Charles Palliser Appreciates "Anton Reiser"

Appreciation of Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser by Charles Palliser

When I first encountered this autobiographical novel by the German writer, Karl Philipp Moritz, I found it hard to believe it was describing a childhoood and adolescence lived in the 1760s and 1770s. That’s how acute and fresh is its depiction of the humiliations endured by a clever boy from a poor background who becomes the recipient of charity in order to obtain the education that will give him the respect and celebrity he craves. The fact that he is clearly gifted does not deter those who are from “superior” backgrounds or in positions of power over him from patronising and insulting him.

Even on later readings I feel myself blushing with vicarious embarrassment at the treatment inflicted on the boy. There is a horrible moment, for example, when he is translating from a valuable book owned by a powerful man who likes him and has helped his career. Reiser turns over a page too quickly and nearly tears it. His patron is outraged and withdraws his favour and thereby crushes Reiser’s self-confidence and so this trivial incident has a grave effect on his life. The novel was written a mere ten or fifteen years after the author’s own adolescence—shortly before his early death—and the pain of his experiences is still vivid.

Although Reiser endures hurtful slights and unjustified accusations of dishonesty, there is no self-pity and no sentimentality in the book. Reiser is shown as a sympathetic character but one with many failings. It is an extraordinarily perceptive exploration of an individual’s psychology.

Charles Palliser’s Top Ten List

1. Adolphe by Benjamin Constant (1816).
2. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien (1939).
3. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824).
4. Anton Reiser by Karl Philipp Moritz (1785-90).
5. The Golovlyev Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1876).
6. The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947).
7. The Tale of Genji by Shikibu Murasaki (c. 1001–1010 c.e.).
8. The Dukays by Lajos Zilahy. (1949)
9. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1896).
10. The Maias by Eca de Queiroz (1888).

Charles Palliser (born 1947) is a best-selling American-born, British-based novelist known for using modern literary techniques to tell intricate, Victorian tales. His first novel, the international bestseller The Quincunx (1989, Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction), is a Dickensian mystery set in 19th century England rich with family secrets, mysterious clues, low-born birth, high-reaching immorality, and the fog-enshrouded, enigmatic character of London itself. His other novels include The Sensationist (1991), Betrayals (1993), The Unburied (1999), about an unworldly academic who becomes involved in three mysteries – one current two ancient – in the eerie English town of Thurchester; and Rustication (2013), which begins in 1863 and involves a dilapidated old mansion, a student who has left Cambridge under a cloud and a series of threatening letters sent to the townspeople of Thurchester.