Leo Perutz

This week in Mailbox we disclose the identity of December’s mystery man and announce the name of the lucky winner. Listeners quoted: Al Vybiral, Stephen Wara, S. J. Agboola, Jayanta Chakrabarty, Henrik Klemetz, Colin Law, Charles Konecny, Armin Gerstberger, Hans Verner Lollike.

Hello and welcome to the first Mailbox of 2011. As every first Sunday of the month, it is my duty to reveal the identity of the mystery person from our previous month’s quiz. And as usual, we’ll do it by quoting from your answers.

Al Vybiral from the USA writes:

Leopold Perutz was born in Prague on November 2, 1882. He was a mathematician and worked as a statistician for an insurance company. Perutz lived in Vienna until Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. He and his family fled Austria and emigrated to Palestine. Perutz was also a successful author who wrote 11 novels. He died on August 25, 1957 in Bad Ischl, Austria.”

Stephen Wara from Cameroon wrote:

“In all he wrote 11 novels which drew great admiration from renowned personalities of the day, including Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Ian Fleming, Karl Edward Wagner and Graham Greene. His best known four titles are probably Between Nine and Nine, The Master of the Judgement, St. Peter's Snow and By Night Under the Stone Bridge. At least 9 of the total 11 have since been translated into English – good for you and me!”

S. J. Agboola from Nigeria had this to say:

“He was able to venture into two contradictory fields of mathematics and literature with great exploits. While his literary exploits span through 11 novels, he was also able to formulate an algebraic equation. One of the testimonies of his perseverance was his ability to write his first novel while nursing the wound he sustained during World War I.”

This e-mail came from Jayanta Chakrabarty from India:

“Leo Perutz was not only a prolific novelist but also an accomplished mathematician who formulated the famous Perutzsche Compensation Formula which till date is an important algebraic balance equation. A prolific writer who blossomed during the 1918–1928 period with a bountiful of short stories, novels, screenplays and as editor of Victor Hugo's works. In all, he wrote eleven novels, outstanding among which are ‘The Third Bullet’, ‘The Mango Tree Miracle’ (which was made into a successful film version called ‘The Adventures of Dr Kircheisen’) and ‘The Master of the Day of Judgement’.”

Henrik Klemetz from Sweden attached the covers of two books by Perutz:

“I looked for available Swedish translations of his books and settled for two, ‘The Swedish Cavalier’, published in 1936, and ‘By Night Under the Stone Bridge’, reedited in 2007. Both are wrought as Greek dramas where the tragic end is foreshadowed from the very beginning. They contain an interesting blend of dream, reality and religious and esoteric elements. … ‘By Night Under the Stone Bridge’ is an intricate collection of short stories set in Prague at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. The ‘national hero’ Rabbi Loew, Emperor Rudolf II, and his Jewish purveyor of fine arts, Mordechai Meisl, are three of the main characters.

“Incidentally, Arcimboldo’s well-known surrealistic painting of Rudolf II, depicted as Vertumnus, was stolen from the Emperor’s magnificent collection of art and brought to Sweden in 1648 after the Thirty Years’ War. Right now and until January 2011, this painting is shown in the National Gallery of Arts, in Washington, DC.”

Colin Law from New Zealand went into great detail as usual:

“Leo initially attended a Catholic school in Prague, but when his father’s business burnt down in 1889 the family moved to Vienna. As a teenager at school in Vienna he and fellow students started their own literary club for reading and discussion of their written works. Although he lacked entrance qualifications, Leo studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Vienna, apparently as an 'extraordinary listener'. He subsequently became an insurance actuary. In 1915 Leo enlisted in the army, but he was wounded and served out his army time writing war reports from headquarters in Vienna. He published his first novel, “ Die dritte Kugel” (1915), while recovering from his injury.

“Leo continued to write historical and mystery novels which are said to be comparable to the works of Alexander Dumas, Agatha Christie and Franz Kafka. His stories were serialized for publication in newspapers and translated into other languages. At some stage Leo's mathematical work included an algebraic equation which was named after him. Ida died in March 1928 only ten years after their marriage and soon after the birth of their son. Leo suffered depression after the death of his wife Ida and economic strife after his novels were banned in Germany in 1933.

“In 1934 Leo met Grete Humburger and they were married in 1935. The Nazi Anschluss in Austria in 1938 prompted Leopold to emigrate with his family, briefly to Italy and then to Palestine, where they settled in Tel Aviv where Leo’s brother Hans was already living. Grete Perutz died in 1938. Living in exile and isolated from his German-language readers had a pronounced effect on Leo’s writing. After 1950 he produced only two more novels, ‘By Night under the Stone Bridge’ (1952) and ‘Leonardo’s Judas’ (1959) published posthumously. During the 1950s Leo made return visits to Austria in summer and autumn and in 1957, while visiting friends in Bad Ischl, Austria, Perutz died of a heart attack. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Bad Ischl.”

Charles Konecny from the USA wrote:

“Writing and mathematics seemed to go hand in hand with Leopold. I think his mind was a little restless, which may account for many of his novels dealing with (as different articles said) the supernatural, metaphysical, and fantasy. And speaking of mathematics, who knows, maybe my life insurance is impacted by some of Leopold's actuarial statistics. Anyway, I tip my hat to a very intelligent man.”

Armin Gerstberger from California sent us this answer:

Leo Perutz
“According to the Czech Wikipedia article about him, Leopold Perutz is counted amongst the most widely read German language authors – something I never knew until just now. What I learned from the German Wikipedia article about him is that while he supposedly was not successful academically speaking during his younger years he ultimately became famous for his involvement in insurance related mathematics such as statistics. I suppose this is a phenomenon displayed by some of the world's geniuses, as Albert Einstein's example further illustrates.”

And Hans Verner Lollike from Denmark wrote:

“The Man you are looking for is Leo Perutz. It is fascinating, that he was both a writer and a mathematician. He was Jewish, born in Prague, lived in Austria and Palestine, after the Nazi takeover of Austria. Austrians consider him an Austrian writer, and a crime writer prize is named after him. To my surprise he is also translated into Danish. I have something to catch up on.”

Thank you very much for your answers and interesting comments. Time to announce the winner – and this time the symbolic prize goes to Al Vybiral from the United States. Congratulations to Al and many thanks to all of you for taking part. And we continue with German-language authors born in what is now the Czech Republic.

Our January mystery man was born in 1875 in Prague and died in 1926 in the Swiss city of Montreux. He is considered to be one of the most important German-language poets.

Please send us his name by the end of January to [email protected] or Radio Prague, 12099 Prague, the Czech Republic. You can tune in to a regular edition of Mailbox again next week. Until then, take care.