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.