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It is not surprising. The sequence in the hotel room is possibly the highlight of a terrific book, one to read and then urge everyone else to follow suit. As Sponer hovers on the fringes of a breakdown, there is a further complication; a woman arrives to see the dead man.

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She knows that Sponer is not Mortimer, but then she has her own problems and is intent on solving them. Ambivalence is the element that often elevates a good book to a higher sphere, and it does so here. Sponer is a cad and, without any fear for her safety, involves in his crazy plight the one person who would help him: his hapless girlfriend. Instead of the standard car chase, which would certainly have a place in this narrative of street life and traffic, there is a manhunt focusing on the girlfriend, who emerges as daringly resourceful.

It is a clever twist. But then this is a truly clever, rather wonderful book that both plays with and defies genre. Lernet-Holenia, who died in , aged 78, began his career as a protege of Rainer Maria Rilke, and did in time became a grand old man of Austrian literature. He was prolific.

The lightness of touch evident throughout this dark and zany human comedy and his inspired play on exactly what may be lost in translation — Sponer confesses everything and then realises that the woman does not understand German — suggest that Lernet-Holenia was well aware that no one is all that interested in playing by the rules; survival is what counts and that sometimes true love can win out.

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    I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (Paperback, 2015)

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