April 24, 2008

Stefan Zweig: Fantastic Night and other stories

Posted in Pushkin Press, Zweig Stefan at 7:22 am by John Self

When usually the prospect of reading a complete book of stories by the same author fills me with apathy, I’m not sure why I continue to be attracted to the collections of Stefan Zweig, 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 have been a factor.

Fantastic Night and other stories

An image like the one on the cover appears in the third story, ‘The Fowler Snared’.

From time to time came a meteor, like one of these stars loosened from the firmament and plunging athwart the night sky; downwards into the dark, into the valleys, on to the hills, or into the distant water, driven by a blind force as our lives are driven into the abysses of unknown destinies.

‘Lives … driven into the abysses of unknown destinies’ are a feature of many of Zweig’s stories, though really it’s not so much the destiny which interests him – often the tale will end just as the life is opening up to new possibilities, and the reader must imagine those for himself – as the ‘blind force’ which drives them. But if this suggests a fatalism in his characters, that would not be quite true.

In the title story ‘Fantastic Night’ (1922) – the longest in the collection at 54 pages – the central character, typically for Zweig, is at one remove from us, his story told through the framing device of the narrator being given a bundle of papers which contain the text. Again typically for Zweig, we are then given a detailed and emotive account of the man’s spiritual awakening, which “has become the pivot on which my whole existence turns.” Before this ‘fantastic night’ he was a successful but empty man of 36 with independent income and no real concerns.

I did not lack for success with women, and here too, with the secret collector’s urge which in a way indicates a lack of real involvement, I chalked up many memorable and precious hours of varied experience. In this field I gradually moved from being a mere sensualist to the status of a knowledgeable connoisseur. … But nothing stirred, I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining through me and never lingering within…

What changes his life is a day at the races, where a minor lapse of morality gives vent to such feelings of vigour and life when he cheats to win that “I felt myself, desiccated as I was, suddenly flowering again.” This leads to “the pull of criminality” and later to “the frenzied enchantment of gambling for the second time in twelve hours, but this time for the highest of stakes, for my whole comfortable existence, even my life.” Zweig takes his time over this development, and it’s tempting to yell Get on with it! as he gives us a moment-by-moment account of our man’s growth. Yet his triumph in ‘Fantastic Night’ is twofold. First, to reach one of his usual fine epiphanies at the end of the story and make us realise it could not have been told any more briefly without losing its cumulative power; and second, to seemingly leave the story open-ended until we return to the framing introduction and discover we already know the character’s fate from the outset as surely and as subtly as we do with Mrs Richard F Schiller’s in Lolita, and that the end loops back to the beginning in a highly satisfying way.

Elsewhere I read that the second story in this volume, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ (1922), was one of Zweig’s finest moments. I don’t know about that, but it does have one remarkable quality in a story – yet again – of constantly heightened emotion and passionate expression, which is to make the most interesting character the one who never speaks, to whom the story is addressed. This is a writer of Zweig’s age and nationality, who receives a letter from a woman who turns out to have adored him all her life.

Nothing can equal the unnoticed love of a child. It is hopeless and subservient; it is patient and passionate; it is something which the covetous love of a grown woman, the love that is unconsciously exacting, can never be.

There are dramatic developments, but all along the most interesting question from the reader’s point of view is: how is the writer – who has chosen to share this letter with us – feeling about it? Wondering whether we will ever find out is the greatest pleasure of all.

This volume is essential for any Zweig fan, or indeed any admirer of strongly driven stories of unrequited love and metaphysical frenzy – which almost goes without saying as I had already recommended the last two stories here (‘The Invisible Collection’ and ‘Buchmendel’) in their stand-alone edition. The final story here that was new to me is the ten-page short ‘The Fowler Snared,’ where Zweig plays with the notion of fiction and the responsibility of the author to his characters. One character has no interest in such things:

The fancies of fiction… do they not fade after a time, do they not perish in twenty, fifty or a hundred years?

Yes they do, but this one – first published in 1906 – looks like surviving a little longer yet.

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16 Comments »

  1. No Answers said,

    Now there’s a coincidence. Like you, I’d also bought some of the Pushkin Press editions first, and very beautiful they are, but it would cost an arm and a leg to acquire all of Zweig’s work this way. “Fantastic Night” currently seems one of the only substantial collections of his work in print at a reasonable price.

    Zweig does have a distinctive voice, though his plotting and story structure to my mind don’t do a whole lot to advance the genre. It is, as you’ve noted, his “metaphysical frenzy”, as well as his psychological preoccupations, simultaneously driven and revealed by way of his narrative, that make his writing so thought-provoking.

    Someone you may also like, if Zweig appeals, is Isak Dinesen’s (eg. “Seven Gothic Stories”). She also very much has that “metaphysical” quality; there’s also a slightly surreal quality to many of her stories that fits in very well with their Gothic texture. I think she’s lamentably underrated.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks NA. Yes, the Pushkin editions are lovely, especially the smaller square ones (“Jewel” format), but often they’re £10 for 100 pages or so. I do prefer them to the larger normal-sized paperbacks like Fantastic Night – so easy to carry around in a pocket. Pushkin did tell me last year they were thinking of issuing a collected stories of Zweig, but I haven’t heard anything more about that. Another small one,Burning Secret, is due out soon so I guess they’re sticking with releasing the stories one or two at a time.

    I still have Amok and other stories, his memoir World of Yesterday and his novel Beware of Pity on my shelves. I feel some trepidation toward the last: how can he keep up the usual Zweig intensity of emotion for 360 pages? And won’t it be rather exhausting if he does? Also NYRB Classics in the US are issuing his ‘lost’ novel The Post-Office Girl soon but I don’t know if there are any plans to publish it in the UK.

    Thanks for the Dinesen recommendation. Probably like most people, my only knowledge of her is as the author of Out of Africa, which in itself made me suspect her to be of limited appeal to me. Funny how our expectations can cloud even looking more closely at an author. Will have a look for her stories.

  3. Ted said,

    A timely post, John. I’m just considering finally filling in the Zweig gap in my reading of authors of German Jewish descent (my heritage). I’ll see if I can find that Pushkin edition here in New York, thanks for the recommendation. I’m also going to look for Chess Story, which was recommended by another fellow blogger today.

  4. John Self said,

    Hi Ted. Mind if I ask who your other authors of German Jewish descent are? Joseph Roth springs immediately to mind (I have his A String of Pearls on my shelves) but I’m sure there must be lots of other obvious ones I can’t think of.

    Chess Story was my first Zweig – I commented on it here

  5. Ted said,

    Hi John – It’s funny, the first two names that spring to mind when you ask (and I had them in mind as I made my comment) aren’t actually Jewish at all. They were humanists who were very sympathetic to the plight of the various people oppressed by the Nazis – Mann and Hesse. (In fact, Hesse was instrumental in helping to get my Great-grandfather, a journalist and member of the Weimar Landstag, out of Germany in 1933). I’m a big von Horvath fan, but he was Austro-Hungarian but also fled the Nazis. But Lion Feuchtwanger was one, Marcel Reich-Ranicki. I’ve never actually read Paul Celan. And Bruno Schultz was Austro-Hungarian but German-speaking and Jewish. I’d also lump Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin in with them, but they didn’t write fiction. It seems like this is a genre of interest for you too. Who are your’s?

  6. Mark Thwaite said,

    Do Freud, Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas count!? Not much fiction there though … Arnold Zweig perhaps?

    The Yiddish Modernist writer Dovid Bergelson (who Joseph Sherman — see my interview with him on ReadySteadyBook –has done so much to promote) is important here …

    Oh, whilst I have you, I may as well tell you what I’m telling everyone else today: we’re giving away a free audiobook of Kipling’s Kim over on The Book Depository: go to bookdepository.co.uk for more (or direct to audible.co.uk/kim/tbd). Yay!

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks Mark – I’ve hyperlinked your message. (It’s worth adding that the audiobook is free to everyone who visits the site, not just a prize draw for one to be won, as I first thought!)

    You guys are both tantalising me with names I’ve barely (or never) heard of. Ted, I wouldn’t say it’s a particular interest of mine, so I can’t offer any names myself, but I’m certainly interested in finding out more from clued-in souls like you and Mark. I can however offer Irmgard Keun, whose Child of All Nations I mentioned a while ago (look under K in the Author Index top right). She was Roth’s partner toward the end of his life.

  8. Ted said,

    Thanks, John, for Keun – a writer with whom I am completely unfamiliar. And thank you too, Mark – I’ve never heard of Levinas or Bergelson.

  9. Isabel said,

    A great non-fiction is
    Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family by Ron Chernow, Marty Asher (Editor)

    They are from Hamburg.

    When one traveled to the US, the customs agent made a mistake and stamped him as a resident. That little slip up saved most of the family from you-know-what.

    One of them started the US Federal Reserve.

  10. Tom C said,

    Thanks for this review – I am a “Zweig fan” but have never come across this one. I have found it on Amazon for £3.64 – such value ! It is strange how one is drawn to rather dense books like this when much there are much easier ways of getting a literary fix. However, once addicted nothing else really works does it

  11. John Self said,

    Indeed Tom, and thankfully there seems no shortage of other stuff by Zweig waiting to be translated and published. I find him both dense and not-dense: a lot of intense detail in his characters’ expressions of their turmoil, but at the same time very gripping and tends to drag one speedily through the pages.

  12. Paul Raymont said,

    Re. German-Jewish authors from the early 20th Century, the Weimar journalist Kurt Tucholsky published a short novel called Castle Gripsholm, which was published in 2004 by the Overlook Press.

    It seems like there were many more good authors of Jewish descent and German culture in Austria-Hungary. There’s Kafka’s German-Jewish Prague milieu, which took into its orbit Ernst Weiss, whose books are being published now by Pushkin, and Hermann Ungar, whose works are being re-released by Twisted Spoon Press and by Dedalus.

    I’d recommend *The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits*, ed. Harold B. Segel (Purdue University Press), which has lengthy excerpts from Karl Kraus, Alfred Polgar and Felix Salten. Clive James published an article on Polgar last year in Slate. Salten was a writer of diverse talents — he wrote a story on which Disney’s Bambi is based, and is widely thought to have been the author of a 1906 pornographic novel called *Josephine Mutzenbacher*.

    Also, Hermann Broch and Elias Canetti. The latter’s autobiography has a neat account of cultural life in Berlin before the Nazis took over.

  13. John Self said,

    Thank you very much Paul.

    Ernst Weiss, whose books are being published now by Pushkin

    Yes, I read his novella (story, really) Jarmila last month, but haven’t posted about it as I became somewhat distracted when reading it and didn’t really give it the attention it deserved. I will probably return to it. Pushkin are also publishing his novel Franziska very soon (or possibly already have).

  14. John,

    I found this slightly older post of yours when writing up Ernst Weiss’s Jarmila myself, which is now over at my blog. Did you ever return to it? I’d be very interested in your thoughts if so. I was searching to see what others had made of it, as I was very impressed, and you’re the only other person I’ve found so far whose read it (though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn I’d missed a blog entry somewhere, if so I’d be interested to hear that too).

  15. John Self said,

    Hi Max, no, alas I didn’t return to it, though as it’s very short it would be no hardship to. I do recall finding the opening pages absolutely mesmerising and then, as I said above, getting a little distracted and not really engaging with it all the way through. I look forward to reading your post which may provide the necessary impetus.

  16. I struggled a bit initially too, though possibly due to a stomach infection which has now thankfully cleared up. It is worth persevering with, a small gem and very rewarding.


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