June 21, 2009

Stefan Zweig: Amok and other stories

Posted in Pushkin Press, Zweig Stefan at 8:00 am by John Self

Hard to believe that it’s almost a year since I last read a Stefan Zweig. He’s one of those writers, like Richard Yates, who was invisible for years and is suddenly – if you’re looking for him – everywhere. The admirable and unpredictable Pushkin Press are reissuing his stories in English, with two volumes this year already (Journey into the Past, and Wondrak and other stories). That made me realise that it’s about time I read an earlier volume of his I’d bought, Amok and other stories. This edition was published in 2007, translated by Anthea Bell, but the stories within date from throughout Zweig’s career (including his busy posthumous period).

Stefan Zweig: Amok and other stories

Amok (1922) was one of Zweig’s best-known novellas in his lifetime. At the time of publication, the word amok was not in common use, and was a term used specifically in Malaysian culture, when ‘running amok’ was thought to be a sudden rage or passion induced by drugs or other intoxication. Typically it would involve a killing spree and other consequences, which can’t be revealed without spoiling the story. Here, however, there is no killing spree but a western doctor working in the Dutch East Indies, torn between duty and desire and driven mad – sent amok – by his feelings. His story is told, as Zweig so often does, through the framing device of another’s account: here, a man who meets the doctor on board ship.

“Odd psychological states have a positively disquieting power over me,” says our narrator, and he’s come to the right place. The doctor tells of how he was visited in the colony by a woman, who requests something of him. Her coolness and hauteur lead the doctor to become – almost literally – possessed by what appears to be a combination of power and lust, leading him to refuse the woman’s request but to long for her in pretty frank terms:

From that moment on, I felt I could see her naked body through her dress … from that moment on I lived for nothing but the idea of taking her, forcing a groan from her hard lips, feeling this cold, arrogant woman a prey to desire like anyone else. [...] it wasn’t desire, the rutting instinct, nothing sexual, I swear it wasn’t, I can vouch for it … just a wish to break her pride, dominate her as a man.

The woman disappears and he runs amok, helpfully defining the term as “a sort of human rabies, an attack of murderous, pointless monomania” – and you can see why Zweig, with his love of characters in heightened states of emotion, was attracted to the concept.

It can’t end well, for the doctor or the protagonist in the other three stories here, ‘The Star above the Forest’, ‘Leporella’ and ‘Incident at Lake Geneva’. In each one, Zweig shows someone overcome by irrational passion or obsession, and seems less interested in showing how they got there (it’s irrational, after all) than in giving us a meticulous account of how it leads to their downfall. “You don’t run amok for long with impunity, you’re bound to be struck down in the end, and I hope it will soon all be over for me.”

There are moments of imaginative distinction and cruel brilliance here. ‘The Star above the Forest’ twists the old cliché about distanced lovers watching the same stars above them, and brings together lover and beloved in a grotesque ending. (“…the rails beneath his head were already beginning to vibrate and sing faintly”). ‘Leporella’ shows an ugly household servant become infatuated with her master, and the only possible end of that. ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’, a small miracle, creates a tragedy from the despair of a Russian prisoner of war learning, in 1918, that his homeland has changed irretrievably.

These four stories, from ten to seventy pages, show Zweig at his best. Such is the answering hunger they evoke, that the reader can only feel like a luckier version of one of Zweig’s protagonists: a story barely known a moment ago becomes a sudden obsession, dragging one through in a passion of discovery right to the bitter end.

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16 Comments »

  1. Trevor said,

    These must be my next purchase from The Book Depository. I loved the Zweig I read last year (also about one year to the date) and sadly not as much of him is available in the U.S.

  2. “…including his busy posthumous period.”

    Very clever, John.

    Zweig is another gaping hole in my reading experience. The timing of this review is appropriate — three volumes are on their way. I’m thinking I will start with Chess but we will see when they arrive.

    And, to address another gaping hole, Gilbert Adair has not been getting appropriate blog attention in 2009. I hope to rectify that soon by looking into The Death of The Author and getting Adair back onto the radar.

  3. john h. said,

    I just ordered one of Zweig’s novels a couple days ago and am looking forward to it. For years you couldn’t find anything by this guy in the states, by the NYRB has fixed that for the time being.

  4. lizzysiddal said,

    Couldn’t agree more, JS. One of the better Zweig reissues with “Incident on Lake Geneva” the highlight.

  5. You realise of course that reviews like this are only going to cause more ‘running amok’ amongst the virtual (and literal) stacks. I’ve been wondering where to go next after my Zweig initiation at the beginning of the year and it’s between this and Fantastic Night… which one John?

  6. JRSM said,

    Zweig is one of my favourite authors.

    ‘It can’t end well” is the perfect summary of pretty much all of his work–and, indeed, his life.

  7. Biblibio said,

    “who was invisible for years and is suddenly – if you’re looking for him – everywhere.” For real. I’d never heard of him until a few weeks ago, ordered one book (which has yet to arrive) and then started seeing him everywhere, including my very-bad local bookstore and all across the internet. It is, quite honestly, bizarre. I am now anticipating the arrival of my book even more than usual…

  8. ted said,

    You always sending me running off to read a new Zweig. Something to look forward to.

  9. Tony S. said,

    Some of the strongest European writers of the 1930s and 1940s are only now being discovered by a world-wide audience. Within the past few years, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, and Irene Nemirovsky have finally gotten the recognition they deserve, and this year Hans Fallada is getting his due. Also Joseph Roth’s second wife, Irmgard Keun is also again being read. The terrible reign of the Nazis destroyed the lives of all these writers.

  10. John Self said,

    Yes Tony; this is exactly the point that Anthea Bell makes in her afterword to Amok – and that the Nazis were effectively responsible for Zweig’s death (he apparently entered a suicide pact with his wife after learning of the fall of Singapore, which led him to believe that the Nazis and Japanese would succeed in dominating the world). He was only 60 years old and surely had many more years of writing in him.

    I’m pleased to see so much interest in Zweig – he really is an author who will appeal even to people who normally wouldn’t consider reading literature in translation. I have four of his books remaining unread on my shelves: Wondrak and other stories, Journey into the Past, his long novel Beware of Pity and his memoir The World of Yesterday (in an ugly US edition; Pushkin Press will publish it in the UK later this year). That leaves Burning Secret, which I don’t have. I do wonder how much more of his stuff is still to come: he was also a prolific biographer of Marie Antoinette and others.

    William: I’d go for Amok, if only because I can recall at this short distance that I really liked it. Fantastic Night has faded, so much so that even rereading my own review doesn’t stir much.

  11. kimbofo said,

    Okay, confession time: I’m a Zweig virgin. Where do you suggest I start?

  12. John Self said,

    Well kimbofo, my first Zweig was Chess (also published as Chess Story and The Royal Game, depending on whether you choose the Penguin, NYRB or Pushkin edition!). It must be a good place to start as I’ve read another half dozen since! It was also, I think, the last story he completed (or maybe published) before his death, so it shows him in full maturity as a writer.

  13. Tom C said,

    Great review. I reviewed this back in last September. I think its a classic of the short story genre and is also a nicely produced little book. I came to Zweig through Beware of Pity which I still think is his best – a superb book

  14. Hm, I’ve been wondering where to start with Zweig, I’ll start with Chess then which Tom C recently reviewed and which you recommend here as a good place to kick off from.

    Joseph Roth, in one of his German essays, speaks at length of the impact of the Nazis on Jewish writers, it’s a very powerful piece – the most powerful in that essay collection. It’s good as noted above that they’re being remembered, brought back into the light.

  15. praymont said,

    Yikes! Have you seen this LRB article by Michael Hofmann on Zweig (in the Jan. 28, 2010 issue). It’s at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n02/michael-hofmann/vermicular-dither?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=3202

    Hofmann’s abuse of Zweig is so over the top that it’s hard to take seriously. He even criticizes Zweig’s suicide note, saying that the reader feels bored by it.

  16. John Self said,

    Wow – I’ve read only the first couple of paras so far, but that really is a glorious diatribe. What’s interesting is his brief praise of Anthea Bell – who, along with Hofmann, has the German translation market sewn up – as ‘excellent’, while implying that she has been wasting her time, or prostituting her talent, with the dozen or so Zweigs she’s translated. Thanks for the link, Paul!


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