Recently I had to make a journey that would provide an hour where I could attend to nothing other than the bliss of reading. I decided to look through a recent selection of books that have made their way into my flat and my eyes immediately fell on the perfect travel companion. Mona Lisa by Lernet-Holenia has been published by Pushkin Press in a delightful pocket sized format and as I am constantly impressed by their output I knew I would be in safe hands. Coming in at under the 100 page mark this novella is an utterly charming distraction from the world for an hour or so, with a handful of beautiful black and white illustrations throughout I think most readers would be happy to find this popped into their stocking this Christmas.
We are taken back to 1502 as a squadron of the French army pay a visit to Florence while touring through Italy. Instructed to gather gifts for the King, Louis XII, they quickly make their way to the home and studio of a certain Mr da Vinci. After greeting his guests from across the border da Vinci is quick to inform them that he is not currently working on any artistic endeavours, but an entertaining dispute leads to the accidental unveiling of the Mona Lisa. A young soldier is stopped in his tracks by this entrancing beauty gazing at him from the canvas and she quickly consumes his every thought. Determined to find out who, and where, this woman is, our young, smitten protagonist ‘de Bougainville’ finds his life suddenly spiralling out of control as he refuses to accept explanations given about Mona Lisa and is soon making 1 plus 1 equal 5. Assuming there are sinister secrets keeping the woman who is surely his true love away from him we can only sit back and watch as the situation escalates and Bougainville’s sanity is questioned as he goes to extremes for the object of his affection.
Lernet-Holenia always considered his poetry to be where his real talent lay, but he also has several pieces of fiction out there which deal with weighty issues such as World War 1 and the Austria that he knew when he served in the army. This novella may not hold any of this heft, reading sometimes as a historical farce, but I find it to be an entertaining delight, something of an amuse bouche that has left me tantalised to try more.
Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia £10 (Puskin Press)