dustwrapper on the Harvill edition, 1994
The weird mysteries & fantastic historicals of Leo Perutz

commentary by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

illustrated with two portraits of the author

   

   

PerutzLeopold Perutz dwells in that celestial realm of the deeply gifted, declared in the Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature V to have been, "undoubtedly the finest fantasy author of his time." Franz Rottensteiner wrote of Leo Perutz in The Fantasy Book, An Illustrated History, "His books skilfully merge authentic historic detail with visionary events, so that the reader is often uncertain where reality fades into fantasy. His heroes are frequently the victims of an implacable destiny, almost in the style of a Greek tragedy."

Born in Prague in 1882 the eldest son of a textile buyer, the family moved to Vienna in 1901, where Leo was schooled, involved himself in the Free Light literary association, & thrived until the time of the Nazi Anschluss, when he with his family were forced to emigrate to Haifa. He settled in Tel Aviv. He died in 1957 at the Austrian spa Bad Ischl in 1957.

He finished his first novel The Third Bullet (Die dritte Kugel, 1915) while recovering from a war injury, having been shot in the lung on the eastern front. In 1919 he published, anonymously for his own safety's sake, a tract against military law. He was a translator of the works of Victor Hugo whose influence became noticeable in his own works.

He is one of the great historical novelists, his best known book being The Swedish Cavalier (Der schwedische Reiter, 1936) about a peasant who switches identities with a knight, set in the time of Charles XII of Sweden along the war-torn Polish/Russian border. The tale fuses violent history with elements of the crime novel & fairy tale. It is presently in production for the screen, adapted by director Michael Randford, slated to star Gerald Depardu.

So too The Marquis of Bolibar (Der Marques de Bolibar, 1920) mixes fantasy with history, including a sequence featuring the Wandering Jew in the Napoleonic era. As a surreal mystery writer he fits even the category of magic realist in such works as the Hoffmanesque Saint Peter's Snow (St. Petri-Schnee, 1933) also known as The Virgin Brand. This work appeared just as the Nazis seized power so was not distributed into Germany. Though most of his books have been done into English, I cannot find any book publication for the title co-written with Paul Frank Das Mangobaumwunder: Der Kosak und die Nachtigall (1916), reportedly an oriental fantasy & criminist tale. A Peruttz fan tells me it was translated, however, & appeared in the British Argosy magazine in three instalments, March, April & May 1933, under the title The Miracle of the Mango. The disturbing & poetically horrifying collection of short stories that make up By Night Under the Stone Bridge (Nachts unter der steinernen Brucke, 1952) are set in a Jewish ghetto in the time of Rudolf II. The tales are punctuated with rabbinical magic. In "Pestilance in the Ghetto" a rabbi consults with an Angel of God hoping to understand why He should have visited the plague on His suffering people. These tales are sometimes reminiscent of the fantasies of Isaac Bashevis Singer though much more cruel.

PerutzThe cruelty of Leo's tales never contradicts their humanity, humor, & genius. One of the greatest of his great works is The Master of the Day of Judgement (Der Meister des Jungsten Tages 1921), a vicious tale of terror & fantastic mystery, praised by Ev Bleiler in SF: The Early Years wherein he wrote, "The atmosphere of decadent pre-World War I Vienna is admirably handled, as is the psychopathology." It was first published in the United States in 1930 from Boni & Liveright, with a Rockwell Kent cover that has drawn most copies into the hands of Kent & art deco collectors, & driven up prices. Fortunately it is affordably available in a well-designed hardcover issued in 1994 by Harvill, followed by trade paperbacks.

The stage for Master is Vienna before the first world war. An actor has been driven to suicide -- in reality murdered -- by the Baron who desired the actor's wife. As a tale of detection, the details of the reconstruction of the dead man's final hours, as reconstructed by the amateur detectives Solgrub & Gorsky, are captivating. The tale also features a sinister physician who seems to have stepped right out of a tale of Hoffmann. As also in Perutz's Saint Peter's Snow there is an eerie ambiguity about the supernatural events of the tale, which might or might not be induced by a weird drug.

In much of the world the reading public knows Perutz very well, as he has a popular following in Germany, Czechlosovakia, France, Italy & Israel, among other countries; his peer in fantastic literature, Jorge Luis Borges, promoted by his enthusiasm the popularity of Perutz in Argentina. He is relatively neglected in the USA despite having been done into superbly translated English editions. Though his works are High Literature, no reader of "mere" escapist fiction should worry Perutz is too serious to approach. Leo's own interest in "genre" fantasy is indicated by his willingness to contribute to the shortlived pulp magazine Der Orchideengarien circa 1920, this having been a German equivalent of America's Weird Tales. Anyone who is a mystery & detection buff, an historical aficionado, or a fantasy fan, will find that Leo Perutz meets each of these preferences as wholeheartedly as he thrills stuffy professors of foreign literature.

   

copyright 2000 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

I usually have something or another by Leo Perutz in stock.
Take this Short-cut to Leo Perutz to find out what may be currently available from Violet Books.

Of related interest is a review of
Hugo Bettauer's 1922 Dystopian Satire The City Without Jews

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