January 10, 2008
Stefan Zweig: Confusion
For keen readers staying away from home overnight – indeed, for anyone with time to kill and a standard sized pocket – 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 away, and another trip where they make early waking in a strange bed a pleasure (don’t make up your own jokes).
Last weekend I read Confusion, first published in 1927, which at 140 pages is one of Zweig’s longer stories: perhaps even a novella. It lacks the framing device of some of his other tales – the narrator here is also the central character – but contains in full the qualities we expect of him: an urgency in the reader’s mind to read on, and a heightened emotional state more or less throughout.
This latter is odd: in other hands, in a modern story, it might seem parodic or over-the-top, but we never doubt the sincerity and angst of Zweig’s people. This one is a university professor looking back on his career, and in particular his dealings with another professor who inspired him as a young student. He is a vital youth, discovering his independence, “every cell in my being … crying out for sudden expansion” and finding the perfect vehicle for this in Berlin, “that heated giantess, that restless city radiating power.” He passes the time indulging himself:
I would take back to my lodgings now a flaxen-haired milky-skinned servant girl from Mecklenburg, heated by the dancing, before she went home from her day off, now a timid, nervous little Jewish girl from Posen who sold stockings in Tietz’s – most of them easy pickings, to be had for the taking and passed on quickly to my friends.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s “a strikingly good-looking young man. Tall, slim, the bronzed hue of the sea coast still fresh on my cheeks, my every movement athletically supple,” but soon he discovers passion not of the body but of the mind, when he attends a tutorial by a literature professor. It is a revelation to our hero as he listens to a discussion on Elizabethan England and its “true bold leap into infinity” as an age comes into its own through the crucible of art, Shakespeare being “merely the strongest manifestation, the psychic message of a whole generation, expressing, through the senses, a time turned passionately enthusiastic.”
I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer.
It draws him closer in particular to the professor, and he ends up sharing accommodation with him and his wife. What follows cannot be detailed any further for risk of landing in a swamp of spoilers, though the fact that our narrator seems to be returning to his old ways when he acknowledges the “slender boyish figure” of the professor’s wife in her swimsuit, should be warning enough. Alternatively, if you read the gnomic and superfluous afterword to the story by Joel Rosenthal (who also provided the cover illustration) then the essence of the game will be given away instantly. Be warned.
What Confusion gives us is a remarkably sympathetic portrait for the times of a particular social heresy – filled with his reliably high-octane emotion and cataclysmic sense of despair. The subject matter, as a taboo, has so faded for us that it would hardly make the story worth writing today. But if Zweig was still alive and wanted to write it again, I’d probably let him away with it.