Peter von Matt
Die Intrige Theorie und Praxis der Hinterlist
(Intrigue: A Literary History)
Carl Hanser Verlag, January 2006, 500 pp
The Swiss writer and philosopher Peter von Matt has an uncanny ability to make great literature accessible. He is also that rarest of creatures, an academic-cum-author whose clarity of thought and lightness of touch permit the most complex of ideas to be delivered with the minimum of fuss.
In this, his third book on what seems to be his favourite subject, human fallibility (his previous two books examined betrayal and failed progeny in literature), von Matt draws upon his knowledge as a literary scholar and impassioned reader to chronicle the cultural history of intrigue.
In fifty perfectly weighted chapters - which conclude with a brilliantly executed epilogue on intrigue and the spy novel as evidenced by Graham Greene's The Human Factor - intrigue as human phenomenon is analysed with examples from the western canon. Von Matt casts his net wide, trawling the works of Dante and Conan Doyle, Goethe and Frederick Forsyth, Patricia Highsmith and Homer, Edgar Allan Poe and Euripides and citing cases as diverse as Lady Macbeth and the Marquise de Merteuil, the cuckoo's egg and the Trojan Horse, the wily fox and the talented Mr Ripley. By this process he homes in on the very nature of intrigue, concluding finally that its real protagonist, both in life and in fiction, is man himself.
Von Matt is very much the product of a European tradition that does not see literature as contained by national identity. He is of the same school of thought as, say, Franco Moretti, whose brilliant study of the European Bildungsroman was reprinted by Verso only a few years ago. Nevertheless, where von Matt differs from his peers - and should, in many ways, be elevated above them - is that he manages to marry the intellectual vigour of academe with the style of a popular writer. Far too often fascinating subjects suffer at prolix and pedestrian hands, with the result that what is, of necessity, a narrow audience for books on the history of literature becomes even narrower.
Here by contrast is a work of the broadest vision, backed by such intellectual stature and erudition that the absence of an English translation within a reasonable space of time would be a scandal.