Theme: Eastern Europe
“Apart from books, he knew nothing of the world. The phenomena of existence did not begin to become real for him until they had been set in type, arranged upon a composing stick, collected and, so to say, sterilized in a book”
Stefan Zweig is one of those rare authors that is able to capture the universality of human emotion that a reader identifies with but also takes that emotion and gives it a macabre twist that compels the reader to keep reading – he tells the story that everyone knows and still makes us wonder what will happen. I chose Zweig as the spotlight author for the Eastern European theme because he epitomizes the depth and breadth of what this region, in particular Austria, has to offer the international literary community. A noted pacifist, Zweig produced novellas, novels, stories, biographies and memoirs that outline not only the cultural and artistic landscape of his Homeland, but of Europe in general, during the tumultuous time between the two world wars. A proponent of a Unified Europe, there is a tinge of irony that his work is reemerging today in English (due mostly to the inexhaustible and brilliant translations by Anthea Bell) and throughout the European Union as an author that must be read and included in the discussion of great international writers of the 20th century. Reflecting in his work on the frailty of emotions in the extreme, he finally fled Austria in 1934 when Nazism was on the rise and ventured to London, the United States and finally settled in Brazil where he and his wife carried out their suicide pact in 1942. The loss of what Europe once was and the path that Europe was forging culturally devastated Zweig, rendering him hopeless that the Europe he knew as a boy would ever return.
This hopelessness, this nostalgic mourning, is represented best in Pushkin Press’ publication of Amok and Other Stories. Tragic fate is the major theme that is woven through the texture of these four stories with the craftsmanship of a master who knows his own fate and the fate of his characters. The title novella deals with an unknown narrator who befriends a gentleman on a ship which soon leads the reader into the plot. The gentleman is a doctor who divulges that his presence on the ocean liner is merely to prevent a widower form discovering the cause of his wife’s death. The doctor know what the reason is because he was in love with the woman. She died while having an abortion performed. He promised her while she was dying that no one would find out he true reason for her death. This was bold territory for Zweig, who sets the story in 1912, and which was originally published in the newspaper in 1922. All the stories in this collection examine the effect that passion has on our behavior(tipping his hat to Freud) and our destiny, but Amok is filled with quote-worthy narrative and dialogue. Here are just a few examples:
She had a cold, proud manner that drove me to distraction–bold domineering women had always had a hold over me, but she tightened that old until my bones were breaking. I did what she wanted–well, why not say it? t’s eight years ago now–I dipped into the hospital funds for her, and when it came out all hell was let loose.
I would have liked to strike her in the face, but as I stood there shaking–she too had risen to her feet–and I looked her straight in the eye, the sight of her closed mouth that refused to plead, her haughty brow that would not bend, a…kind of violent desire overcame me.
I knew she hated me because she needed me, and I hated her because…well, because she would nt plead. In that one single second of silence, we spoke to each other honestly for the first time.
Reading this reminds me how contemporary Zweig’s style feels. It’s at once lean, restrained, and classical as well as modern, trenchant and daring. All the stories in this collection deal with obsessive passion, unrequited love and death as escape, absolution and devotion. Clearly, Zweig didn’t have the same disdain for suicide as the current mores would dictate. He addresses this plainly and without question or judgment. As depressing as suicide is, these stories are beautifully crafted character studies that illuminate the liberation and courage in this act which ironically leaves us with a certain hope. As if whatever emotion or ideology these characters are beholden to, they hold the ultimate power–the decision to die. It takes a superior writer to makes us see this in all its complexity.
And when it comes to complexity, Zweig uses all his ability to create characters that have all the intricacies of full, well-rounded characters. There’s a pathos to his stories that vibrates below the surface of the narrative that immediately conjures up empathy for the characters. In Confusion, a nostalgic, dizzying tale about a student’s devotion and infatuation with his professor, we feel compassion for young Roland’s desire to please that verges on madness. Confusion is not as well-structured as the stories in Amok, but the emotional momentum compensates for the looser framework. But again, we are dealing with the control someone has over someone else–power struggles. This is a major Zweig theme that dominates most of his work. In this particular power play, a professor uses his knowledge to seduce a young student into his world which is shrouded in secrecy. Without giving away too much, there is a love triangle that benefits no one, but exists nonetheless to accommodate the hidden life of the professor. This novella is eerie and smothering, which in itself creates the atmosphere of obsession for the reader, as if there is nowhere she can escape to until the story is completed.
Power, desire and triangles continue as dominant themes in Burning Secret , a story of a man on vacation who befriends a young boy i order to seduce the mother. Throughout this novella, the Baron’s narcissism is played so effectively that we actually have sympathy for him despite his obvious manipulations of Edgar’s, the 12 year-old boy, affections merely to get closer to the mother. As light as the tone seems, once we are finished reading the novella, we mourn the loss of Edgar’s innocence as if it were our own.
Fantastic Night and Other Stories (now titled, “Selected Stories”) is another strong collection of stories from Zweig that examines all the facets of unrequited love and philosophical dilemmas. It’s difficult to pick selections from Zweig’s work to highlight how exquisite the prose is because it is all so strong. At times, the reader may feel tested by his techniques but will always see the reasons for his choices by story’s end. In particular, The Invisible Collection and Buchmendel seem the most personal of his novellas because they deal with journey to follow the artists creative nature amidst the destruction and poverty of war. These two stories are powerful and poignant in the face of the ravages of war and it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that as a pacifist, Zweig found solace from the horror of war in art.
Lastly, I chose The Post-Office Girl to round out the must-reads of Stefan Zweig. From the beginning of this novel, with it’s oppressive close third person, the reader feels intimately the protagonist’s misery and malaise from poverty. Christine, a post-office worker in a small impoverished Austrian town after World War 1. Capitalism has not made the life any better here, and 28 year-old Christine who’s lost almost all of her family except her mother, has never had a taste of the good life. And this doesn’t necessarily bother her:
But still: a little bit of security, a roof over your head, room to breathe, just barely; might as well get used to it–after all, the casket’s a tighter fit.
And while she suffers a boring job and a cramped home she shares with her ailing mother, she receives a telegram from her wealthy Aunt and Uncle that allows her to spend a Holiday with them in an expensive spa in Switzerland. For a few weeks, she lives the a life that is polar opposite to her one back home–expensive dresses, a makeover, handsome suitors, idle days–and it is all becomes mesmerizing by the luxuries offered her. As the reader senses, this not going to be a happy story. Because of perceived missteps in her behavior that threatens the social standing of her Aunt and Uncle, she is sent back home. Her mother passes and she is alone in the world with her job at the post-office. A shift has definitely occurred in Christine and this collides with the disenfranchised former soldier, Ferdinand. Bonded by their own doomed futures and poverty, they forge together on a path of revenge against the society that has wronged them. And in the end, who can blame them?
This is the question we ask no matter how desperate the characters seem to be–who can blame them? In a world where people who inhabit Zweig’s stories sometimes only have the complexities of their own human emotions to hang onto, it’s no wonder they delve into madness, obsession and suicide without hesitation. The reader receives some type of reprieve because Zweig often employs a once removed technique with the central characters–their painful histories are recounted through letters or as memories after years have passed. But his understanding of the human condition is what makes him so accessible and timeless. The more you read Zweig, the more you will want to read him. And thanks to Pushkin Press and New York Review Books, Anthea Bell, and Joel Rotenberg, we can.