Stefan Zweig at his best was grippingly raw. As much in his novellas as in his short stories, the Austrian writer’s psychological acuity brought his protagonists and their dilemmas vividly to life.
It was during the interwar period that Zweig (1881-1942) became one of Europe’s most popular writers. But The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig, a welcome new Pushkin Press volume, begins with an early work from 1911.
In “Burning Secret,” a boy on vacation with his mother experiences his first great disappointment when he realizes with a protracted shock the ulterior motive of a man who has befriended his mother and him. The story reveals a fine-tuned feel for the kinds of sadness that hit the young especially hard. “Edgar shuddered. The blood was pulsing back into his veins again, hotter and more turbulent than before. Suddenly he was unbearably lonely in this bewildering darkness…”
The twin themes of a young man’s coming of age and the price of adultery recur in the later novellas. The somewhat overwrought “Fear” explores a woman’s psychological trauma when she’s blackmailed after having an affair. “Confusion” recounts a college student’s intellectual and emotional passions when he engages personally with an admired professor and his wife. Here Zweig puts his perspective on youth into the words of his narrator, looking back from the vantage point of maturity. In Anthea Bell’s bracing translation:
Being beautiful in itself, youth needs no transfiguration: in its abundance of strong life it is drawn to the tragic, and is happy to allow melancholy to suck sweetly from its still inexperienced bloom, and the same phenomenon accounts for the eternal readiness of young people to face danger and reach out a fraternal hand to all spiritual suffering.
“A Chess Story” treads different ground. This novella shares some of the others’ atmosphere of quivering awareness, but its narrator is on the sidelines, a Nick Carraway or a Boswell, watching as an anxious amateur challenges a famous chess champion in the confined microverse of a boat trip.
Zweig’s dominant themes re-emerge in the collection’s pièce de resistance, “Journey Into the Past.” Ludwig, the young protégé of an aging business tycoon falls in love with the old man’s thirty-something wife. His passions collide with his ambitions when he’s offered a plum assignment overseas: “There at last was the door, flung wide as if by the blast of an explosion, showing him the way out of the prison of poverty, the lightless world of service and obedience, away from the constantly obsequious attitude of a man forced to act and think with humility.”
Ludwig corresponds with his boss’s wife through the disruptions of the First World War, but as the omniscient narrator reminds us:
It is not in human nature to live entirely on memories, and just as the plants and every living structure need nourishment from the soil and new light from the sky, if their colours are not to fade and their petals to drop, even such apparently unearthly things as dreams need a certain amount of nourishment from the senses, some tender pictorial aid, or their blood will run thin and their radiance be dimmed.
When the two finally reunite, it’s in a changed world. The original German title, “Widerstand der Wirklichkeit” (“Resistance of Reality”), suggests the folly of the couple’s attempt to reconnect – an attempt she knows all along to be futile. Their discomfort is writ large in the Nazi march they unexpectedly run into when they arrive in the normally peaceful university town of Heidelberg.
Not published in Zweig’s lifetime, this brief novella was apparently written around 1933. “People may grow old, but they remain the same,” Ludwig’s companion tells him. In some essential sense, that may be so, but, Zweig is telling us, the world people have to live in does change. It doesn’t allow us to journey into our past.
Literature does, though. A rediscovery of Zweig through this book gives an enlightening perspective on the past century and how we got where we are today.