June 21, 2009
Stefan Zweig: Amok and other stories
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).
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.