There are some books that resemble a literary smorgasbord more than any particular dish. Hoping to satisfy every taste, they run the risk of satisfying none. Most readers are as finicky as Morris about what they read, and are all too easily put off by a book that does not immediately fit into a recognizable slot. Like little boys who gag at love scenes in a war movie, they dislike a confusion of ends. They may be wrong, but Lilli Palmer, the movie star turned writer, has in "Night Music" written a book that promises and delivers too much.
In Kaspar Schulte, a professor of Slavic languages at a Munich institute, Palmer has created a man for all tastes, who offers us romance, espionage, a psychological study, mystery and adventure, all in an exotic locale.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to know exactly what makes Kaspar tick, though we are, willy-nilly, privy to a great deal of his thinking.
Within the year or so of his life covered by the books, Kaspar discovers his Uncle Stilts' great secret (mystery), learns how Stilts escaped from Russia (adventure), falls deeply in love for the first time and with a woman quite the opposite of the other women he has known (romance), finds himself at last (psychology), acts as a go-between for Croatian nationalists (espionage) and discovers this new Kaspar in beautiful and remote Bled, Yugoslavia (exotic locale). A busy time for a man who until his late forties lived a quiet, dutiful and--except for a little infidelity on the side--most respectable life.
The dramatic change in this hitherto unremarkable Schulte is precipitated by the sudden death of his wife Martha from heart failure, a death which his two grown sons angrily attribute to her grief over Kaspar's infidelity with Heidi. Heidi doesn't exactly enthrall him either: she is remarkably like Martha, but Kaspar marries her in a few months anyway. But when he hears that Uncle Stilts' dying words were, in effect, to get the hell out, he abandons both Heidi, who is pregnant by now, and his job in Munich.
Uncle Stilts, the influential advice giver, was an aged dwarf, a man of mystery who in nightly episodes has cheered the bereaved Kaspar with the story of his life and adventures as a chess player in a traveling circus. Small enough to fit into a box, Uncle Stilts has masqueraded as a marvelous machine that played chess, by moving the pieces with a mechanical hand. A brilliant player, Stilts was able to defeat Europe's best. He played the last czar of Russia, though the infamous statesman Stolypin had discovered his secret.
Exhausted by his protracted storytelling, Stilts dies, but not before telling Kaspar that "it didn't take me long to figure out that you too were sitting in a box and I began to wonder whether you ever would get out." Kaspar appreciates the comparison, and acts accordingly.
Kaspar has also been teaching German to some Croatian nationalists working in Munich. Snug in his box, he is not at all inclined to become involved in their terrorist activities, but he is gradually drawn into their plans. In Bled he becomes the night porter at a resort hotel and falls in love with the doomed Mariana, a leading nationalist. As night porter he hears the "night music," the special calls the Croatian underground use for signals. And as this is also a story about spies, Kaspar assumes the old porter's clandestine duties.
At the end, bemused and befuddled by such abundance, we yearn for simpler fare. Kaspar may have broken out of his box, but we have too hard a time keeping track of him. Lilli Palmer is a competent writer, with a pleasing sense of place--her evocations of present-day Munich and rural Yugoslavia are convincingly done--but her characters are too close to stereotypes and her plotting too energetic. A more modest repast would have been more satisfying.