July 17, 2007

Stefan Zweig: The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel

Posted in Pushkin Press, Zweig Stefan at 5:32 pm by John Self

As promised previously, I have finally picked up some of Stefan Zweig’s stories as published by Pushkin Press in their handsome little squarish editions, and the first of these was The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel.

This slim volume comprises two stories, 26 pages and 56 pages respectively, and you might think this is not very good value at the price of a normal paperback. You might be right – there is another volume of Zweig pairs, Twilight / Moonbeam Alley, not much longer. Would it have killed Pushkin to bundle them together in one 200-page book? On the other hand, they are bringing us great fiction, and these beautifully stitched and printed volumes can’t be cheap to make.

Anyway. The Invisible Collection, first published in 1926, has the usual Zweig framing device of a man telling us a story about a story told to him by another man. This time it’s a dealer in rare books and prints in Germany, during its period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, when goods rose in price daily and most money literally wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The book dealer decides to look up some old buyers, to see if they are willing to sell back their purchases in these straitened times. What he discovers with one old man shocks him, and provides Zweig not only with the opportunity to fit a story within the story, but to produce a satisfying and accessible tale reflecting (as he points out) Goethe’s maxim that “Collectors are happy creatures.” It put me a little in mind of Raymond Carver’s story ‘Cathedral,’ or one of Roald Dahl’s adult stories without the glib desire for a twist.

Buchmendel, dating from 1929, introduces us to the story of Mendel, an unassuming young man who has

a titanic memory, wherein, behind a dirty and undistinguished-looking forehead, was indelibly recorded a picture of the title page of every book that had been printed. No matter whether it had issued from the press yesterday or hundreds of years ago, he knew its place of publication, its author’s name, and its price. From his mind, as if from the printed page, he could read off the contents, could reproduce the illustrations; could visualise, not only what he had actually held in his hands, but also what he had glanced at in a bookseller’s window; could see it with the same vividness as an artist sees the creations of fancy which he has not yet reproduced upon canvas.

This takes us into a story with some similarities to Zweig’s Chess / The Royal Game, and it’s a feature of these short stories (the pages are small as well as few) that I can’t really say any more without spoiling part of the fun. And reading Zweig is fun. He reminds us in Buchmendel that “one only makes books in order to keep in touch with one’s fellows after one has ceased to breathe, and thus to defend oneself against the inexorable fate of all that lives – transitoriness and oblivion.” Thanks to Pushkin Press, Zweig’s mission is accomplished.

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16 Comments »

  1. They are an addiction John, there’s no two ways about it.There something about holding such a small book that really focuses my attention, tells me to look carefully because there’s not that much of it. Fantastic Night another good Zweig to look out for and I have yet to tackle Beware of Pity but I have it ready.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks dgr – I have held off Fantastic Night for the pathetic reason that it doesn’t seem to be available in the dinky squarish edition, just a normal paperback size. But I have got 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, Twilight, and Amok, so will be dealing out my thoughts on Zweig for some time to come!

    The woman in Waterstone’s on Saturday when I bought Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight asked me if I had read Fantastic Night. Two recommendations in quick succession, so I will have to put aside my squarish objections and get it…!

  3. Now I’ll look forward to your thoughts on Szerb, I read that in the days pre-blog. I see you have Acute Pushkinitis, it’s a killer isn’t it? No known treatment.

  4. Stewart said,

    I find that Acute Pushkinitis is an affliction that’s worth living for. As John knows, I’ve read this dinky Zweig offering, and have a new found appreciation for Florian Zeller. Now to find out, one day soon, what Umberto Pasti is like. And Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.

  5. John Self said,

    Quite right Stewart. And then don’t forget Louis Couperus and Arthur Schnitzler…

  6. Leena said,

    By the way, I meant to ask you earlier – is The World of Yesterday on your to-be-read list as well? That’s another Zweig title that intrigues me, though I’m not quite sure if it’s an autobiography or some other type of non-fiction!

  7. John Self said,

    I’ve never heard of it Leena – so I can’t help you there! Then again if it’s not published by Pushkin, I probably have overlooked it!

  8. Thomas said,

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your recent comments left on my blog re: the new series from Penguin and Vintage.

    I too am an absolute devotee to the Pushkin editions of Stefan Zweig. I’ve got Amok and Other Stories, Twilight/Moonbeam Alley, Confusion, The Royal Game (a.k.a. Chess), The Invisible Collection/Buchmendel and 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman in those great little editions. I’ve read them all in the past few years, except for Amok and Twilight which I’ve only recently acquired. I also have the ‘regular’ Pushkin editions of Beware of Pity (his only proper novel; read it and loved it) and Fantastic Night and Other Stories (partially read).

    Zweig is certainly more accessible than the other Austrian masters of the early twentieth century (Musil, Broch, and perhaps even Joseph Roth), but his books are such that they stay with you, even years after reading them. It’s easy to see why even in his day he was something of a literary celebrity. Slowly but surely I plan to get through the entire Zweig canon. To that end, I’ve picked up the (more or less) complete works of Zweig in a handsome French edition (3 volumes). In addition to his fiction, it includes his famous essays on Erasmus, Montaigne, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Kleist, Nietzsche, Hölderlin, Freud, Stendhal, Casanova, Tolstoy, etc. Indeed, Zweig always thought himself first and foremost a European, before being an Austrian or a Jew, and this is why the European Civil War that was WWII drove him to suicide.

    This brings me to what I really wanted to address, which is your question about The World of Yesterday, which I also have in yet another attractive French edition. He wrote it in Brazil in 1941, just before committing suicide with his wife. He retraces the first 40 years of the twentieth century, from what he considers to be a European Golden Age, to the collapse of Civilisation and the collective suicide of Europe, via the rise of nationalism, the Great War, fascism, Nazism and World War II. Considered to be Zweig’s ‘intellectual testament’, it’s a beautifully written plea in favour of the idea of European Civilisation.

    Sorry to be so long-winded; Zweig is one of those authors that gets me going…

  9. Thomas said,

    Oh yeah, by the way… Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight is also really quite brilliant. I’ve got the Pushkin edition of that one too.

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks for your fascinating comments, Thomas. Are all these editions available in Canada, or do you have to have them imported from the UK?

  11. Thomas said,

    For the longest time we had to import them from America, but since Fall 2006 Pushkin Press has had full Canadian distribution. The French editions, however, have always been readily available in Canada.

    Although English speakers make up the majority of the Canadian population (approximately 75%, versus 25% French), because of the way English-Canadian culture is utterly dominated by the United States and French-Canadian culture is to a certain extent dominated by France, it is generally easier in Canada to obtain books published in France than it is books published in Britain. Go figure…

  12. [...] – I recommend the Pushkin Press editions of the stories of Stefan Zweig. We’ve been here before, of course, twice in fact, but I always seem to have another of these handsome volumes squirreled [...]

  13. JRSM said,

    NYRB also publish some Stefan Zweig (who I love!), all of which are available from Pushkin, except that they’re bringing out a posthumous novel, never before in English, later this year called ‘The Post-Office Girl’, which looks great too.

  14. John Self said,

    Yes I’m looking forward to that, JRSM. I also have Amok and other stories and Fantastic Night and other stories plus his memoir World of Yesterday awaiting me on my shelves…

  15. [...] published in the UK by Pushkin Press. This volume includes two stories I’ve already read, ‘The Invisible Collection’ and ‘Buchmendel’: frankly, to have already got two-fifths of a book under my belt before I’d even begun must [...]

  16. doriane said,

    i’m french but i like reading this novels of zweig ,he shows a psycologic of women and that clear (…)


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