The Forgotten Genius of Leo Perutz
By Daniel PolanskyMay 1, 2021
By the start of the 20th century the winnowed remains of the Hapsburg dynasty had become a political incongruity, eclipsed by the rising powers of Germany and Russia. And yet it remained a central hub of cultural development, with Vienna at the forefront of the literary and intellectual world. It was into this pluralistic, religiously tolerant, aesthetically conservative, but intellectually advanced society that Perutz was born, just outside of Prague in 1882. He came from a family of mostly nonreligious, upper-middle-class Jews, then enjoying a degree of acceptance in stark contrast to the previous millennium of persecution and separation, to say nothing of the horrors yet to come. Less a mediocre than an actively delinquent student, Perutz failed to complete a degree from a number of prestigious educational institutions. Nevertheless, by his 20s he found himself in Vienna, working as an actuary and writing part-time, a member of the coffeehouse set which would give rise to Musil, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele, among others. It was a vibrant intellectual firmament abruptly ended by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the concomitant horrors of World War I. Although largely indifferent to the popular enthusiasm which erupted upon declaration of hostilities — Perutz would remain an avowed anti-nationalist irrespective of the country in which he lived — he was drafted and saw active duty on the Eastern Front, taking a bullet to the lung. After his convalescence, Perutz spent the remainder of the war working in the press office, marrying in 1918.
By this point, Perutz had already mastered the style which would bring him international renown. The Marquis of Bolibar, published in 1920 (and in Graham Rawson’s English translation in 1927), purports to be a found document explaining the destruction of a regiment of German soldiers fighting in the Peninsular campaign. His depiction of the cruel realities of an army operating in foreign environs and the brutish sentimentality of soldiery feels utterly authentic, justifying Robert Musil's claim that Perutz had developed a new style of writing he termed “journalistic fiction.” And yet the story is also utterly uncanny, with a cameo appearance from the Wandering Jew and a stunningly surreal climax. The Master of the Day of Judgment (1923, and available in Eric Mosbacher’s 1994 translation), which Borges included on a list of his favorite mysteries, is another work of genre-defying genius, at once a detective mystery, a Lovecraftian existentialist nightmare, and a sly commentary on the ineffability of artistic inspiration. Like The Marquis of Bolibar, it presents itself as a found document, in this case the journal of a disgraced Austrian soldier accused of inciting the suicide of his ex-lover’s husband. In an inversion of the classic Holmes/Watson paradigm, salvation comes at the hand of a melancholic, morbidly obese Russian exile, whose superior intellect our insipid protagonist actively resents. The Master of the Day of Judgment warrants rediscovery as much for this clever reworking as for the final reveal, which is as original as anything to be found within the locked-door mystery, even as it is ultimately upended by an opaque epilogue further complicating the story.
Even Perutz’s early work reveals a masterful command of narrative, an ability to create elaborate constructions of enormous complexity. Indeed, he seems to quite revel in this talent — The Marquis of Bolibar contains enough nested revelations to fill numerous books, the story thick with seeds that flourish hundreds of pages after they’ve been sown. They are effective, propulsive thrillers, engaging the reader’s interest, but they are also works of genuine thematic complexity, more so than most comparable works of genre fiction. In his depictions of the blunt horrors of war one can detect echoes of the bullet Perutz caught in Galicia, and his obsession with identity — Perutz’s characters are constantly assuming or being forced to adopt false personas — is characteristic of an age in which Freudian theory and the destabilization of the established world order erased long-held notions of personhood.
The postwar years would prove the height of Perutz’s success, with his novels translated throughout Europe and a number of films made based on his works. His marriage was a happy one, and blessed with several children, and Perutz settled into a comfortable life in Vienna. And yet if Perutz’s personal momentum was upward, it was against the universal downward trend of the age. As the Dual Monarchy fragmented into its component parts and long-simmering ethnic rivalries erupted, the polyglot world of Perutz’s youth swiftly disappeared. Prague, the city of his birth, would become the capital of the new Czechoslovak Republic, and Perutz would become officially a citizen of the new nation of Austria, a tiny rump state of what had once been a grand empire.
Little Apple, published in 1928 and available John Brownjohn’s 1991 translation, speaks most clearly to the reality of this new Europe, of borders strung with barbed wire and policed by sneering customs officials. Unlike most of Perutz’s novels, it is set contemporaneously and eschews his usual meta-narrative, telling the story of an Austrian soldier who forsakes love and family to pursue pointless vengeance against the Russian commandant of the internment camp in which he spent the war. The Swedish Cavalier (1936, and available Brownjohn’s 1992 translation) is set in the opening days of the 18th century but likewise grapples with the weakness of an individual struggling against the currents of an age. It tells the story of a penniless, brutalized thief who swaps identities with an arrogant noble, earning a fortune and raising a family while consigning his victim to horrifying servitude. Always fantastic, The Swedish Cavalier is the first of Perutz’s works to contain a directly spiritual element, taking his obsession with shifting identities and doubled characters to the point of fable, even of parable.
Part of Perutz’s appeal is his enormous range, but even within two such seemingly dissimilar works we can detect the underlying principles which animated his writing, in particular his ongoing attempt to limn the boundaries of identity. The protagonist of Little Apple creates a false persona so powerful that he loses himself within it, bound by a commitment to his own melodramatic intransigence long after he has forgotten the purpose of his quest. The Swedish Cavalier likewise questions the degree to which one can submerge oneself into a new identity, with our eponymous cavalier, who is never even given a proper name, struggling vainly to disappear within his new existence. By the end of both, Perutz seems to suggest that such efforts are inevitably doomed, that there are certain touchstones which can never be forgotten, even if only by God himself.
Up to this point, Perutz’s work reflects his own self-identification as a member of the cosmopolitan European elite, and it lacks much trace of a distinctive Jewish character. By 1933, the year in which he published St. Peter’s Snow (available in Mosbacher’s 1990 translation), Perutz and his coreligionists no longer had the luxury of imagining themselves full citizens of Europe. A thinly veiled allegory for the rising tide of fascism which would soon consume the continent, it tells the story of a Jewish doctor who finds himself detailed to a rural, backwater village seemingly untouched by time. Here he meets a reactionary noble whose aversion to modernity is so extreme that he takes as his standard not the Dual Monarchy or even the Hapsburg line which it technically replaced but the Holy Roman Empire itself, whose last Salic heir died in the 11th century. Deducing from the spread of religious fervor across Europe the existence of a hallucinogenic mold growing on wheat — the eponymous “snow” — our conservative aristocrat cultivates a powerful narcotic which he uses to dope his villagers, hoping to inspire within them a renewed fealty to the cause of their ancestors. Apart from inexplicably deducing the existence of LSD several decades before it was synthesized, St. Peter’s Snow is a half-sympathetic, half-mocking paean to the lost glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its violent and horrifying conclusion — which, in classic Perutz fashion, is signaled at the beginning and muddied at the end — is a stern warning against fanaticism and the barely concealed violence of the human heart.
It was a warning that Perutz was wise enough to heed, fleeing Austria shortly after the Anschluss, first for Venice and then to join his brother in the nascent state of Israel. The next several decades of Perutz’s life were unhappy. He largely disliked his adopted homeland, finding the heat stifling and yearning for a cosmopolitan Europe which had ceased to exist. Although his earlier work would spread to a wider audience, with Borges championing its publication in Argentina, Perutz’s literary output dried up. The same anti-nationalism which characterized his relationship to the Dual Monarchy and then to Austria itself made him an outlier in newborn Israel, as did his principled objection to its treatment of Palestinians. In his later years, Perutz would split his time between his adopted homeland and his semi-native Austria, now a dismal remnant of the country he had once loved, broken by war and the death or exile of its great literary and intellectual figures.
A decade and a half passed before Perutz would release his last novel while still living, By Night Under the Stone Bridge (available in Mosbacher’s 1989 translation), an interim which saw the collapse of Nazi Germany, the virtual extinction of European Jewry, and the rise of the Iron Curtain. In the novel, Perutz would turn for the first time to his native Prague, painting in a series of nonchronological vignettes a vivid portrait of the city shortly before its devastation during the Thirty Years’ War. It is Perutz’s most overtly fantastical novel, in which the ghosts of dead Jews cry out for succor, demons torment sinners, and the great Rabbi Loew protects the ghetto with the aid of his mute golem. And yet it is also assuredly Perutz’s most personal work, a melancholic masterpiece in which Prague stands for all the lost beauty of prewar Europe. The central story, told obliquely, occurs between a maddened, lovesick Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the wealthy Jew Meisl, whose beloved wife Rudolf meets in dreams. In part a synecdoche for the history of the Ashkenazim, it is a bleak if not quite bitter book. Perutz paints a vision of the human condition in which the essential feature is confusion and suffering, in which foolishness and misunderstanding lead to inevitable despair. The single common touchstone, shared by Jew and Gentile, angel and demon, is love — but it is a love that carries more pain than joy, which burns brief and then is lost, to be mourned forever, an open wound which never heals.
By Night Under the Stone Bridge is an indisputable masterwork, but in still notably antisemitic postwar Austria it struggled to find a publisher, finally released in 1953 to acclaim but low sales. Perutz himself would die not long after, in 1957, buried in Bad Ischl. Though he remains a figure of some note in the German-speaking world, his popularity outside of it has largely waned. A brief resurgence during the late ’80s resulted in the rerelease of several of his works, but the decades since have seen him fall into inexplicable obscurity, with most of his works out of print and his name unknown to even most devotees of his milieu.
This might not have bothered Perutz, who took as his personal insignia Contra torrentem — “always against the current” — and who mocked attempts to analyze his work. But if the author himself was (or at least claimed to be) indifferent to his critical reception, his descent into obscurity is a minor tragedy for prospective readers. The catalog of Perutz’s admirers is more than a simple roll call of affectionate luminaries. Through his oeuvre Perutz can be said, if not to have inspired the list, then certainly to have prefaced them. Little Apple is the sort of work which Graham Greene would ultimately come to perfect — an “adult” spy novel, thrilling without laboring in genre tropes, containing genuine moral complexity. The Marquis of Bolibar and especially By Night Under the Stone Bridge echo Borges’s own fascination with strange fate and the ever-painful power of memory. In his obsession with identity, Perutz echoes the great concerns of the early modern age, less voluminously than Musil but toward the same end. As a craftsman, as a narrative engineer, Perutz was as skilled as any writer of the 20th century, but in his thematic ambition and sheer human insight, his works warrant not only rediscovery but honest veneration.
Daniel Polansky is a novelist, screenwriter, and occasional essayist.
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