cover of 

Mars in Aries

Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Mars in Aries, Trans. by Robert Von Dassanowsky and Elisabeth Littell Frech , Ariadne Press, 2004.



A masterwork and one of the most strikingly unique and sophisticated novels in twentieth century German language literature, 'Mars in Aries' was immediately banned upon its publication in book form in 1941. Although this story of a romance between an aristocratic Wehrmacht officer and a mysterious woman in Vienna set against the 1939 invasion of Poland was deemed unacceptable fare for Third Reich readership due to its ambiguity, lack of heroic military images, and the sympathetic portrayal of a suffering Poland, the novel's actual purpose and highly subversive quality were hardly suspected by the Ministry of Propaganda.

As Alexander Lernet-Holenia's (1897-1976) Mars in Aries had received magazine serialization but was immediately banned upon its publication in book form in 1941 (republished in 1947 based on a found manuscript proof). Although this story of a romance between an aristocratic Wehrmacht officer and a mysterious woman in Vienna set against the 1939 invasion of Poland was deemed unacceptable fare for Third Reich readership due to its ambiguity, lack of heroic military images, and the sympathetic portrayal of a suffering Poland, the novel's actual purpose and highly subversive quality were hardly suspected by the Ministry of Propaganda. Richly constructed with cultural, historical, literary, linguistic, philosophical, and metaphysical references that counter Nazism and expose the premeditation behind the attack on Poland, the novel suggests the survival of Austrian identity, the intermeshing of existentialism and fate, the duality of existence, and the qualities of resistance. Written with great formal elegance, subtlety and humanistic erudition, and presented here in its first English translation, Mars in Aries is a standout among war and resistance novels. It also underscores Alexander Lernet-Holenia's place in the Austrian literary canon alongside such writers as Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Musil and Broch.


Mars in Aries is the most widely known novel by the Austrian writer Alexander Lernet-Holenia. It was written during the winter of 1939-1940 and is about the author's combat experience during the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht at the start of World War II. The novel draws its disturbing quality from an intimate interlacing of precisely described authentic combat episodes with a concept of a pervasive Otherworld that merges with our reality in a way that makes it difficult to determine whether one has already transgressed its borders. It stands in the tradition of the early 20th-century Austrian psychological novel genre of which Schnitzler's Dream Story and Perutz' The Master of the Day of Judgement are other famous examples. + plot summary

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Alexander Lernet-Holenia, I Was Jack Mortimer, Trans. by Ignat Avsey, Pushkin Press, 2013.

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.


"Although this isn't, as transator Ignat Avsey claims, "the most magnificent thriller ever written", it is certainly a fascinating snapshot of Vienna between the wars, pacey and entertaining." - Laura Wilson


"I Was Jack Mortimer reads as if it was written yesterday. Very few novels published in recent years match its daunting panache. The fast-moving, cleverly convoluted plot is brilliantly served by the sustained irony of Ignat Avsey’s witty translation. (...) The sequence in the hotel room is possibly the highlight of a terrific book, one to read and then urge everyone else to follow suit." - Eileen Battersby

I Was Jack Mortimer only covers a few days, but in that time Ferdinand Sponer experiences considerably more than he could have ever bargained for. Sponer is a taxi driver in 1930s Vienna, and the novel begins with him becoming entranced by a fare -- so much so that he basically stalks her. Marisabelle von Raschitz is of a different social class and certainly not too excited about the attention she suddenly receives from this cabbie, but Sponer can't help himself. And this despite the fact that he has a longtime girlfriend, the devoted Marie Fiala.
       But it's another fare that turns Sponer's life upside down -- Jack Mortimer. Mortimer gets in Sponer's taxi at the train station, and asks to be taken to the Hotel Bristol (failing to specify whether he wants the Old or the New one); it's all downhill from there. Sponer's judgment isn't the best, and in his panic -- he has good reason to panic -- he takes some unfortunate steps (though admittedly even as he tries to do the right thing early on he is stymied by circumstances around him). Eventually he decides his best bet is to check into the Bristol as Jack Mortimer and play the role for a night, after which he thinks he can slip back into his old life, with no one the wiser.
       It doesn't work out that way, of course, as Mortimer also becomes: "the demon in Sponer's head". It turns out Mortimer comes with more baggage than just his suitcase, and no sooner has Sponer checked in than someone wants to arrange a meeting with the person they believe to be Mortimer -- and they won't take no for an answer. Mortimer's own backstory is eventually revealed, and it puts Sponer in what looks like a hopeless position. He turns to faithful Marie for help, and she is willing to do anything for him, but by that time the police are already circling and Sponer can feel the noose tightening.
       Things work out, in a way -- yet even when they do Sponer has to hear:
 Yes. You’re now free, you say ! You’re no longer what you were !
       Which, as it turns out, isn't what at least one person wants from him. But, by the end, everything is back in its proper place: justice has been served, and the social order restored.
       I Was Jack Mortimer gets a bit carried away in the streets of Vienna, with rather too much exposition of drives and chases -- the likes of:
Sponer hurried down Burggasse alongside the rumbling and clanking carts, then turned right onto Lastenstrasse, which was equally busy. Only at Karlsplatz did he turn off, and the clatter and rattle died away in the distance.
       From Sponer's stalking to his desperate attempts to unload Mortimer to the chases and confrontations with the police and Mortimer's past catching up with him, there is some decent excitement here. It's quite a well-paced thriller -- over-stretched on occasion in the streets of Vienna, and with some inadvertent comic moments to (such as the scene where: "without any hesitation he socked them over the head with his rubber truncheon"), but quite enjoyable.
       Both the initial disaster and the way things neatly work out are perhaps all a bit too neat, but it's amusing to see how Sponer flails about and things just move ahead regardless of what he does. The social class conflict element is a bit odd (and that resolution also a bit much for the story to handle), but it's also an amusing side-story.
       Overall, a fine, agreeable little thriller. - M.A.Orthofer



Alexander Lernet-Holenia, The Resurrection of Maltravers, Trans. by Joachim Neugroschel, Marsilio Publishers, 1989.

After waking from apparent death on the floor of the family crypt, Georg Maltravers resolves to live a second life under an assumed name.


Kafka, Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Karl Kraus are just a few of the major creative figures who emerged from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And now, somewhat belatedly, the name of Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976) must be added to the list, given the re-emergence in print of two previously translated Lernet-Holenia novellas, ``Baron Bagge`` (1936) and ``Count Luna`` (1955), and the first appearance in English of his novel ``The Resurrection of Maltravers`` (1936).
Born into a military family, Lernet-Holenia underwent grim experiences while serving as a cavalry cadet in World War I-clearly a crucial period for him, because in all three of these works he not only evokes the end of an old order but also, as the narrator of ``Baron Bagge`` puts it, the interval of
``time and space . . . between dying and death itself.`` If the latter suggests the vagueness of a seance, be advised that making that interval utterly concrete is one of Lernet-Holenia`s chief goals-not because he wants to make the reader`s flesh creep but because he seems to believe, perhaps even knows, that the interval is fact.
Plot plays a peculiar, privileged role in Lernet-Holenia`s fiction, so a summary of what happens in these works may help to convey their flavor. In
``Maltravers`` the aged title figure, an aristocratic con-man and rogue who has been briefly entombed after his apparent death, comes to his senses, adopts a new identity and proceeds to make his mischievous way through the world once more. The eponymous narrator of ``Baron Bagge`` speaks of a World War I cavalry expedition into Hungary, where, after a reckless assault on a Russian detachment, the Baron and his comrades can find no further enemy forces and are welcomed by the populace with lavish hospitality-in the midst of which the Baron comes upon the love of his life. And in ``Count Luna`` an industrialist inadvertently responsible for sending a man to a concentration camp feels certain that the fellow has survived the war and is mounting a shadowy campaign of revenge.
What no summary can convey, though, is that plot is where the lyrical or poetic element of Lernet-Holenia`s fiction resides; like Kafka, whom he otherwise does not resemble, Lernet-Holenia weaves his most intimate hopes and dreams into the texture of what happens next.
That is especially true of ``Baron Bagge,`` in which, as one might expect, the cavalry charge marks the beginning of the interval ``between dying and death``-a fact that the reader quickly grasps yet almost refuses to accept, given the exquisitely imagined detail of this borderland of the afterlife. And in some ways ``Maltravers`` is even more remarkable, a book that begins as a crystalline farce and then modulates downward toward resignation and release-the whole so prescient of what will emerge from the decaying, mid-1930s world the novel portrays that one can hardly believe it was written just then and not many years later. - Larry Kart

Mona Lisa

Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Mona Lisa, Pushkin Press, 2015.



The secret behind the smile is revealed.
Three things have led the young nobleman Bougainville to his great, tragic love: war (he went to fight the Spanish for his king), art (his army visited Florence to do some light shopping) and the humble housefly (which he was chasing through Leonardo da Vinci's workshop when he stumbled upon her, leaning on an easel hidden behind a curtain).
He is plunged into an amour fou for his Mona Lisa - too beautiful, too real to have been imagined, however great the artist - and his attempts to find her prove wild, violent, even fatal.
Lernet-Holenia's novella is the brilliantly funny story of how art inspires a tremendous love - pure, for all its madness - and is inspired by it in turn.

Alexander Lernet-Holenia's Mona Lisa, nicely packaged in a small volume by Pushkin Press, is hardly a full-fledged novel (or even novella); it's barely more than a story -- but appealing enough as a small, historical trifle.
       Mona Lisa begins with Louis XII of France sending off a force on a second Italian campaign in 1502, led by Marshal Louis de la Trémoille; among his entourage is a Philippe de Bougainville. Spoils of war are harder to come by in this second campaign, and La Trémoille decides: "to concentrate on the purchase of objects of art" -- leading him, in Florence, to the home of Leonardo da Vinci. It is Bougainville who glimpses the unfinished portrait of Mona Lisa there, and though Leonardo demurs -- "It is woefully unfinished. It's a mere trifle" -- Bougainville is bewitched by the image of the woman captured by the painter.
       Leonardo is constantly working on many different projects -- but not getting around to finishing many:
 He had no end of projects on the go, practically all of which he later abandoned to preoccupy himself with anything that took his fancy, rather than with the matter in hand. Perhaps he realized that in truth nothing could ever be accomplished fully. It is certain that nothing, or almost nothing, is ever accomplished to the end, and the little that has been may, in the last analysis, be a delusion.
       As to the Mona Lisa-painting, Leonardo notes in particular:
 (D)espite my efforts to capture it, the smile of this woman has eluded me. Every smile is a mystery, not only of itself, but in every other respect too. But I have no clue to this mystery.
       Bougainville becomes obsessed -- and convinced that the sitter of the portrait is not, as everyone claims, dead. He goes to considerable lengths to convince himself she is still alive -- and is determined to save her. Things get out of hand, and do not go well -- but Leonardo finds his missing inspiration, the final clue to the mystery that had baffled him.
       It makes for a nice little story about the Gioconda's smile; a trifle, certainly, but appealing enough. - M.A.Orthofer,

Independent on Sunday (scroll down for review) 




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