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.

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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.

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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.

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