Leo Perutz Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.