April 24, 2008
Stefan Zweig: Fantastic Night and other stories
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.
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.