Waggish

Leo Perutz: The Master of the Day of Judgment

Perutz was an Prague-born, Jewish Austrian writer who wrote a number of short books. He emigrated to Palestine in 1938 and lived there until his death in 1957. His background only shows up indirectly in this novel, which falls under the “metaphysical mystery” category. It shows in the foreign background of our narrator and protagonist, the Baron, who has had an affair with the wife of a famous actor named Bischoff. Bischoff commits suicide under mysterious circumstances shortly after the book begins, after telling the Baron and a few other guests of the mysterious suicides of a soldier and his cousin. The Baron is accused; he is innocent, but the suicide does not seem to have been of Bischoff’s own volition either. The Baron then accompanies an engineer (another outsider) in his investigations into the murder.

This all plays out rather glacially, and the Baron contributes a cryptic introduction that reveals that the engineer too will die in his pursuit of the solution to these (induced) suicides. Before long we are in the realm of gnostic doings and a frightening, long-dead painter who claimed to have been able to bring people to their final judgment. The solution is not supernatural, though it is a bit untenable, but Perutz then undercuts that explanation itself with a coda that places an entirely different interpretation on what has gone before. I won’t give too much away if I say it jumps from gnosticism to Freud.

The asymmetry of these two accounts, and how each is incommensurate with the other, is the most unique point of the book. It does not leave a sense of satisfaction, but it did leave me impressed with what Perutz had managed, as well as wondering exactly what his intent had been. The two accounts really don’t mesh; they could come from different centuries.

The book reads like an antecedent to Borges, especially “Death and the Compass” (with a little of “The Aleph” thrown in), and also to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ early novels like The Invention of Morel. Borges praised Perutz, so I gather he and his friend Bioy Casares must have read this book and appreciated its attempt to mix the gothic, the gnostic, and crime. The admixture is compelling precisely because it is so awkward. The crime aspect, in particular, always seems to jut out. I’m not at all a reader of mysteries, and when the heavy stuff is introduced in Master, it makes the crime seem rather trivial in comparison.

The tradition continued with Carlo Emilio Gadda’s works, where the crime really does get smothered by Gadda’s own philosophical obsessions. Stanislaw Lem took it up from Borges (his admitted idol) in his mystery novel The Chain of Chance, which, bizarrely enough, features a solution quite similar to one of Perutz’s two resolutions in The Master of the Day of Judgment. Lem’s thematic, metaphysical concerns (science, probability, technology) are completely different from Perutz’s eschatological ones, yet the forms of the two novels are the same: the concerns are piggybacked onto the narrative until they overshadow it.

Umberto Eco also took the blueprint for his entire career in fiction from this tradition. The latest exercise of this sort that I can think of is Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, in which Rembrandt places the solution to a covered-up murder in the details of a painting. The difficulty, to me, still seems to be keeping the elements in balance without the whole work turning trivial.

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