An elderly art collector pages through his beloved book of prints, oblivious to the runaway inflation that has brought his family to the brink of penury. A rumpled book dealer, whom today we'd probably call an autistic savant, is hauled away and imprisoned by authorities prosecuting a war he doesn't even know is happening. A woman carries a torch her whole life for a man who doesn't know she exists. A man experiences an unexplained psychosexual awakening: "Oh, to plunge in, into the living entity, to be linked somehow to the convulsive, laughing, breathing passion of others, to stream on, to pour my fluids into their veins…"
This collection of stories (several of them novella-length) represents the mature Zweig, who, having found the literary voice and psychological nuance to go with his knife-sharp imagination, developed in the 1920s into one of Europe's greatest writers of the period between the World Wars. The tales have achieved that timeless quality that had eluded some of his earlier work.
"Fantastic Night," about the man who feels himself suddenly flowering alive, might have taken place anywhere, in any era, as a narrative of the mind. After an eye-opening day at the races and an uncharacteristic encounter with a streetwalker, the wealthy narrator resorts to literally throwing his money to the crowds in order to express his newfound, thrilling sense of connection. Having committed a crime—a moral one, at least—he, like an anti-Raskolnikov, "listened with feverish expectation for the echo that did not come, for the cry of disgust, horror, and despair that must follow my self-accusation…[but] it was joy, intoxicated joy blazing up in me…for I felt that in those moments I had been truly alive…"
The story, which opens the collection, is a penetrating and original psychological study by a writer under the fresh influence of the theories of fellow Austrian Sigmund Freud. The closing story, "Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman," makes a fitting companion for it. A married mother has run off with a dashing young stranger, and the narrator takes the unpopular position of defending her, citing the "obvious fact that at certain times in her life a woman is delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgment." A now elderly woman of his acquaintance jumps at the long-sought chance at legitimization and recounts to this near-stranger a life-changing event from her own past. Her tale is as suspenseful as any spy movie, while making a beautiful case for passion and impulsiveness. Her soliloquy on the expressivity that can be read in a pair of hands, without even looking at the owner's face, is exquisite. But as the narrator of "Fantastic Night" says, "only he who lives his life as a mystery is truly alive."
Though I am, sadly, not well equipped to read Zweig in the original German, these somewhat formal translations feel to me appropriate for stories created and set in a time when elegance in writing was considered a virtue. Anyone who enjoys reading the classics by James, Dostoyevsky, or Woolf would probably enjoy this new edition from Pushkin Press of some of the great works of the once well known but now relatively obscure Zweig, to whom this set of stories is a fine introduction.