June 21, 2009
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.
July 26, 2008
A new Stefan Zweig book is always a welcome prospect: so how about a new Zweig which is literally new – the first English translation of a book unpublished at the time of his death in 1942 (though it was released in Germany in 1982) – and as a bonus, comes in the lovely NYRB Classics format? Furthermore, at 250 pages, it’s a full novel rather than his usual story form. Say no more.
The Post-Office Girl (’1930s’ is the best date we have for it) must be two or three times longer than anything else I’ve read by Zweig, and it shows that he can sustain his usual strengths of psychological truth and moreishness at novel length.
What’s particularly interesting is that, where Zweig’s usual form is to overwhelm the reader with immersion into the obsessive or passionate mindset of the protagonist, here, initially at least, he takes a more omniscient approach, scattering his gift widely around many characters, encapsulating them efficiently in a paragraph or two. An affair and marital break-up is despatched in a page and a half, and even passing characters are depicted in loving detail, such as the schoolmaster Franz Fuchsthaler, “a scrawny little man, anxious blue eyes hidden behind spectacles”:
For this quiet, unprepossessing, passive man who has no garden in front of his subsidized flat, books are like flowers. He loves to line them up on the shelf in multicoloured rows; he watches over each of them with an old-fashioned gardener’s delight, holds them like fragile objects in his thin, bloodless hands.
But quickly it becomes apparent that the central character is Christine Hoflehner, postmistress in the Austrian village of Klein-Reifling, who is thoroughly bored with her existence. It is 1926 and for years Christine has been in the same job, where “the hundreds of thousands of letters will always be different letters, but always letters. The stamps different stamps, but always stamps. The days different, but each one lasting from eight o’clock until noon, from two o’clock until six o’clock, and the work of the office, as the years come and go, always the same, the same, the same.”
Christine jumps – eventually – at the opportunity to visit her aunt Claire van Boolen in Switzerland, where she finds her life transformed by the social whirl and the new opportunities – and people – available to her.
And continually she asks herself in bewilderment, “Who am I? For years people on the street walked past without a glance, for years I’ve been sitting there in the village and no one gave me anything or bothered about me. …Is there suddenly something in me that was always there and yet not there, something that just couldn’t get out? Can it be that I was actually prettier than I dared to be, and smarter and more attractive, but didn’t have the courage to believe it? Who am I, who am I really?”
But even here the seeds of a turnaround are sown, as Zweig points out that although “she’s discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years … the discovery is so intoxicating that she’s forgetting everyone else.” Further than this it would be unfair to go (so don’t read the back cover: see below), but the story proceeds with Zweig’s usual combination of cruel logic and contorted emotion.
If the book’s moreish readability makes it seem at times less substantial – despite its greater length – than some of Zweig’s other works, then there is enough to make up for this in his skewering of class awareness, social shame and the desperation of reduced circumstances. The ending to me at first seemed rashly abrupt, but on rereading the closing pages I came to the view that it made a perfect marriage of ambiguity and inevitability.
Now a few quibbles with the edition from NYRB Classics (I know; I never thought I’d see the day). The back cover blurb is perhaps unique in that it reveals the entire plot right to the end of the book – a grave error, given that there are developments and switchbacks along the way which are a good part of the pleasure, as ever, in reading Zweig. On the other hand I would have welcomed a bit more background to the book, if not a full introduction then at least a translator’s note – where did the book come from, why didn’t Zweig publish it during his lifetime, and so on? (In fact NYRB Classics Editor Edwin Frank has written a little about it on their website, though this is not much more helpful, with its wild description of the book as “hardboiled, as if Zweig … had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett.”)
Finally I’m unsure about the title. The original is Rausch der Verwandlung. The last word I know from Kafka, but a rough Google Translate gives the whole as Noise of the Transformation. Edwin Frank prefers The Intoxication of Metamorphosis, which makes more sense. Both are more enigmatic and striking than The Post-Office Girl to be sure. Then again, the chosen title has a blank simplicity which appeals too, and an irony in finally reducing Christine to her social role however hard she wishes to escape it. Plus if we translated everything literally, then this post would be about a book by Stephen Branch. Sometimes publisher knows best then.
April 24, 2008
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.
January 10, 2008
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.
September 8, 2007
In the past week I have begun, and failed to click with, four different books. I began to think I was losing my mind. So I needed something short, something addictive, something beautifully written, and ideally also something about someone else losing their mind to make me feel better. I found them all in one hundred pages in Stefan Zweig’s Twilight/Moonbeam Alley.
Twilight (first published 1910) is one of the finest stories I have ever read. (The second story Moonbeam Alley is enjoyable but not a patch on Twilight, so I will restrict myself to talking about the main feature.) Oddly, I’d flicked through this volume when browsing my Zweigs and had been put off by the opening lines of the blurb: ‘Twilight, based on the real life of Madame de Prie…’ – I got no further before silently thinking Boring! Who wants to read a fictionalised account of the life of an 18th century French aristocrat? Well, shame on me.
Madame de Prie is a favourite of the King at the Palace of Versailles, with almost no qualities whatsoever, or at least no positive ones – she is vain, shallow, self-centred and a mistress of self-deception. So long has she been lying to herself and to others for her own amusement (“Deception, the delight of her life, opened up her heart again”) that she no longer knows what is important to her.
When she falls from favour, and is exiled to a country estate, she is lost but confident:
Her exile couldn’t last for more than a few days, until tempers had calmed down, and then her friends would make sure she was recalled. In her mind, she was already looking forward to her revenge, and soothed her anger with that idea.
Writing a letter to stay in touch with her true – that is, her truly false – friends back at Versailles, she “hoped not to stay in the country long, she said, although she liked it here very well. She didn’t even notice that she was lying to him.” She tries to find ways to amuse herself in her new life, including her dealings with a local peasant:
It made her feel quite cheerful. For the first time she felt the old relish, mingled with slight contempt, of seeing a human being powerless before her. It revived the desire to toy with others which had become a necessity of life to her during her years of power.
Zweig skewers Madame de Prie until she is pinned and wriggling on the wall, her terrible behaviour and turmoil awful to read about but impossible to tear yourself away from. To say any more would spoil it, but I could quote dozens more extracts. His bleak and ironic telling finds time for cool wit even in the darkness of the last pages, when he offers us his usual summation of the theme. It’s a testament to Zweig’s ability that this ‘moral of the tale’ ending does not seem superfluous, but rather tops the whole thing off beautifully. Why Zweig isn’t spoken of in the same revered tones as Chekhov is a mystery.
July 17, 2007
As promised previously, I have finally picked up some of Stefan Zweig’s stories as published by Pushkin Press in their handsome little squarish editions, and the first of these was The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel.
This slim volume comprises two stories, 26 pages and 56 pages respectively, and you might think this is not very good value at the price of a normal paperback. You might be right – there is another volume of Zweig pairs, Twilight / Moonbeam Alley, not much longer. Would it have killed Pushkin to bundle them together in one 200-page book? On the other hand, they are bringing us great fiction, and these beautifully stitched and printed volumes can’t be cheap to make.
Anyway. The Invisible Collection, first published in 1926, has the usual Zweig framing device of a man telling us a story about a story told to him by another man. This time it’s a dealer in rare books and prints in Germany, during its period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, when goods rose in price daily and most money literally wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The book dealer decides to look up some old buyers, to see if they are willing to sell back their purchases in these straitened times. What he discovers with one old man shocks him, and provides Zweig not only with the opportunity to fit a story within the story, but to produce a satisfying and accessible tale reflecting (as he points out) Goethe’s maxim that “Collectors are happy creatures.” It put me a little in mind of Raymond Carver’s story ‘Cathedral,’ or one of Roald Dahl’s adult stories without the glib desire for a twist.
Buchmendel, dating from 1929, introduces us to the story of Mendel, an unassuming young man who has
a titanic memory, wherein, behind a dirty and undistinguished-looking forehead, was indelibly recorded a picture of the title page of every book that had been printed. No matter whether it had issued from the press yesterday or hundreds of years ago, he knew its place of publication, its author’s name, and its price. From his mind, as if from the printed page, he could read off the contents, could reproduce the illustrations; could visualise, not only what he had actually held in his hands, but also what he had glanced at in a bookseller’s window; could see it with the same vividness as an artist sees the creations of fancy which he has not yet reproduced upon canvas.
This takes us into a story with some similarities to Zweig’s Chess / The Royal Game, and it’s a feature of these short stories (the pages are small as well as few) that I can’t really say any more without spoiling part of the fun. And reading Zweig is fun. He reminds us in Buchmendel that “one only makes books in order to keep in touch with one’s fellows after one has ceased to breathe, and thus to defend oneself against the inexorable fate of all that lives – transitoriness and oblivion.” Thanks to Pushkin Press, Zweig’s mission is accomplished.
May 12, 2007
Stefan Zweig is one of those names which has been tapping at my literary consciousness for a while now. His books earn Paperback of the Week status in newspaper reviews. His dinky little volumes are displayed in my local bookstore with unusual prominence for a dead early 20th century Austrian short story writer. And when the ever-reliable Penguin relaunched some classics with jazzy modern covers last year, in among the Gatsbys and the Sensibilitys and the Confederacys, was this slim and mysterious volume.
At 76 pages, Chess is less a novella than a story, and its unbroken paragraphs and frankly gripping style encourage reading it at one sitting. It was Zweig’s last work, written shortly before his suicide in 1942, and his hatred of the Nazis – he and his wife killed themselves in despair at the future of Europe – is well established and allegorized within these pages. Which is not to say that Chess is a solemn or offputting book. Zweig’s ability to carry the reader along through summarised lives, stories within stories and long monologues is remarkable, and it becomes an urgent, passionate read.
The story begins on board ship from New York to Buenos Aires, where the narrator discovers that among the passengers is Mirko Czentovic, the world’s leading chess player. We learn of his life – raised by a priest, devoid of social graces, for a time it seems as though the book is going to be the Perfume of chess – and the passengers challenge him to a game, but soon the plot turns and we find that Czentovic is not the main character after all. There are highly immersive scenes of solitary imprisonment which reminded me of William Boyd’s The New Confessions, and a psychological richness which leaks all the way through the story to the bizarre but plausible end.
Chess is also available as The Royal Game in another translation, published by Pushkin Press, who over the last few years have put much of Zweig’s work back in print. I’ll be heading to their shelves shortly for more from this compelling writer.