Leo Perutz Essay - Critical Essays

Perutz, Leo


Leo Perutz 1882-1957

(Full name Leopold Perutz) Austrian novelist, short story and novella writer, and dramatist.

Although Perutz's writings include short stories, novellas, and at least one published play, the international reputation he enjoyed during the 1920s and 1930s stemmed primarily from his novels, which include suspense-filled psychological dramas and meticulously constructed historical tales set in Europe during periods of political and cultural conflict. Forced into exile when Hitler came to power in Austria, Perutz published to a diminished audience following World War II, yet he remained convinced that his fiction would become widely read once again. Recent decades have proven him right: since the late 1950s, a growing number of Perutz's works have been translated and reissued to critical and popular acclaim.

Biographical Information

Perutz was born in 1882 to wealthy Jewish parents in Prague, when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When his father's business was destroyed by fire in 1889, the family emigrated to Vienna, Austria, where Perutz and a group of fellow students at the Erzherzog Rainer-Real-Gymnasium launched a literary club called the "Freilicht" (Free Light), which served as a forum for the reading and discussion of their writings. This early affinity for literature notwithstanding, Perutz studied mathematics before becoming a respected insurance actuary. In 1915 he published his first novel, Die dritte Kugel. Later that year, Perutz enlisted in the army. A chest wound cut short his active duty in 1916, and he served out his assignment writing war reports from the military press headquarters in Vienna. Perutz wrote prolifically during the next two decades, producing more than a dozen novels. Newspapers vied for the right to serialize his stories and novellas, and many of his works were translated into foreign languages. In 1938, upon Hitler's annexation of Austria to Germany, Perutz fled with other Jews to Tel Aviv, Palestine. The difficulties of writing in exile and his isolation from German-language readers severely affected Perutz's literary output and reduced his reading audience. He struggled to produce two more novels, only one of which was published during his lifetime. In 1957, while visiting friends in Austria, Perutz died of a heart attack; his final novel was published posthumously in 1959.

Major Works

Perutz's reputation as a writer of tightly constructed narratives placed in historical settings was established with the publication of his first novel. Set during the sixteenth century Schmalkadic War and imbued with elements of the fantastic, Die dritte Kugel was enthusiastically received. His second novel, Zwischen neun und neun (From Nine to Nine)—a tension-filled psychological thriller—appeared in 1918 and was as successful as his first. Two years later Perutz published Der Marques de Bolibar (The Marquis de Bolibar), a historical novel that traces a Spanish nobleman's commitment to restore his family's honor during the Napoleonic Wars. Over the next three decades, Perutz's published work included a dozen novels, a collection of novellas, and a play. His 1934 novel, St. Petri-Schnee (The Virgin's Brand; also translated as St. Peter's Snow), has been described as a reflection of Hitler's rise to power in its portrayal of a man's ability to influence others in his single-minded pursuit of victory. Perutz's novels uniformly feature retrospective narration by a character whose involvement in the story is deliberately left ambiguous. Other elements characteristic of his work include historically accurate accounts of political intrigue and military maneuvers, insightful psychological depictions of fictional and historical figures, and a recurring treatment of time as both a subjective and an objective reality. Perutz's frequent suggestion that supernatural phenomena can determine the destiny of his characters intensifies the sense of irresolvable uncertainty present in his narratives.

Critical Reception

Some critics minimize Perutz's accomplishments as a novelist, asserting that his literary reputation ensues from his least intellectual fiction—the commercially popular adventure tales he published during the 1920s. Others, including Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, laud Perutz's compositional style. The Austrian novelist Robert Musil, in recognition of Perutz's detailed and historically accurate narratives, credited him with developing a new genre that Musil termed "journalistic fiction." Friedrich Torberg, who once characterized Perutz's literary style as the "possible result of an illicit union of Franz Kafka with Agatha Christie," is among the critics who commend Perutz's ability to sustain narrative tension while enriching his fiction with both psychological insight and macabre mysticism. Perutz himself contributed to the apparent lack of serious critical attention given his fiction by claiming that his stories were not meant to be studied, but simply read and enjoyed. A resurgence of scholarly attention to Perutz's fiction during the 1950s and 1960s led to the reprinting, in 1975, of a large body of his work. In subsequent decades, selected novels have been issued in new translations in response to public and academic interest in Perutz and his works.

Principal Works

Die dritte Kugel (novel) 1915

Zwischen neun und neun [From Nine to Nine] (novel) 1918

Das Gasthaus zur Kartätsche: Eine Geschichte aus dem alten Österreich (novella) 1920

Der Marques de Bolibar [The Marquis de Bolibar] (novel) 1920

Die Geburt des Antichrist (novella) 1921

Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages [The Master of the Day of Judgment] (novel) 1923

Turlupin (novel) 1924

Der Kosak und die Nachtigall [with Paul Frank] (novel) 1927

Wohin rolst du, Äpfelchen… [with Paul Frank] [Where Will You Fall?; also translated as Little Apple] (novel) 1928

Flammen auf San Domingo: Roman nach Victor Hugo's "Bug-Jargal" (novel) 1929

Die Reise nach PreJßburg: Schauspiel in 3 Atken (9 Bildern) mit einem Vor- und einem Nachspiel (drama) 1930

Herr, erbarme Dich meiner! (novellas) 1930

St. Petri-Schnee [The Virgin's Brand; also translated as Saint Peter's Snow] (novel) 1934

Der schwedische Reiter (novel) 1936

Nachts unter der steinernen Bricke: Ein Roman aus dem alten Prag [By Night Under the Stone Bridge] (novel) 1953

Der Judas des Leonardo [Leonardo's Judas] (novel) 1959


The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: A review of The Marquis de Bolibar, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1284, September 9, 1926, p. 594.

[In the following excerpt, the critic questions Perutz's handling of magic in The Marquis de Bolibar while offering a generally favorable review of the novel.]

The Marquis De Bolibar by Leo Perutz has considerable distinction; at its weakest one is conscious that there is a superior and original mind behind it. The plot is good enough, the characterization excellent, the air of a memoir well simulated. Where it fails is in the treatment of the magical events upon which the story mainly hinges. These are sometimes trivial and sometimes clumsy, and the fashion in which the tone changes from the ironical to the rhetorical when they are dealt with is unsatisfactory. It is, nevertheless, a novel quite out of the ordinary.

Its theme is an imaginary episode of the Peninsular War, the destruction by Spanish irregulars of two regiments of the Rhenish Confederation in the French service; and it is supposed to be an abridgment of the papers of Edward von Jochberg, the sole survivor. Jochberg tells us how the officers of one of these regiments, the Nassau Dragoons, brought the disaster upon themselves, almost of set purpose, in the grip of fate and of two guilty secrets shared by them: that they had all been lovers of the Colonel's dead wife, the beautiful Françoise-Marie, and that they had killed the Marquis de Bolibar because he had discovered the fact. As Bolibar was a spy, whom they would in any case have executed, as they were all soldiers of fortune far from squeamish in moral affairs, it does not appear why the second should have troubled them. Here the magic makes its appearance, in a form which it would be unfair—to readers as well as writer—to reveal. It is also represented in the figure of Captain de Salignac, the Wandering Jew in person, who is quite unnecessary to the plot save in so far as he brings ill-luck on those with whom he is associated. These blemishes apart, it is an excellent romance, high-coloured and swift in action, but at the same time intelligent.…

L. P. Hartley (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: A review of The Marquis de Bolibar, in The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 142, No. 3698, September 11, 1926, pp. 292-93.

[In the following excerpt, Hartley offers a generally enthusiastic appraisal of The Marquis de Bolivar.]

Romantic, heroic, symbolic, fantastic, obscure, occult—epithets that fit some aspect of The Marquis de Bolibar, suggest themselves readily enough. But it is much less easy to catch the author's whole intention and condense it in a word. Here is what purports to be an incident in the Peninsular War. The preface, a monument of Teutonic thoroughness, short but solid, introduces us to the memoirs of Edward von Jochberg who was,...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

L. P. Hartley (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: A review of From Nine to Nine, in The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 143, No. 3727, April 2, 1927, pp. 527-28.

[In the following excerpt, Hartley reviews From Nine to Nine and suggests that readers who enjoyed The Marquis of Bolivar may be disappointed by the comparative plot and character limitation of this harsh psychological drama.]

Imagine a nightmare beset by two kinds of misery—first, the misery of having to do a thing against time, and secondly, of being always thwarted when success is in sight—and you have the theme of From Nine to Nine. Stanislaus Demba wanted some money to take him and the girl he loved for a trip...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Francis Lloyd (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: A review of The Master of the Day of Judgment, in The London Mercury, Vol. XXI, No. 123, January, 1930, pp. 272-73.

[In the following excerpt, Lloyd reviews The Master of the Day of Judgment, asserting that the quality of the English translation preserves the tone, style, and atmosphere of Perutz's carefully crafted prose.]

We are grateful for the translation that allows us to read the Master of the Day of Judgment: and we are particularly grateful to Mr. Hedrig Singer who has so well converted the original German of Herr Leo Perutz that it is possible for us to feel the force of atmosphere so powerfully. The obliquities of translation...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Rose C. Feld (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: "A Macabre Tale of Murder in Vienna," in The New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1930, p. 7.

[In the following review, Feld lauds the storytelling technique Perutz employs in The Master of the Day of Judgment.]

Leo Perutz, author of The Master of the Day of Judgment, was born in Prague and later emigrated to Vienna. According to Dr. Fritz Wittels, who has written an illuminating introduction to the book, the literature of Perutz is saturated with the "curiously somber and mysterious character" of this strangely fascinating metropolis of present-day Czechoslovakia built by Germans in the midst of a Slav population. Tales of adventure and horror, he...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: A review of The Virgin's Brand, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1698, August 16, 1934, p. 564.

[In the following essay, the critic describes The Virgin's Brand as a mirror of Europe's troubled political milieu in the mid-193Os.]

The publishers describe The Virgin's Brad … as "a story of great dramatic tension, of adventure and mystery and withal a love story of moving intensity." Up to a point this is a just description (except that the love story, however moving and intense, is a somewhat irrelevant intrusion presumably introduced as a sop to public demand). The author, whose reputation on the Continent is considerable, is a very...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Claudio G. Segrè (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Revenge Before Love," in The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1989, p. 37.

[In the following review, Segrè suggests that the characters, plot, and setting of Leonardo's Judas constitute prime operatic material.]

Attention, opera composers and librettists: [Leonardo's Judas] may provide wonderful material. Consider the premise of this last work by the Czechoslovak novelist, mathematician and classical scholar Leo Perutz.…: Leonardo—the Leonardo, of course—is having trouble completing The Last Supper. He can't find a suitable model for Judas, a contemporary face that will convey the mystery and anguish of the...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Amy Clyde (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: A review of By Night Under the Stone Bridge, in The New York Times Book Review, May 27, 1990, p. 16.

[In the following review, Clyde praises By Night Under a Stone Bridge as imaginative and pleasant to read.]

In Prague at the end of the 16th century, the court of the mad Emperor Rudolf II bulges with flatterers, opportunists and spies, while the city itself swarms with pestilence, destitution and crime. Corrupt from top to bottom, the remains of the Holy Roman Empire teeter on the verge of economic and moral collapse. But in this charming fable by Leo Perutz,… moments of connection, both earthly and surreal, draw the community together. Rudolf...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Dwight Garner (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Little Apple, in VLS, No. 106, June, 1992, p. 6.

[In the following essay, Garner discusses characteristic themes and stylistic traits of Perutz's fiction and reviews Little Apple.]

"Every writer," Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "creates his own precursors." Small wonder that Borges, who had not yet composed his ficciones when the Prague-born novelist Leo Perutz published the bulk of his eleven novels in the late 1920s and early '30s, was charmed by Perutz's work. Perutz so knowingly inventoried the characteristics that streak Borges's prose—the metaphysical dream logic, the attention to senseless truths, a penchant for the fantastic—that...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Further Reading


Adler, Jeremy. "Voices in a Metaphysical Madhouse." The Times Literary Supplement (October 7-13, 1988): 1121.

Brief discussion of Wohin rollst Du, Äpfelchen. Adler lauds Perutz's simultaneous treatment of "local concerns" and "greater European ones" in the novel.

Durrant, Digby. "Odd Men Out." London Magazine 29, Nos. 9-10 (December-January 1989/1990): 134-37.

Asserts that By Night Under the Stone Bridge is a surprising and engaging tale.

Finkelstein, Barbara. Review of Little Apple. The New York Times Book Review (April 26, 1992): 18.

Characterizes the novel...

(The entire section is 205 words.)