July 17, 2007
Stefan Zweig: The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel
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.