Viennese Noir – a final fling for #GermanLitMonth


I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Although I loved reading Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”, it *did* take up a good part of German Literature Month! So I’m kind of playing catch-up now, trying to squeeze in as many books as I can before December – although I suspect I may still be reading German lit after November has ended! “I Was Jack Mortimer” is a lovely Pushkin Press book I’ve had a for a while now – I picked it up in London, at the Bloomsbury Oxfam – and it’s just been reissued as a Pushkin Vertigo, so it seemed the time was right for a read.


Lernet-Holenia was Viennese, fighting for Austria-Hungary in the First World War, and going on to become a protegé of the poet Rilke. He was quite a prolific author, taking in novels, poetry and plays (writing one of the latter with Stefan Zweig), thought I suspect that this is his best-known book nowadays. I *have* actually started the book once before and stalled after the first couple of chapters, but this time I was determined!

“I Was Jack Mortimer” is set in Vienna in the 1930s and opens with our hero, a taxi driver called Ferdinand Sponer, picking up a fare. The fare in question turns out to be a beautiful and wealthy woman, Marisabelle von Raschitz. Sponer is instantly captivated and spends much of the opening chapters pursuing her, despite the gulf between them – and there are hints that Marisabelle finds his rather intense eyes somewhat attractive. However, this distraction is put aside when a rather more pressing problem arises in the form of the titular gentleman. He jumps into Sponer’s cab at a railway station but by the time the taxi driver comes to query which of two hotels Mortimer wants to go to, it becomes clear that the backfiring car he heard was actually gunshot, and Mortimer is well and truly dead.

Of course, if someone was shot in the back of your cab, the logical thing to do would be to go straight to the police, and Sponer tries to do this. But circumstances conspire against him, and despite trying to speak to a traffic cop and then go to the nearest police station, he’s incapable of telling anyone. It soon becomes too late to report the crime, for fear of the blame falling on him, and so Sponer decides to try and dispose of the body and impersonate Mortimer to create some kind of alibi. Needless to say, this does not go as planned and events start to spiral out of control; there are car chases round Vienna; Sponer’s girlfriend becomes involved and ends up being frantically pursued by the police; a kind of musician and his wife turn up to complicate the plot; Marisabelle reappears; and it seems as if Sponer will never manage to disentangle himself from Jack Mortimer’s life.


In many ways “I Was Jack Mortimer” reads like a film script, with its frenetic chases by car or on foot, and its rapid changes of scene – so it’s not a surprise to learn that Lernet-Holenia wrote for the movies, and that the book has been filmed twice. The author brilliantly captures that wonderful noir quality of loss of control, the nightmarish scenario when you can’t do the right thing and events conspire against you. The writing vividly conjures up the landscape of Vienna and the Danube, and the story rattles along at breakneck speed, barely allowing you to catch breath. The narrative is sometimes a little uneven and there was an odd kind of jolt in the middle of the book, when Jose Montemayor, the cowboy musician was introduced; I did wonder at that point where the book was going. But I persevered and things eventually fell into place.

I did pick up another layer, however, as the author introduced a number of meditations on the difference between wealth and poverty, with Ferdinand contrasting the buildings he grew up in and now lives in, with somewhat fancier residence of Marisabelle. There is a clear sense of class division and an obvious rigid social structure, with Sponer and Marisabelle being on either side of the divide. There’s also the interesting spectacle of Marisabelle’s differing reactions to our hero depending on whether she perceives him as a hunted man on the run, possibly a murderer, or someone who is an innocent victim of circumstance.

All in all, “I Was Jack Mortimer” was another winner from Pushkin (how do they keep bringing out such fabulous books?) and a good way to end German Literature Month. It was entertaining, exciting, and one of those books you want to rush through to find out what happens – but don’t want to end because you’re enjoying it so much! Great fun!

MarinaSofia has reviewed this recently and for her thoughts click here.

In which I aptly read a particular book from the library…


Latest Readings by Clive James

In recent years, I’ve somehow lost touch with Clive James and his work; back in the 1980s he was ubiquitous and I used to enjoy his pithy TV appearances. I also had several of his books, “Unreliable Memoirs” definitely and I think some collections of his TV criticism. Alas, they disappeared at some point down the decades, and I hadn’t kept up with James’ career trajectory. So it was a surprise when I heard he’d translated Dante; then he appeared as part of a fascinating pair of BBC documentaries called “Rebels of Oz” (which I watched in the main for Robert Hughes, I confess). Alas, I learned from this of his illness and also that he was a poet himself.

latest readings

James is still with us, thankfully, and still writing, and recent reviews of his book “Latest Readings” (mainly from Annabel and Simon) made me very keen to reconnect with him. Let’s face it, we book bloggers love a book about books, and this one is a treat, charting Clive’s joyous relishing of reading during his twilight years. On the face of it, you might think that whilst coping with a terminal illness, books might be the last thing on your mind. However, for James books are a comfort and an obsession and he finds himself discovering and rediscovering volume after volume of treasures, with “Latest Readings” recording his thoughts and feelings about those books.

Needless to say, it’s a truly inspiring read. Some authors James writes about are ones I share his enthusiasm for, with his love of Larkin and his championing of Olivia Manning; others are writers I’m never likely to read, such as Patrick O’Brian. Regardless of this, it’s fascinating to read his views on them, and he always has something valid to offer; even when you don’t agree with someone’s tastes in books, it’s still interesting to hear what the think, and sometimes there’ll be that burst of recognition when he starts talking about something you love and you have that moment of connection. He’s also a witty commentator and I was reminded how much I always enjoyed his works and found myself wishing I’d kept on track with his more recent career.

LR ends up being something of a diary, as James very calmly and matter-of-factly intersperses his comments on the books with bulletins from his daily life, dealing with his illness. He seems sanguine about things, happy just to enjoy his remaining time and spend his days experiencing other lives and others worlds through the wonderful medium of print.


“Latest Readings” was as good as the reviews had me expecting it would be, and I’m moved to seek out more of James’ recent writings. In particular, I’ve had a look at some of his poetry collections and they seem the kind of verse that would definitely appeal to me. Books about books are a great thing, particularly if the author’s tastes inersect with your own, and this is recommended to anyone who loves reading about other’s people’s reading adventures!

(To read Simon’s review at Shiny New books click here; and for Annabel’s thoughts click here)

The Lost World of the Viennese Cafe (#GermanLitMonth)


Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler

Continuing with this month’s German theme, I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of this book from the lovely Pushkin Press (for which many thanks!); I’ve been keen to read Schnitzler for a while and I’m sure I have at least one book by him lurking somewhere. However, “Late Fame” sounded fascinating: a lost work of a famous author which survived hidden away in his archive. The archive itself had an intriguing history; Schnitzler died in 1931, and his literary legacy was stored in his son’s house in Vienna. When the Nazis forcibly took control of Austria in 1938, it was likely that the work would be destroyed, as Schnitzler’s books had been amongst those burned by the Nazis earlier in the decade. Fortunately, due to intervention by the British Consulate, the seal of the British Government was placed on the door of the archive, and thereafter it made its way by a tortuous route to the Cambridge University Library where it stayed hidden all those years.

late fame

Wikipedia has Schnitzler listed as simply “an Austrian author and playwright. He is considered one of the most important representatives of the Viennese Modernism.” But it goes on to note that much of his work was considered controversial for its frank sexual content, and that his books were labelled as “Jewish filth” by Hitler (hence the burning, presumably). Nothing like this is present in “Late Fame”, however, which tells the story of one Eduard Saxberger, a lowly and ageing civil service clerk. Unmarried and fairly solitary, he’s in the habit of spending his evenings in a local restaurant with locals he’s known for years, conversing and playing cards. However, one evening he returns home to find a young man waiting for him by the name of Meier. Meier declares he is a poet, and has come to pay homage to the forgotten author of “Wanderings” – for indeed, in his youth, Saxberger had published such a volume of poems, a fact he hasn’t thought about for many years.

Meier tells the bemused Saxberger that he and his friends (grouping themselves under the name of ‘Enthusiasm’) are all huge fans of “Wanderings” and as typical misunderstood artists they empathise with his plight. Saxberger hadn’t actually realised he had a plight, but as he begins to mix with the young people, he realises he has been neglected for too long. The young artists begin to plan a performance, at which Saxberger will perform a new work and all will be showered in glory. However, things are not necessarily that straightforward: How will Saxberger be received by new generations of audiences? Is the work of the young poets really as incomprehensible as it seems to him? What will his old friends think of his new status as a famous poet? What do his new young friends *really* think of “Wanderings”? And most importantly of all, can Saxberger still write poetry?


“Late Fame” is quite fascinating; not only is it a devastating satire of the untalented artist, convinced he’s misunderstood by the world and that everyone else is a failure, but it also deals with the effect of false flattery on a simple nature. Saxberger *is* a simple man; used to spending his time with his restaurant friends, he’s seduced by the illusion of fame, convincing himself that his real life should have been as a famous poet and not an ordinary man. Fortunately, he’s grounded enough to recognise the illusion in time and step back into his own world, something that the younger people won’t be able to do, and Schnitzler lets him off lightly. As one of his friends sensibly points out, all young men of the time tried their hands at poetry, but once they outgrew this tendency they went on to live a normal life. However, the author has no mercy at all for the second-rate members of Enthusiasm and I can’t foresee much of a future for them in the creative world….

Apparently Schnitzler based many of the characters in the book on real people, a parody of a literary circle that met in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. The characters are certainly wonderfully drawn, from the pompous Meier through the ageing and fading actress Fräulein Gasteiner to timid young Winder (who I felt was the most sincere of the group). “Late Fame” manages to be funny and poignant at the same time, satirizing brilliantly the pretensions of would-be literati. It’s published in a beautiful little hardback edition by the wonderful Pushkin Press who once again deserve awards for bringing us this newly translated English version. If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a bit of a poet, it might be worth reading this book first…. 🙂

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – details of the book can be found on their website here, and they also publish a number of other titles by Schnitzler which will definitely be worth exploring!)

A Lost Youth


The Sad Geraniums by Wolfgang Borchert
Translated by Keith Hamnett

Ah, the joys of charity stores and random finds! 🙂 I was browsing recently in the Oxfam and came across this pretty little volume, a Calder and Boyars book from 1974. I’d never heard of the author before, but he was German (and so fitted in with German Literature Month), and the blurb implied he had a short and tragic life and had a cult following. So I took a gamble, and I’m really glad I did.

sad geraniums

First, a little bit about Borchert from Wikipedia: Wolfgang Borchert (20 May 1921 – 20 November 1947) was a German author and playwright whose work was affected by his experience of dictatorship and his service in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. His work is among the best examples of the Trümmerliteratur movement in post-World War II Germany. His most famous work is the drama “The Man Outside”, which he wrote in the first days after World War II. In his works he never makes compromises in questions of humanity and humanism. He is one of the most popular authors of the German postwar period, also today often read in German schools. Fascinating, no?

“The Sad Geraniums” is a slim collection of short works, some no more than a couple of pages long. I’ve seen Borchert described as a master of the art of compression, and that’s certainly evident here – these pieces, though brief, manage to convey an incredible amount. You could almost call them sketches rather than stories, but each captures a particular moment or event and crystallises it. So a pair of lovers shelter in a doorway and are glad it’s rained as they have an excuse to be late; a prospective suicide is distracted by the prospect of chopping wood; a potential seducer is repelled by a woman’s asymmetrical nostrils; and so on. Each small vignette is intense and involving and although we have just a short time to get to know the characters, somehow we feel as if we really do.

In the end only the wind will remain. When everything else is gone, tears, hunger, machines and music, then there will only be the wind left. He will outlive everything, stone and street, even immortal love. And he will sing comfortingly in the sparse shrubs which crown our snow-clad graves. And on summer evening he will court the sweet flowers and playfully dance with them – today, tomorrow, always.


The writing is quite beautiful, with some of the works being almost prose poems, lovely pieces of description. But still Borchert manages to convey something – an emotion, the sense of a story, a fragment that makes you look at life very differently. The language is so lovely that I make no apology for quoting more:

Is there any music sweeter than the sound of rain at night? Is there anywhere anything to subtle and so matter of fact, so secretive and so talkative as rain in the night? Are our ears so indifferent that we only react to streetcar bells, cannon blasts or symphony concerts? Do we no longer hear the symphonies of the thousand droplets that prattle and rattle on the pavement by night, that whisper lustfully against windows and roof-tiles, that softly strum and drum fairy tales on the leaves under which the millions of flies have crawled, that drop and plot onto our shoulders through our thin summer clothes or gurgle with tiny gong beats into the stream? Do we no longer hear anything but our own loud ballyhoo?

Information on Borchert and his work is sketchy, but fortunately this book contains a little sketch of his life and tells of how these 18 pieces were discovered amongst his papers after his death. He seems to me to be exactly the kind of author who could and should be picked up by a publisher like Pushkin Press; and on the strength of this short collection I would be very, very keen to read more of his work. Highly recommended!

A few sneaky arrivals…


Just in case you were thinking that the book buying had calmed down a little on the Ramblings, there *have* been a few arrivals recently… I’ve been doing my best not to buy, particularly bearing in mind that the festive season is approaching, but I confess to getting a little carried away after reading “The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka”!


“Sins for Father Knox” apparently has a couple of stories Boruvka appears in; the three books to the right are the other Boruvkas (including the one I read); and “Miss Silver’s Past” is another intriguing-sounding Skvorecky title. They were all preposterously cheap online, so I feel no guilt!

I’ve been fortunate enough to have some review prizes and a giveaway win arrived too:

review books

“Sea of Ink” is a lovely Peirene book which I was lucky enough to snag from a Twitter giveaway; and the Wilde, Schnitzler and Goncharov are all review copies, write-ups of which will appear in due course.

I’ve been trying to limit the charity shop browsing a little too, but the Samaritans came up trumps the Saturday before last with three lovely Viragos I don’t have:

viragos nov 15

They’re all in great condition, and not titles I have, so I was rather pleased.

And finally, this week in the Samaritans I came across this:


I’ve wanted to read “The Towers of Trebizond” for a long time and despite having a somewhat uninteresting paperback version on the shelves, I couldn’t resist this beautiful reprint society hardback. The cover is in amazing condition, which is unusual as they’re so often frayed, faded or tatty. Can’t wait to read it!

So – some nice arrivals, and I’m trying to correspondingly remove some titles before Christmas. I may do a small giveaway in December – watch this space!

#NovellaNov – listing a few favourites!


During November, Poppy of the lovely PoppyPeacockPens has been running a wonderful initiative to celebrate novellas in all their glory.


She was kind enough to ask me to take part, so I’ve been happy to offer some of my favourite novellas – although as always, it’s so hard to pick!


Do pop over and take a look – as well as my favourites, there are some wonderful posts about some wonderful books!  🙂

The Seven Years Enchantment


The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

“The Magic Mountain” was one of the books I considered reading for The 1924 Club but didn’t for a couple of reasons: firstly, I didn’t own a copy, and secondly, it’s over 700 pages long… However both those issues were resolved – I was lucky enough to win a copy of “The Magic Mountain” from lovely Lizzy’s Giveaway, and I decided to embark upon it not for The 1924 Club but for German Literature Month, starting during half-term when I would have more time to read. And a confession: I did own an old Penguin copy once and tried to start it but stalled, so I was hoping I would do better this time.

magic mountain

Mann, is of course, one of the German greats; as Wikipedia tells us, he was “a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. His highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. His analysis and critique of the European and German soul used modernized German and Biblical stories, as well as the ideas of Goethe, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Mann was a member of the Hanseatic Mann family and portrayed his family and class in his first novel, Buddenbrooks. His older brother was the radical writer Heinrich Mann and three of his six children, Erika Mann, Klaus Mann and Golo Mann, also became important German writers. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann fled to Switzerland. When World War II broke out in 1939, he moved to the United States, returning to Switzerland in 1952. Thomas Mann is one of the best-known exponents of the so-called Exilliteratur, literature written in German by those who opposed or fled the Hitler regime.” That’s quite a bio…

“The Magic Mountain” tells the story of Hans Castorp, a young German orphan, living pre-WW1. Brought up in the main by his grandfather, who is now also dead, he has a network of rather formal relations and as a trained engineer, has his life and career planned out. Before starting work in shipbuilding, he journeys up the mountains to the Berghof sanitorium in Davos, a Swiss Alpine location; here he is to spend three weeks visiting his cousin Joachim, who is being treated for consumption. As the introduction reminds is, tuberculosis was a killer in these pre-antibiotic days, and the rarefied atmosphere of the mountains was thought to be beneficial (I was reminded of Katherine Mansfield’s constant searches for health). Joachim is a rigid young man, desperate to be cured so he can go off and join the army. The cousins are attached but reserved, addressing each other formally and maintaining the social structure of the world down below.

Initially, Hans is amused by the routines of the Berghof and the cures the inmates take; however, he’s having trouble becoming acclimatised, at one point having a dramatic nosebleed; and when he appears to catch cold he asks the doctors to check him over. It transpires that he has a “moist spot” himself and it’s suggested that he stays up at the sanitorium for a few months to be cured himself. However, what starts as three weeks, then a few months, finally ends up being a seven-year stay and during that time Hans goes through many changes. Because of the cosmopolitan collection of inmates, his views are subject to much change; his moral standards relax; he falls in love; and through meeting some powerfully opinionated thinkers, he receives an intellectual education he would never have had down in the ‘flat-land’.


The Sanitorium

TMM is a massive book and to go into any more specific plot description would be pointless. It’s a novel of ideas; of cultures clashing and changing; and also one of enchantment. The seven-year period which Hans spends away from normal life is almost like a fairy-tale, in which the characters make their own reality, and the reader does wonder if they’ve all been bewitched. Hans ascends the mountain as if entering another realm; which in a sense he is, as the difference between the land of the living down below and the land of the dying up high is pronounced. There is a real ambiguity about the illness of the patients, and particularly with Hans we are never quite sure if he is really ill, or if it’s just the effects of the altitude. There’s a slight hint that the doctor, Hofrat, is a bit of a charlatan, and the treatments do seem to go on and on. This has a particularly striking effect on Joachim who, in his desperation to join up with the army, defies the doctors and flees from the enchanted region, with disastrous results.

Indeed, the Berghof seems to almost have a hypnotic effect on visitors which is demonstrated when Hans first arrives and becomes rather insidiously assimilated into the place’s way of life, and also when his Uncle James visits. In fact, it’s not until we see Hans encounter his uncle from the ‘flat-land’ down below, come up on a recce to find out exactly why his nephew is lingering in the mountains, that we really appreciate how much the former has changed. From a stiff, slightly upright bourgeois, with a career all mapped out for him, he’s grown into a pseudo philosopher, ready to explore ideas and grab what life can offer him away from the constraints of normal society. At several points, Mann describes what Hans has found in the higher regions as freedom, and it certainly seems to be a liberation of sorts, with the falling away of the rigid norms of the pre-WW1 society – but to be replaced with what? The inmates dabble in all sort of crazes, from playing patience through stamp collecting and even to holding rather disturbing seances.

Patients taking a cure

Patients taking a cure

There’s also a wonderful satirical element in the writing, as Mann wryly observes the various residents of the sanitorium; from the ‘bad Russian’ table; through Frau Stohr who always manages to say the wrong thing, or something totally inappropriate; Frau Chauchat, the beautiful Russian woman with whom Hans falls in love; the complex doctor Hofrat who’s also an amateur painter; Settembrini, an Italian patient, and Naphta, who lives in the nearby village. The book is full of wonderful, memorable characters, all of whom have some effect on Hans. In fact, Hans Castorp goes up the mountain as no more than a boy; rigid, naive and tradition bound. He comes down it a man, with a wealth of experience; because up in the heights, in that rarefied air, he’s experienced all that life has to offer.

Interestingly, I’ve heard TMM referred to as one of a number of “novel-essays” and it could certainly be argued that the book has a didactic purpose; the long sections of intellectual discussion are a way for the author to sneak plenty of high ideals into the tale. The clash of ideas, nationalities and cultures is central to the book, and there are many ideas discussed here (some of which, I have to confess, lost me a little…). Intellectual reasoning and debate is represented by the Freemason, Settembrini and the Jesuit, Naphta, both of whom are involved in Hans’ emotional and spiritual development. Settembrini’s pontificating, and his constant mental battles with Naphta, dominate whole chapters of the book. It’s as if they represent the two polar opposites of belief in the society of the time and, as Hans remarks, are battling for his soul.

They forced everything to an issue, these two – as perhaps one must when one differed – and wrangled bitterly over extremes, whereas it seemed to him, Hans Castorp, as though somewhere between two intolerable positions, between bombastic humanism and analphabetic barbarism, must lie something which one might personally call the human. He did not express his thought, for fear of irritating one or the other of them; but, wrapped in his reserve, listened to one goading the other one…

However, there are so many strands running through the story: illness and death is naturally prominent; the passing of time and the perception of time, which is very different away from the flat-land; magic and enchantment, of course; and the importance of music. The sanitorium in the mountains is a rarefied atmosphere in more ways than one; not only is the altitude relevant to the consumption cure, but in the isolated world of the patients, where they almost regard themselves as superior to the rest of the world, any kind of behaviour is sanctioned. There is a sense that by being physically removed from, and high above, the flat-land, they have a better overall view and are in a better position to judge.

As the story builds to a climax, with hints from the outside world that all is not well (hints that Hans tries to ignore) there is a growing sense that something will break. The characters begin to behave in more eccentric and dramatic ways, and the rivalry between Settembrini and Naphta becomes much more extreme. When that climax is reached, modernity and reality come crashing into the book and the shock to Hans’ world (and also to the reader) is palpable. The enchanted hero on the magic mountain is only released from the spell by the thunder crash of war, and the contrast is devastating.


As Mann explains in a fascinating afterword to the novel, the story grew out of a stay he had in a real-life sanitorium which he then used to build his book of ideas onto. He recommends that you read TMM twice, and it’s a view with which I would probably concur. It’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface of this vast, involving and complex novel in a review of this length; it raises so many thoughts, theories and questions that you could probably spend a good few years studying it. As it was, I came out TMM with a sense of having lived on the mountain with Hans, joined him in his triumphs and tragedies, and experienced a world in translation. I can see why Mann is regarded as one of the greats, and I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last of his novels I read.

#NovellaNov and German Literature Month – a double whammy!


Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Hilda Rosner

It’s not often that a book ticks two boxes, but this re-read of a book I haven’t returned to for about 30 years manages to! Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse was an author I read extensively in my younger years and I encountered his Knulp back in 2013. I was spurred on to return to “Siddhartha” by picking up a lovely Penguin Modern Classic on a swapping site (and Poppy has an interesting post about those here); so #NovellaNov and German Literature Month were the perfect prompts!


Hesse had a fascination with Indian and Buddhist philosophies, and in this book he draws on these to tell the story of Siddhartha; set in ancient India, the book tells of the young man’s odyssey through life, searching for spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha is born of a good family but shuns the path set out for him and instead sets off on his own. Joined by his best friend Govinda, he initially joins the Samanas, a group of wandering ascetics who fast and beg for their living, renouncing all personal possessions.

He saw people living in a childish or animal-like way, which he both loved and despised. He saw them toiling, saw them suffer and grow grey about things that to him did not seem worth the price – for money, small pleasures and trivial honours. He saw them scold and hurt each other; he saw them lament over pains at which the Samana laughs, and suffer at deprivations which the Samana does not feel.

The travelling Samanas encounter Guatama, a great Buddha, and Govinda joins his order, but Siddhartha travels on. Crossing a river he experiences a transformation and moves on to take a new role, throwing himself into worldly, city life and spending time with the great courtesan Kamala. Becoming rich, this satisfies him for a while until he realises that this life is hollow. Returning to the river he considers self-destruction; but re-encountering the kind Ferryman who took him across initially, Siddhartha stays with him, embracing the simple spiritual life and listening to what the river has to tell him…

The world was beautiful when looked at in this way – without any seeking, so simple, so childlike. The moon and the stars were beautiful, the brook, the shore, the forest and rock, the goat and the golden beetle, the flower and butterfly were beautiful. It was beautiful and pleasant to go through the world like that, so childlike, so awakened, so concerned with the immediate, without any distrust.

Siddhartha’s tale of spiritual self-discovery is beautifully written and though it might not be obviously so, very relevant today. The sections where he’s living a life of luxury in the city, making money and becoming a man of stature, resonate with the modern world where gadgets and gizmos are all-consuming, but distract from moral worth and mental and philosophical exercise. Siddhartha tries all the extremes, from extreme poverty and extreme wealth until he finds a middle way, a simplicity that humans need but which is so often missing from their over-complicated existence.


Both of my recent readings of Hesse have revealed an author who cares about how we humans exist on this planet, and how we should spend our time during our short stay here. “Siddhartha” is an elegant discussion of the best way to live our lives and it’s made me really keen to revisit the rest of Hesse’s work.

#NovellaNov – A South American fable


The Topless Tower Silvina Ocampo
Translated by James Womack

Poppy at PoppyPeacockPens is running a wonderful initiative this month to celebrate the art of the novella – and I’m happy to be able to join in with this slim volume from the wonderful Argentinian author, Silvina Ocampo. This is the third of her books I’ve read (I reviewed “Thus Were Their Faces” here, and her collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares here) and it’s a story that wouldn’t have actually been out-of-place in the NYRB collection. At 53 pages it perhaps seems more of a short story than a novella, but it was published separately by Hesperus Press in their “Hesperus Worldwide” imprint, so I guess it qualifies!

topless tower

And what a strange little tale it is! “The Topless Tower” is narrated by 9-year-old Leandro; one day, while he is playing with his friends, a strange man appears and tries to sell his mother some pictures, of strange rooms and the Topless Tower of the title. As Leandro has a somewhat sassy discourse with the man, his reality suddenly changes and he finds himself inside the Tower, alone and imprisoned in a place with no windows. Soon, he discovers that if he draws something, it immediately comes to life alongside him in the tower; this can go quite well, but often he cannot control his pencil and ends up with spiders and snakes and all sorts. Despite desperately trying to draw his mother, he manages to produce girl companions. But will he ever escape from the Tower itself?

Will the images we’ve seen throughout our lives remain inside our eyes? Will we be like a modern camera, filled with little rolls of film;of course, rolls that don’t require to be developed. If I die before reaching my home, before seeing my mother whom I love so much, will she get to see the photographic film stored inside me?

For such a short work, there’s actually an awful amount to think about, and that short summary barely scratches the surface. Leandro himself is an intriguing narrator – wise beyond his years, he uses words he doesn’t understand, but uses them correctly and they’re underlined in the narrative. He switches from first to third person, and back again, which adds another disconcerting layer to his story and makes you wonder how reliable a narrator he actually is. The lack of control which he has over the drawings is intriguing and the fact that, as the book progresses, his skill improves suggests perhaps that he’s growing up and developing his talents.


In fact, much of this book is probably allegorical (or it may be that I just have the habit of reading too much into books!) But Leandro claims to be fighting against the Devil, there is a strong fairy-tale element present in the story and we all know just how allegorical fairy stories are. The fact that one of the girls drawn by Leandro is called Alice is very probably significant, as the world he’s in seems to have as much logic as Carroll’s masterpiece.

“The Topless Tower” was a fascinating read, and I’m still thinking about the meanings behind the symbols some time after finishing it. As I said, it’s a short work to be printed on its own, and would have fitted well into “Thus Were Their Faces”. However, I’m glad I decided to read it just now, and it certainly does prove just how much meaning you can pack into a short novella… 🙂

Long-faced and lugubrious detecting!


The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky

I must admit that I’m a sucker when it comes to lost or neglected novels, and very easily biddable when I read good reviews of them. So when Grant at 1stReading waxed lyrical and praise Josef Skvorecky’s rather neglected collection of crime stories, not only did I rue the fact that I hadn’t picked up the several of the author’s books I’d seen in the Samaritans recently, but I also dashed off to order a copy of Lt. Boruvka’s adventures post-haste. Plus I seem to be in a groove with slightly off-centre detective novels at the moment.  And when the book arrived I really wasn’t disappointed… 🙂


First, a few words about Skvorecky from Wikipedia: Josef Škvorecký, September 27, 1924 – January 3, 2012) was a Czech-Canadian writer and publisher. He spent half of his life in Canada, publishing and supporting banned Czech literature during the communist era. Škvorecký was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980. He and his wife were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers before the fall of communism in that country. Škvorecký’s fiction deals with several themes: the horrors of totalitarianism and repression, the expatriate experience, and the miracle of jazz.

Music seems to be a recurring theme in his work, and it certainly crops up in this fascinating collection of short stories; although actually, the book rather straddles the line between short story and novel. Despite the fact that each tale has a title and is self-contained, the narrative is nevertheless continuous and the characters and stories develop as the book goes one. But whatever you want to call it, it’s a great read.

Lieutenant Boruvka himself is an engaging and indeed melancholy man whose mournful demeanour is on display from the start. Middle aged, with a round face and tufted hair, he’s not an obviously inspiring detective. Yet from the very first story he displays a wonderful knack of getting to the bottom of things, tackling here a suicide that may or may not be murder. In many of the tales, he’s accompanied by his Sergeant, Malek, and Constable First Class Sintak (the latter being in great awe of his boss). And then there is the beautiful policewoman with her hair in a chignon who inspires passion in both Boruvka and Malek. As the stories continue, a wonderful picture is built up of this ensemble cast, their Prague milieu and the criminal element they have to deal with.

Boruvka’s wife and daughter initially make fleeting appearances, but as the book goes on they become much more important to the plot (two of the later stories feature father and daughter on vacation abroad, where we find out more about the family and also witness a cop from behind the Iron Curtain encountering his equivalent in the outside world). The whole thing is brilliantly written, cleverly drawing you along and gradually revealing more in each story – rather like the episodes in a TV story, perhaps. We eventually find out the cause of much of Boruvka’s melancholy and on the way we’re treated to some cracking mystery stories (Gromit!). Skvorecky is not averse to having little in-jokes at the expense of the detective story genre, with Boruvka commenting about one of their cases that any reader of crime novels would recognise it straight away as a Locked Room Mystery!


I haven’t given away much about the mysteries themselves as I don’t want to spoil them, but they’re a very clever set of tales, covering all sorts of crimes; some which may not even be crimes. And Boruvka and his creator never leave the reader without a satisfactory conclusion or a tieing up of loose ends. Part of the frisson comes from reading about detecting behind the Iron Curtain; but despite the unusual setting, the characters are all familiar and recognisable human beings.

I can’t thank Grant enough for pointing me in the direction of the mournful detective and these fabulous tales. Best news of all? There are three other books which feature Lieutenant Boruvka, so I’ll be able to indulge myself in more tales of Czechoslovakian crime!


As an aside, the copy of the book I picked up was an old Faber volume from a couple of decades ago, and I was interested to note that several translators worked on the book. This didn’t as a rule create problems, though it did niggle slightly that some of the stories had Malek’s first name as Pavel and some as Paul – I like consistency where possible…. 🙂

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