Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (tr. Ignat Avsey)

A few years ago I was captivated by Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s novella I Was Jack Mortimer, a fast-moving, offbeat crime story set in 1930s Vienna. I read it pre-blog but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere (especially since the release of a new edition in the Pushkin Vertigo livery towards the end of last year). Back in November 2015 Pushkin Press published another of Lernet-Holenia’s works, Mona Lisa, which I was lucky enough to receive for Christmas. It’s hugely enjoyable story told with much wit and verve, a perfect gift for lovers of art and literature.

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As the novella opens towards the end of 1502, the King of France is dispatching his Marshal, a certain Louis de la Trémoille, to Italy to assist two French governors following heavy losses at the hands of the Spaniards. King Louis XII assures La Trémoille that he will be ‘showered with glory,’ as he leads the French army to victory, spreading grandeur far and wide in the process. While the King is willing to fund the trip from the municipal reserves, he also trusts that La Trémoille will do everything in his power to recover the costs of the campaign, so much so that he leaves his Marshal with the following parting shot:

“…Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command…” (pg. 11, Pushkin Press)

Unlike an earlier Italian campaign – one that generated a significant haul of booty for the previous monarch – La Trémoille’s initial efforts give rise to very little in the way of money or valuable artefacts. As such he decides to spend a few days in Florence in the hope of procuring some suitable objects of art to placate the King. Despite finding art ‘a terrible bore’, La Trémoille hears of Leonardo Da Vinci’s reputation; and so, accompanied by a small posse of French and Italian noblemen, he decides to pay the great painter a visit.

It is at this point that the focus of Lernet-Holenia’s story shifts from La Trémoille to one of his companions, a young nobleman by the name of M. de Bougainville. During a highly amusing and somewhat farcical exchange between La Trémoille and Leonardo, Bougainville is charged with catching a fly in order to settle a difference of opinion. In so doing, Bougainville catches a glimpse of an unfinished painting, a portrait of a woman with a rare luminescence. It is, of course, the Mona Lisa, and Bougainville is instantly smitten.

The woman, whose face was turned towards the viewer, looked a little sideways to the left, where Bougainville stood, and she smiled. Her smile was enchanting and mysterious, as if glimpsed through fine shadows or a veil, though it exuded a luminosity which dazzled the eyes; and in the background, where sky-blue streams wound around huge mountains, the azure glow was more enchanting than the lustre of paradise. (pgs. 29-30)

Even though he has only seen her image for a few moments, Bougainville falls hopelessly in love with the woman in this painting, and so he questions Leonardo in an attempt to discover her identity. After a brief pause, Leonardo reveals the name ‘Giaconda’, adding that she is no one of consequence. On leaving the artist’s workshop, Bougainville probes the Florentines about this ‘Giaconda’ only to discover that the one possible candidate, Mona Lisa (the wife of a local gentleman named Giacondo), died some two or three years ago. Bougainville is crestfallen; he is desperate to believe that the woman at the heart of Leonardo’s painting is not Giacondo’s wife but another woman, a woman who might still be alive. Consequently, he decides to pay Leonardo another visit. On further questioning Leonardo maintains that his painting depicts Giaconda; and so Bougainville implores the painter to tell him everything he knows about the woman whose enigmatic beauty has captured his heart:

 “Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth is, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves…” (pg. 40)

In spite of everything he has heard, Bougainville remains convinced that his Giaconda is still alive, a belief that only strengthens when he sees the painting once again; after all, as he says to Leonardo, that smile appears to be immortal. Here is a snippet from the painter’s response.

“…Every smile is a mystery, not only of itself, but in every other respect too. But I have no clue to this mystery. I know not what she is smiling at. […] Only the real is perfect.” And after a pause he added, “Not until the woman in this painting becomes real will it be said that she really smiles.” (pg 42)

Coming in at around eighty pages, Mona Lisa is a brief yet very satisfying story. As such, I’m a little wary of revealing too much about the plot. Let’s just say that Bougainville goes on a mission to discover whether his Giaconda is actually dead or still alive, a sequence of events that results in all manner of mayhem for our protagonist and his companions.

This is a very entertaining tale of the captivating power of art, of how we project our own emotions and feelings onto the images we see before us. It’s a charming tale about love, life, and the search for beauty. There are other pleasures to enjoy too, not least in the author’s descriptions of the Florentine milieu. In this scene, Bougainville is visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce in search of Giaconda’s tomb.

It was about midday when, accompanied by a servant who carried a garland of dark red roses, he entered the church. The Mass that was in progress was for late risers, the “scented Mass” as it was known, attended by richly turned-out and heavily perfumed nobility who actually came only to see and be seen, to criticize, to laugh and to gossip. As for the priest and what went on at the altar, no one bothered in the slightest. (pg. 45)

As well as being a very prolific novelist, Lernet-Holenia was also a screenwriter, and it shows in Mona Lisa; with its witty storyline and lively dialogue, this story would transfer very well to the stage or screen.

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Before I finish, just a few words on the physical book itself. This lovely Pushkin Press edition is beautifully illustrated by the graphic designer Neil Gower, whose wonderful little sketches are dotted throughout the story. As per usual with books in the Pushkin Collection, it is a gorgeous little thing – definitely something to treasure.

Grant (of 1streading) has also reviewed this novella.

Mona Lisa is published by Pushkin Press – first published in German in 1937. Source: Personal copy.

53 thoughts on “Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (tr. Ignat Avsey)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I loved “Jack Mortimer” and was very keen to read thus after reading Grant’s review. Now I’m even more convinced! Lovely review Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Jack Mortimer hit the spot for me as well, so I was delighted to see another Lernet-Holenia from Pushkin at the end of last year. In fact I nearly succumbed when I saw it in Foyles back in November but managed to resist at the time…Grant’s review pushed it onto my Christmas list, so I lucked out there!

      I’m pretty sure you would enjoy it too. The period and setting are quite different to those in Jack Mortimer, but I think you’ll notice some similarities in the style.

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Pushkin press books always look so attractive, but this one sounds particularly delightful. I love the idea of being so captivated by the subject of a painting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think they’ve excelled themselves here. The story is quite short, but the illustrations add something extra to the book, a little bonus if you like.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I guess it is! I’ve yet to try Proust, but now that I’ve put Knausgaard on the back burner maybe I’ll have a little more time for other reading projects. :)

      Lernet-Holenia’s story made me think about my own responses to art. I guess we all seek to find our own meaning in the images we see in front of us. It’s interesting to imagine a person’s life or backstory just from the clues or signals we pick up from a painting – I often find myself doing this whenever I see something that resonates with me.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’m sure you’re right – Karl Ove certainly isn’t calling me right now. Maybe I’ll take a look at Proust once I’ve finished my modern/20th-century classics reading list . :)

          Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        That’s interesting. I know I ought to read Proust – it’s just such a big commitment. I’m in the midst of reading a humongous trilogy by the Hungarian author Miklos Banffy. It’s wonderful and very rewarding, but I probably need to read a few novellas and shorter novels next!

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely worth considering, Poppy, especially given your love of novellas and short stories (in some ways, Mona Lisa sits between the two). I’m so glad to have received a copy for Christmas, perfect reading for the holidays.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Terrific commentary as always Jacqui.

    The plot sounds very original and not at all many of the historical novels that are popular these days.

    The one illustration in the photograph that you posted is indeed beautiful. The book looks like it is worth owning.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. The illustration is lovely, isn’t it? You know it’s funny, I’m not a fan of those big historical novels, but this story is a very different prospect altogether. It’s tremendous fun – very nimble and light on its feet.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great – I’ll be interested to see what you make of it. I think you’ll prefer it to Philippe Beaussant’s Rendezvous in Venice, another Pushkin book that touches on love, life, and the captivating power of art. Mona Lisa is much less ‘romancey’ than the Beaussant, so I think you’ll enjoy it. (At least I hope you will…I still feel a little sorry that you didn’t click with the Beaussant following my review/recommendation last year.)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had a lot of fun with this book, John – it turned out to be perfect reading for the holidays. The little sketch is very pretty, isn’t it? I’m glad Pushkin included the illustrations as they add a bit of extra value to the book.

      I wondered if you might have read another of this author’s books, an off-beat crime story called ‘I Was Jack Mortimer’? I’m pretty sure it’s been filmed at least a couple of times, but the original version might be hard to track down.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, great – I think you’d like it very much! Thanks for the link to Lernet-Holenia’s films – I can see I’m going to have to track one or two of them down. :)

          Reply
          1. realthog

            Yikes! It was MarinaSofia’s review of I Was Jack Mortimer that I was remembering — I see you didn’t review it (or, at least, not here). My piece on one of the movies, Stolen Identity (1953), will be going up on Noirish in a few weeks’ time.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Haha – no worries! I haven’t reviewed Jack Mortimer as it was a pre-blog read, but I did wonder whether we might have had a conversation about it at some point. Either way, it’s worth considering. Looking forward to reading your review of Stolen Identity. I’ll keep an eye out for that – any teasers or trailers to whet my appetite?

              Reply
              1. realthog

                Teasers, eh? Well, it was made in parallel with a German-language version, of which I wrote in t’Encyclopedia:

                Abenteuer in Wien (1952)
                vt Adventures in Vienna
                Austria, US / 89 minutes / bw / Schönbrunn, Kreidl, Trans-Globe Dir: Emile E. Reinert Pr: Ernst Müller Scr: Robert Thoeren, Johannes Mario Simmel, Franz Tassié, Michael Kehlmann Story: Ich War Jack Mortimer (1933) by Alexander Lernet-Holenia Cine: Helmut Ashley Cast: Gustav Fröhlich, Cornell Borchers, Franz Lederer, Adrienne Gessner, Inge Konradi, Egon von Jordan, Louis Ousted.
                Toni Sponer (Fröhlich) is a cabdriver trapped in immediate-postwar Vienna because he has no papers. He takes his latest fare, John Milton (Ousted), an American, to the airport but, as Toni’s dropping off the luggage, Milton is shot dead in the back seat of the cab. Rather than report the matter to the cops, Toni hides the body and steals the man’s papers, hoping he can use Milton’s identity to get to the US. Alas, at Milton’s hotel he runs into Karin Manelli (Borchers), who knows he’s not John Milton because Milton was her lover, with whom she was planning to run away from jealous concert-pianist husband Claude (Lederer). Suspecting Claude is the killer, the two try together to escape both him and Vienna . . .
                The first postwar Austrian/US coproduction, this is a fine piece of noir. It was made also in an English-language version as Stolen Identity (1953) dir Gunther von Fritsch, with Donald Buka, Joan Camden and Francis Lederer.

                Reply
                1. JacquiWine Post author

                  Gosh, there was another version? So that’s three in total! Thanks, John – I would love to watch one or two of them. I recall searching for the original adaptation (Ich War Jack Mortimer) but couldn’t find it on YouTube. Fingers crossed that Abenteuer in Wien or Stolen Identity might be available to view.

  4. Scott W.

    I’m struck by how just the fact of this being a Pushkin edition seems automatically to confer a favorable recommendation – and at a mere 80 pages, one hardly has an excuse for passing it up. You might enjoy now turning to César Aira’s short story, “A Thousand Drops,” also featuring the Mona Lisa – or at least the thousand droplets of oil paint that make it up.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I must admit to finding these Pushkin Collection books very hard to resist – they are just so beautifully produced. And, more importantly, I’ve yet to be disappointed by any of the stories contained within. So, what are you waiting for, Scott? I think you’d love it!

      Ah, César Aira…yes, I need to try again with him. I wasn’t crazy about ‘Ghosts’, but your description of ‘A Thousand Drops’ sounds very intriguing. I’ll take a look when I’m next in a bookshop. :)

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        The recently published collection of short works, The Musical Brain, may be the best thing I’ve yet read by Aira, and I’ve already read seven or eight of the novels. There are some real gems in it, but the Mona Lisa story sort of tops all for its Airaen dose of delirium.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s a strong recommendation, and I like the idea of short stories. Thanks for the tip – I might see if the library network has a copy. (I still have a couple of his novellas from that Penguin set I bought a while ago, so it’s hard to justify another purchase…especially as I’m not sure if he’s for me!)

          Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    Glad to hear you’re reading the Banffy’s Jacqui, I have those and want to get into them at some point so a review from you would be welcome.

    I’m just about to finish I Was Jack Mortimer, which I have enjoyed but not perhaps loved as much as some. Still, I will get this. You make a great case for it and it sounds fun. It’ll have to be in hardcopy given that gorgeous art.

    Right, off to read Grant’s review and to see if Kaggsy reviewed Jack Mortimer…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll enjoy this one, Max. It’s very light on its feet – as I was saying the other day, it’s like the literary equivalent of a souffle or an amuse-bouche: short and sweet. Definitely one to buy in hard copy.

      I’m very much looking forward to your Jack Mortimer review – it’ll be good to see your take on it compared to the others in the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. It’s funny, I really loved the first half or two-thirds of JM, but I have absolutely no recollection of what happened at the end! It’s one I may well re-read at some point, just to remind myself of the full story. (The set-up was great, and I loved the whole idea of Sponer getting deeper and deeper into a mess as the hours slipped by – such a hoot.)

      As for the Banffy novels, I’m glad to hear you have them as they definitely strike me as being your kind of thing. My review of the first one should be up next week. I actually read it at the tail end of last year, but it’s part of my pre-Christmas backlog of write-ups, along with another Elizabeth Taylor. (Mona Lisa was a quick one to do, so I thought I’d get it out there while it was still fresh in my mind). On reflection, I’m only going to review the first book in Banffy’s trilogy, primarily because if I think back to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I found it increasingly difficult to review each new book as the series moved forwards. I just felt as though I was a) revealing major spoilers about key developments/events in the previous books and b) repeating myself. There are only so many times that one can mention the portrayal of female friendship or wonderful evocation of Naples, etc. with it feeling stale. That said, Banffy’s epic is a remarkable achievement. Pretty much everything I’ve got to say about the first book applies to the whole series. I’ve just started the final novel, so unless there’s a sudden dip in form or a major change of direction (very unlikely), my review of book one should give you a reasonable feel for what to expect. In a nutshell, I loved it!

      Reply
  6. Tom Cunliffe

    Thank you for reviewing that one – I’ve never heard of it but it looks excellent., I love the production values – so very Pushkin Press! I must seek this one out

    Reply
  7. 1streading

    I really enjoyed this, and I’m glad you did too. Amid all the praise for Pushkin (well deserved for discovering these great books) I can’t help but feel £10 for what is really a long short story is a bit cheeky. Couldn’t they have paired it with something else?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Loved it, Grant. Yes, £10 is a little steep, even with the illustrations – £8 would have been nearer the mark, I think. It makes the Fraile and Teffi short-story collections seem like a pair of bargains at £12 a piece!

      I do hope Pushkin will publish more from Lernet-Hornelia in the future as I’d love to read another.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. lonesomereadereric

    Pushkin books are beautifully made and I like their novellas – mainly as a jumping off point for discovering a writer’s work. This does sound like a fun book. I wonder if anyone has done this story in fictional form before because it’s such an obvious subject to create a back story about.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good way of thinking about the Pushkin novellas. I’ve done something similar with a couple of their short story collections. Teffi’s Subtly Worded was one of my faves last year, and there’s more of her work on the way from Pushkin and NYRB in 2016. Stefan Zweig is another author who springs to mind here.

      I don’t know if anyone else has ever used the same idea or premise in their fiction. As you say, it seems like such an obvious subject for a story. That said, another Pushkin novella — Philippe Beaussant’s Rendezvous in Venice — features an art expert who likes to imagine the backstories of the people depicted in famous paintings, so I guess that’s fairly similar!

      Reply
  10. mytwostotinki

    Very appealing review Jacqui and I am glad that this underrated author can be explored in English now with more than one work. Great to see that it is such a beautiful edition – well done, Pushkin Press!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Thomas. Having enjoyed I Was Jack Mortimer a few years ago, I was delighted to see Pushkin Press releasing another of Lernet-Holenia’s works in English. This latest one is such a captivating little story, a real delight from start to finish. I would love to read more by this author, so I’m hoping Pushkin might continue along this path in the future…you never know!

      Reply

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