Cover of Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg
Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg
Phil Leask

a haunting book
a novel which will reverberate beyond its times
Terry Monagle, Eureka Street
beautifully, poetically strange
Phil Leask, with astonishing fluency and speed, opens up Hamburg’s snow-buffered streets and bars

Catherine Ford, The Age

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Book Description

He cannot bear how beautiful she is, he tells me, and sighs, and looks across at a woman with a skirt split to the top of her thigh, her legs crossed, her elbows on the bar in front of her, a cigarette in one hand. He lights a cigarette himself, and I close my eyes and let the smell of cloves drift over me, reminding me of everything, of my life before and after, of Lucy, of Urmilla and Olhovsky; above all Olhovsky.

Hamburg, in Phil Leask’s third novel, is a city of the displaced. Accidents of personal history throw together an odd collection of strangers - English poet Michael Rothney, a Polish dancer, a German sculptor. They find themselves locked within the hypnotic orbit of Olhovsky, ambiguous, charismatic, sensual, a sailor and wanderer with a dubious past. Even before Olhovsky passes bay leaves crushed in his palm beneath the nostrils of his friends during their love-making, we know he is influential. One of those lovers, Rothney, is intrigued by Olhovsky, his mysterious hold over others and his dubious, perhaps mythical past. When Rothney and Olhovsky meet Urmila, an Indian woman whose husband runs a spice importing business, loyalty and trust become strained. A cold winter of snow and ice sets in. There is a long anxious wait for the thaw.

Phil Leask has dreamed a story of wonderful strangeness into existence and sets it in the fragile, sparkling world of Hamburgs winter... The author’s pen moves with the ease and grace of one long acquainted with the quirky side of this city.
Terry McDonagh, Irish poet and dramatist living in Hamburg

The characters are allowed their moments where we see into their uncertainties and into the untracked wilderness thats in them.
Rodney Hall

Cover painting by John Anderson
ISBN 1876044373
Published 2003
208 pgs
Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg book sample

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26 Chapters

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The Shortlist
Terry Monagle
Eureka Street, Vol. 13, No. 7, September 2003

Michael Rothney is an English poet working on a suite of poems in the German city, Hamburg. He is attempting to shrive himself of a former lover. Rothney walks incessantly, at night, feeling for the pulse and lineaments of the city. He meets Olhovsky, a semi-mythological creature, a mermaid, a hermaphrodite beauty.

We meet characters plagued by incompleteness. They long for the other, for the missing part of themselves. Their questing, their roiling hopes, seek relief in relationships, with a sexual partner or partners. Love appears to be the ground of human need, but it is fickle and treacherous. Desire, possession and belonging are its convenient and clandestine counterfeits.

It’s a study of a city, too, which seeks its destiny with the same carnal energy as its inhabitants. The rhythm of the text, growing in intensity like Ravel’s Bolero, is sympathetic with the insistent walking of the characters as they explore the city.

Leask’s characters are psychologically stateless, and grieve for a home. Though an Australian, Leask has lived in London for thirty years, travelling in Europe and returning to Australia. Leask’s book is about place, and rootlessness; about heartless loves and places of absence.

It is a haunting book and seems likely to be a novel which will reverberate beyond its times.

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Catherine Ford
The Age, 28 June 2003

Nicolai Olhovsky, rugged up and ready for heartbreak, stands next to Michael Rothney, soft-spoken with a face ‘like a third division footballer’, waiting for the lights to go green on Hamburge Street, and they start up a conversation. Like startled lovers they remove to a bar to discover each other: Olhovsky, a sailor, fled Odessa long ago, hunted whales, then was stabbed by a woman in Palermo. Rothney, a Londoner, is writing his ‘Hamburg sequence’ in verse under the devotion of a ‘Mexican professor in California’. His wife, Lucy, is in Africa working as a surgeon and he occupies their Hamburg apartment and garden, which is so deserted, he says, that it resembles 'the setting for a Tarkovsky film.’

Phil Leask, with astonishing fluency and speed, opens up Hamburg’s snow-buffered streets and bars and moves through his characters’ assignations as casually, and with almost as much psychic baggage, as they do themselves. When Olhovsky and Rothney go back to Esmerelda’s for coffee, we barely flinch when the evening ends with all three of them naked and a stranger downstairs singing a little Verdi. Hamburg, Leask wants us to know, is at least as wretched as fun as Berlin or Paris.

And until the unhappily married Indian opthalmologist, Urmila Vasani, appears, the novel might just have been about trysts of the love-lorn, confused sexuality and homesickness. Leask’s story occasionally becomes as light-starved as a February afternoon on the Binnenalster, but it is beautifully, poetically strange too.

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Hanna Torsh (online), 2003

It is rare to find a contemporary novel which stands out for its style as much as its subject matter. This strange and wonderful new novel by Phil Leask, his third, is striking almost at once for its tone of self-conscious melancholy and its rather obvious theme of exile; English poet Michael Rothney is alone in Hamburg, lost in the obscurity that comes with being a stranger in a strange land, thinking of his love, his wife. On one of his late night wanderings through the dark and wintry city he meets an enigmatic man who calls himself Olhovsky and is instantly fascinated by him. Together they experience the city beneath the city and in doing so Michael is drawn even deeper into his own emotional journey away from his former life. A fairly typical bildunsgroman I thought, as I began.

However, this novel is not typical, although it is definitely a ‘journey novel’, it contains more of the surreal than its beginning scenes intimate. The nighttime journeys are depicted as grey, shadowy episodes, edged with sexual desire and ambivalence, while Rothney’s daytime experience seems almost to exist on another plane. This is, in many ways, a novel of the night. Similarly the many characters he meets either are merely daytime creatures, mildly interesting versions of those you might meet in any modern novel, or nighttime ones, vivid caricatures, painted as explosively intelligent, unbearably unattainable or viciously sexual. The accumulated effect of these disparate episodes is to create a real sense of the surreality of Rothney’s existence, that of a writer, whose role is to both observe and participate, to create and to fall in love with his creation.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to everybody, as the languidness of the style and its use of poetic image... make it less accessible than other works of modern fiction. That said, I would recommend it to those who really care about fiction, especially Australian fiction. It's wonderful to know that books like this - experimental, challenging, beautiful - are still being written.

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Exile, melancholia, women, beer and deliverance
Ced Jackson (online), 8 September 2003

An adult book. A book for adults. As with Lawrence, there is the visceral shock of seeing inexpressible thoughts in cold print.

And it is a cold book, from Hamburg’s frozen river to the hearts of men. Yet only when emotions are accepted coldly is there hope of redemption.

Michael Rothney has fled to Hamburg in exile from his wife and her lovers. These torments he accepted, for how else could he love her. He accepted everything, asked for nothing ‘...but you were never as innocent as you like to believe, Michael. You think that you are the poet, standing back, observing, watching others live their lives as if you were not part of them.’

Olhovsky is his complement. Yang to Rothney’s yin. Mercurial, gypsy-like, an accidental sailor, long black hair cascading around his shoulders, a man for whom women are not a problem, but who seeks beyond achievement.

Rothney and Olhovsky wander the frozen streets of Hamburg, picking up and discarding women and beer, Grail knights seeking that which they do not know. ‘We have come back from Jerusalem and have not found that we sought,’ as Jung proclaimed in his Seven Sermons to the Dead. Both Rothney and Olhovsky are invisible, flotsam on Hamburg’s sea, making no waves.

And yet...

‘What we do is never done with impunity. I never thought I would have to be responsible for what I did. I thought I could do what I wanted and never have to care. And then it catches up with you, when you least expect it.’

‘You don’t want to see that people are suffering. You don’t want to find that you might have been the cause.’

Age advances. Life is lived - it is unavoidable. Courage is all.

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Launch Speech

Frank Moorhouse (author) [Sydney launch]

Apart from being an admirer of the Phil Leask’s novel Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg, there are two other reasons why I am here tonight.

One is to pay homage to Black Pepper Press - essentially Gail Hannah and Kevin Pearson - a small publisher described by the Herald Sun as one of Australia’s boldest publishers - and a publisher who is approaching its tenth birthday. They have so far published over forty books including twelve novels.

May they prosper.

The third reason is to do what I can to help a novel avoid the media oblivion that befalls so many novels these days.

We all know that it is a waste of time to ask an author how many copies of their book have sold; or how many hours a day they work; or how far they jog.

Until this year the best-seller figures in the newspapers were unreliable and still are not entirely accurate. I will say something more about that later on.

The figures showed that there were about 200 Australian novels published this year (plus about 600 overseas novels). You might be interested in how poetry is going.

The Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry attracted 84 volumes of poetry this year. Again, more than a book of poetry published a week. Praise the Lord, for we are a poetical nation. Black Pepper runs a strong poetry list.

That is, the number of novels published has nearly doubled in ten years.


The new writers are struggling to find any audience to speak to or be offered a bookshop ‘event,’ let alone to find their appropriate readership.


The new writers are also struggling to find review space.

I went back to look at the review space that the two national print outlets The Bulletin and The Australian gave to books in 1969 (the year I published my first book).

It is the same amount of space as it is today although the reviews seemed longer back then.

That is, despite the growth in publishing, review space has not increased. It has, relative to books published, diminished. Though there is an impression in the publishing industry that more news space is given to books - author profiles - if they can ‘make’ news of them. Novels do not lend themselves to news making.

But perhaps the media are realising that books are ‘intellectual news’.

Reviews of course, are also intellectual news. The nonsense we hear from some newspaper executives suggesting that reviews don’t bring in enough advertising to justify more space is a bit like saying that crime doesn’t bring in any advertising, therefore we are cutting back the coverage of court cases.


Then there is the pressure on bookshops.

Roughly fifty percent of the books you see on display in a bookshop will not sell a copy in that shop. They may sell in other shops and vice versa.

But in most shops most books are window dressing.

There are more than 9,000 titles on sale in shops at any given time and from this year, and for the first time, 5,000 of these are being tracked by a computerised service called ‘BookTrack Australia’ owned by AC Nielsen and Whitaker.

But the pressure in bookshops to accommodate 9,000 titles is tremendous. It results in short shelf live and a fast turnover of books on the shelves. This results in less time for browsing and for word-of-mouth to have an impact.

One of the answers seems for the book sellers to go in two opposite directions - for there to be more specialised bookshops and bookshops finely tuned to a readership on one hand and larger mega-stores and chains such as the American company Borders.

These chains in the UK and US now offer a range of services from restaurants, bars, music, events, email service, and a huge range of titles.

According to one survey I have read in Atlantic Monthly, and my own experience in the UK and in Washington in the US, these chains are often very sophisticated in the range of titles they offer and the level of training of their staff.

They stay open at weekends and late at night and become something of intellectual and social centres. They do not just sell cookbooks and bestsellers.

Now we are all apprehensive about these mega stores.

I am not as frightened of them as I once was but they have tremendous reserved power in terms of display, copies purchased and the stocking of books.

An American writer on a recent trip to the Barnes & Noble branch at Astor Place, in New York City, did some mental measuring of the shelving and what it contained. There were, he estimated, approximately 189 feet of biography, 196 feet of philosophy, 168 feet of poetry

‘It’s the most democratic forum, the most democratic marketplace of ideas imaginable,’ the historian David McCullough has said. ‘No civilisation has had anything like what we have now.’

Our small independent bookshops are also now an important part of the intellectual life of this country with many organising their events with authors, publishing newsletters, and running websites.


I also believe - romantically perhaps - that we need to keep serious book writing as a vocation. Sure, many good and important books are written by people who have other jobs. But many of these would prefer to work solely at book writing and it would be better for us if they did.

The western societies have believed for centuries that it is healthy for the culture to have a band of writers unattached to institutions, independent of the control of the state, and able to command resources to do their work.

It is not only that we need a band of independent writers but the arts in generally represent an independent free speaking and inquiring part of society - an uninstitutionalised part - separate from the universities and from the media organisations.

Connected with this idea of a band of independent writers, is the 19th century notion of art for art’s sake.

Perhaps art for art’s sake is the imaginative equivalent of pure science. That is to follow scientific inquiry wherever it may lead.

So with the notion of a clericature of writing, to write what ever it is the spirit dictates to go with the imagination wherever it might lead.

Our literary tradition has maintained that the writer determines the subject and pursues it in his or her own way to the natural conclusion of the inquiry or the imaginative journey.

They may not even accept the marketplace or book sales, as the measure of the success of their mission. And nor does the society. All sorts of ways – prizes, patronage - have been found to supplement the market place. These supplements are now very much stressed and under resourced.

It is with appropriate readership (not size of readership) which this tradition of writing seeks. And of course, some books remain as a valued part of the reading life of the society and ultimately go on, over say a lifetime, to outsell the sometimes ephemeral best-sellers of the day.

Literary authorship is characterised by a special orientation, or focal length to the society - different from that of say, journalists or scholars.

Literature claims immunity both in expression and conduct because it has the wide ranging role of exploration of the human condition.

The Western literary tradition is sophisticated and is concerned with brilliance and artistry in communication - that is, the use of the power of language with appropriateness and precision and in a compelling and entrancing way; it is audacious, not frightened of the dark places; and uses all the tools of experience in its imaginative inquiry.

So it has a sense and tradition of serving a higher authority than the laws of the state - say, censorship or defamation.


Censorship is returning to this land. As Brecht said of fascism ‘the bitch is on heat again.’ Unfair to dogs. Unfair to bitches.

Because of the Ken Park banning and the actions of the Jewish community in Victoria to suppress a film at the Underground Film Festival - I was looking at the writers who have been censored in this country

The following are only some of the writers who have been banned in Australia because of their perceived threat to society: James Joyce, D.H.Lawrence, Zola, Maupassant, Balzac, Defoe, Colette, Norman Lindsay, Aldous Huxley, John Dos Passos, Hermann Broch, Erskine Caldwell, Radclyffe Hall, J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), Celine, Henry Miller, Bernard Shaw, Eric Remarque, Johnathon Swift, Max Harris, Brendan Behan, Walt Whitman, Phillip Roth, Alex Buzo, Frank Hardy, Frank Moorhouse, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Ian Fleming, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

It is worth recalling that many of these writers were banned in Australia within the last fifty years.

If you don’t believe the much list check the much longer list in Peter Coleman’s key work Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition: Censorship in Australia (1962).

It is hard sometimes not to see the return of censorship as part of a wider creep of authoritarism in this country, spawned from the fear and insecurity of terrorism, but also by political parties which are also by instinct authoritarian and restrictive, closed and moralistic.

I have in mind interference with the net, the ASIO legislation especially as it was originally conceived, the strangling of the ABC and so on.

Australia sadly in its history through most parts of society and all the political parties is instinctively authoritarian kept in check only by a vigorous intelligentsia. It is again time for us to vigorous in protecting freedom expression.

Olhovsky, Prince Of Hamburg. Phil Leask.

This is Phil Leask’s third novel. The other two were By Way of Water, and The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly.

Phil was born in Brisbane in 1947 and studied at the Universities of Queensland, Tasmania, and Sussex.

He works in urban regeneration in London where he lives.

This is an hypnotic novel set among weird bohemia of contemporary Hamburg.

The narrator Michael is a poet separated from his English wife and now living in Hamburg - he meets Olhovsky of uncertain antecedents and uncertain personality and is beguiled by him as are others in the novel.

There is a degree of sexual ambiguity in Olhovsky as well which is tantalising.

I will read a section. This is Olhovsky and Michael, the narrator, describes him: ‘I look at him with his long black hair and pale, haunting face and sensual lips. His slim hips and slender legs. I shudder to see him, I do not say what is clear to me: you are lucky to be alive Olhovsky... you are lucky you weren’t strangled at birth... or beaten to death by the Mafia in Palazzo...’

And there is Esmerelda almost a female twin of Olhovsky, who also bewitches the narrator.

Phil Leask’s novel has the same urgent yet languorous atmosphere as Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. A book we all loved and which somehow influenced us all.

The Indian doctor Urmila. And through their love affairs and life, Olhovksy weaves his strange sensuality.

I want to read another passage which gives you a taste of the sensibility of the Phil Leask and the power of his writing. Olhovsky is telling a story from when he was ten in Odessa. Olhovsky says:

‘In the middle of the meal, the waitress leant over and brushed the hair back off his damp forehead. She smiled into his face. He remembers staring down the front of her dress with his face almost sinking into the soft whiteness of her breasts below the redness of her neck. He could not believe how it made him feel, He could not understand it at all. And yet he did somehow... His mother and grandmother did not seem to notice. They were old, their lives were over. They saw nothing, they cared about no one, they always did the right thing. This , he knew, might not be the right thing.’


This is a novel deserving of attention.

To quote Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman, ‘Attention must be paid.’

And we launch the wonderful work which is this novel into the uncertain seas of contemporary world, may it discharge its rich cargo in many ports.

As its first reviewer Catherine Ford said in The Age ‘ is beautifully poetically strange...’

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Launch Speech

Jack Hibberd (playwright, author and poet) [Melbourne launch]

The first impression of reading Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg is that it’s a novel about a city, Hamburg. There’s a great tradition in European literature particularly of writing about or encapsulating cities. ...Phil Leask has set himself an enormous challenge in this book because it’s set in winter in Hamburg and it is also a romantic novel in many ways... But to have a novel which is entirely set in winter - in a city which I have been to in winter - there are various shades of grey, and the occasional blue, and what Phil manages to do is to bring out enormous tonality in the greys and it is almost a poeticisation of a city which is snow, white, grey, grey, grey, white, and I think that is quite an achievement...

...In a way you have a cosmopolitan city which was razed in a firestorm as big as Dresden, now a cosmopolitan meeting point for five characters. These are all fairly alienated characters but they are prone to idealisations whether as artists or as people. Olhovsky himself idealises fatally, in the novel, an Indian woman, and Michael, the narrator, idealises Olhovsky, though not so fatally, I think. These idealisations fit into a very romantic view of art - Michael the poet, perhaps less so the German sculptor, Kerstin, embrace suffering and art. There’s a yearning, particularly for Michael, the English poet, to be free as an artist and there’s a sense that art is a refuge from life, and this whole idealisation - romantic yearning - is nicely contrasted with the coldness, the greyness and the hardness, if not the brutality, of  Hamburg in winter, and the Elbe river which takes on romantic overtones at times, at other times it becomes like the Styx.

Michael, the central character, cannot express love, and there’s a kind of masochistic streak to that. He says at one stage that kindness terrifies him. He, as a romantic artist in many ways, tends to use life as raw material for his art, whereas Olhovsky tends to use life as raw material for his own life.

Now there are a number of journeys in this novel which I think are very important. The first is that Michael, who is thoroughly alienated at the start of the novel and through most of the novel, reaches a state of lesser alienation - a kind of a stoic stance in the end - and achieves some kind of fullness.

Olhovsky is a sort of villain figure, he’s the opposite to the artists and there are overtones of The Solid Mandala in this book, where you have the artist on one hand - the cerebral figure of Michael - and you have Olhovsky who in another sense is the intuitive operator who has no awareness of anyone else and their feelings apart from himself.  He finally in the novel escapes from Hamburg to roam around the world like a Flying Dutchman but he does get his comeuppance a bit and perhaps there is some journey in his character as well. ...

This novel will give a lot of pleasure... I think it is beautifully written and the prose transcends the difficult task that Phil has set himself.

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London Launch
Coxon photo from London launch of Olhovsky
Playwright and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (The Heart of Me and other films), seen above, co-launched Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg in London (along with Andrew Sant) on 2 December 2003. She spoke highly of Phil Leask’s evocative style and the originality of Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg. Everyone should get hold of a copy of this novel and read it right now. There could never be a better time than the middle of winter to be transported into the freezing landscape of Hamburg, where Phil Leask’s wonderfully elusive characters engage in their elaborate dance around the mysterious Olhovsky.

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