Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2018

Mona Lisa (1937), by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated by Ignat Avsey

Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976) was an award-winning Austrian poet, playwright, screenwriter and novelist who was a protégé of Rainer Maria Rilke.  Despite this Bohemian connection and the publication of his 1941 novel The Blue Hour (Die Blaue Stunde) a.k.a. Mars in Aries (Mars im Widder) which was banned by the Nazis, he managed to keep a low profile for most of the war until removed from public position in 1944.  He had, as a redrafted reservist, taken part in the invasion of Poland, and he also made propaganda films in the early years, but he was not considered a supporter of the regime and his profile in the literary community was accordingly restored after the war.

In addition to awards received in the 1920s (the Kleist Prize and the Goethe Prize of the city of Bremen), he was also awarded the City of Vienna Prize for Literature (1951); Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1958), the Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature (1961), and posthumously, the Gold Medal of the capital Vienna (1967) and the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art (1968).  He was also a rather handsome fellow, as you can see from his portrait here. (Much nicer than the one in the front of the book).  However, #DuckingForCover amusing as Mona Lisa is, it is not easy to see from reading it, why he is considered such a Big Deal.

Mona Lisa was published in 1937.  Like the other books I’ve bought from Pushkin Press (which are all novellas and short stories) it takes less than an hour to read, which when you factor in the cost of postage to Australia, is best considered an expensive gourmet treat rather than value for money.  But these editions are beautifully produced: they are printed on premium paper and their covers have classy French flaps – and this one also has charming illustrations by Neil Gower.  It is the kind of book that is perfect for gift-giving IMO.

Set in 1502, the story is a comic invention that pokes fun at the fascination with the identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Louis XII despatches his marshal Louis de la Trémoille to Milan to raise an army for the relief of a couple of French governors fending off the Spaniards in Naples.  La Trémoille has the King’s blessing, and his authority to extract the Pope’s blessing by force of arms if necessary, and he also has the King’s expectation that the nobility, the clerics, and the good people of Amboise in Milan will all only too happily provide everything from manpower to ordnance, not to mention the money for the expedition.  I suspect that the absurdity of these King’s Orders owes something to the author’s military service in WW1, where perhaps there too his superior officer also had fantasies about inexhaustible public enthusiasm for military folly…

[He] appeared to ponder whether he should offer La Trémoille dominion over the sun, the waters, the air and the ground they stood on, for the upkeep of which God himself was to be charged responsible (p.10)

Anyway, they set off, handicapped by a widespread lack of enthusiasm for the enterprise.  As they have also been asked to acquire reparations to offset the cost of the campaign in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things La Trémoille makes a side trip to Florence, and chances upon the studio of Leonardo da Vinci.  There, in the course of a dispute about how many legs a fly might have, one of La Trémoille’s minions uncovers Leonardo’s work-in-progress, you guessed it, the Mona Lisa. The minion, a young nobleman by the name of M. de Bougainville falls in love, not with the painting, but with the enigmatic lady, and he embarks upon a bizarre quest to find her, even though he has it on good authority that she is dead.

It all ends badly, but it’s very funny all the same.  It reminded me of Michael Frayn’s Headlong (1999), another comic novel about being obsessed by an artwork.  But Mona Lisa, being so much shorter, relies for its humour on farcical conversations, Leonardo’s only-too-obvious disdain, the absurdity of Bougainville’s somewhat hysterical quest and the ironies of the fraught political situation rather than on character development.

Of course it’s not fair to be sceptical about an author’s reputation on the strength of one light-hearted short story, so I welcome recommendations of other titles that will convince me that Lernet-Holenia was a great author…

Other reviews  are at Jacqui’s Wine Journal here,  His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here.

Author: Alexander Lernet-Holenia
Title: Mona Lisa
Translated from the German by Ignat Avsey
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2015, first published 1937
ISBN: 9781782271901
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond ($19.40 AUD)

Available from Fishpond: Mona Lisa


  1. I think if the postage to Aus is expensive, you ought to buy a bunch of books at one time. Economies of scale 😉
    I enjoyed quite a few novellas last year – tended to find that they had the benefits of short stories but were a more satisfying read.


    • You’re right: this one was part of an annual subscription, one I could afford when I was working but not when I retired…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Working to support our habits… 😂


        • I asked my library to subscribe, but this is the one request they didn’t agree to, probably because they choose book-by-book rather than take whatever a publisher sends.
          I’d like to subscribe to NYRB Classics, but I’ve already read so much of what they publish, I know if I subscribed I’d end up getting new editions of books I already have. So with them, I buy one book at a time, usually through Fishpond because delivery is free. (Well, it’s included in the price, of course, but it’s still much, much cheaper than buying direct).

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read the author’s I was Jack Mortimer and loved it. Keep meaning to get hold of this but forgetting… The Pushkin Collection books are just lovely – not cheap, no, but you’re paying for the quality I think. Worth the investment…


  3. I read all your posts but sometimes I have to go away and think. I have very little connection to writing outside the anglosphere, in fact, not much outside Australia. I agree with you about the connection to WWI (it has the wry tone of Good Soldier Schweik) but in 1937 I wonder if there was any hint (in this book) of the coming Anschluss.


    • Perhaps slight hints that the military were absurd? There would have been some people who didn’t take Hitler seriously in the 1930s, in the way that most of us don’t take Trump seriously…


  4. Thanks for the mention. I see you liked Headlong too.


    • Yes indeedy. I know some people are a bit snooty about him but I’ve liked everything I’ve read by Michael Frayn:)


  5. This is a much more light-hearted book than I Was Jack Mortimer, though both give the impression of being written to keep the reader turning the pages.


    • Bill’s question above is a good one, do you think it was intentional that the mocking of French military ambitions is somehow akin to that of the Nazis?


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