Rating: 5 stars
Over on Brontë’s Page Turners not so long ago was a review of a novella by Stefan Zweig. I hadn’t heard of Zweig, but Brontë’s review made me want to read something by him.
Last week I went to the library to borrow one specific book. The library staff had done that thing of getting a table out and putting books on it to entice people to borrow them. One of the books was The Portable Veblen, which I’ve already read. But it pulled my irresolute eye towards the table and then Stefan Zweig’s Fantastic Night winked at me. There and then, I couldn’t recall why I knew his name, but I borrowed it anyway.
It’s a collection of short stories. It includes the novella reviewed on Brontë’s Page Turners, which is a good thing because the title story, which opens the book, caused all manner of conflict in my head. It felt like it took forever to read. It’s beautifully observed, particularly the descriptions of the crowds at the race track when a horse race is underway, but the main character is horrible. He’s entitled, he’s drifting through life, he’s cold, he’s manipulative. He admits to all these things. I didn’t like him, or the way he was living his life, but I was intrigued by him. I wanted to despise him, but he described his shortcomings so candidly and described the events that make up the story so beautifully, that somehow I couldn’t. And then a strange thing happens to him, and the story turns into one of redemption. He finds a new appreciation for life, and for treating others as deserving equals, no matter what their position in society. He’s made new by his experience, but he doesn’t broadcast it, instead enjoying that he is no longer cold or calculating. I liked him better at the end of the story.
Zweig’s writing reminds me of Henry James, in the delight in language to describe things, and in the observation of all aspects of human nature. It reminds me of Joseph Conrad as well, for similar reasons. There is a firm confidence in the way he expresses things.
The rest of the stories in the collection were less of a tussle than the first. The overarching theme of the book is desire. Desire comes in many forms. A wish to be somebody different. A lingering romantic feeling for someone you let go. A fervent hope that the worst the world can do to you won’t come to pass. Lust, infatuation, love, hope.
The stories have a feeling of time and place. There is a gentility to them that fits with the image we have of the Belle Epoch, and also an earthiness hidden beneath gentility’s petticoats. There is tragedy, such as in the condition of the poor, or the persecution of Jewish communities, or the abandonment of a young woman to passion resulting in her abandonment by society. There is languor, found in the hearts of those who have enough money not to have to do anything useful.
The most affecting tale in the book, for me, was In the Snow, which was written in 1901. A lone figure approaches a sleeping village on the German-Polish border, riding furiously on horseback. The village is old, medieval. The man is permitted entry through the gatehouse and makes his way to the Jewish quarter. Those who have recently risen up against the Jews are named as Flagellants, so it’s likely that the story is set in the 14th century, when massacres against Jews were led by the Flagellants in the belief that the Jews had brought the plague to Germany. I think that, with this story, Zweig is telling us that hatred and mistrust of the Jews is an ancient thing, and a repeating thing. There is an incredible amount of tension in the story. There are echoes of what will be the future in the context of this narrative, but which is the past to us reading it now. In 1901, it could have been taken as a warning against what was to come. Zweig lived in a period where the introduction of “the Jewish question” during the Enlightenment period had led to the political, economic and ultimately racial antisemitism of the late 19th century, which in turn led to the Holocaust conducted by the Nazis in World War Two. I read a New Yorker article about Zweig’s 1941 autobiography, in which he discusses how Nazism had become possible and how many people were blind to its origins.
History lesson over. Aside from the seriousness of the subject matter and the subtle but powerful way Zweig depicts the terror and then calm acceptance of the fleeing community, what struck me about this story was the way Zweig got across the blanketing nature of snow, the eerie silence heavy snow creates. It’s the only story in the book that made me stop in my tracks.
Another of the tales, Compulsion, made me think of Wes Anderson’s films. There was something in the precision of the descriptions, and the strange hesitancy in the main character’s demeanour, that meant that I pictured it as Wes Anderson might have directed it. I was delighted, then, to discover that Anderson was influenced by Zweig when he made The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The story contains some wonderfully descriptive passages. Ferdinand, the protagonist, receives a letter, one which he has been dreading:
This, he knew, was what had been lurking under the surface for weeks, destroying his peace: the thought of this letter, which he had expected and was reluctant to receive, sent to him from far away, from a pointless, formless distance. Its rigid, typewritten words were groping for him, his warm life and his freedom. He had felt it approaching from somewhere or other, like a mounted man on patrol who senses the cold steel tube invisibly aimed at him from green forest undergrowth, and the little piece of lead in it that wants to penetrate the darkness beneath his skin.
His happiness is disturbed by the contents of the letter. He can’t concentrate. He reluctantly discusses it with his wife, and it soils the atmosphere:
The looming, oppressive idea of it was suddenly there in the room, pushing everything else aside. It weighed down, broad and sticky, on the food they had begun to eat. It crawled, a damp slug, over the backs of their necks and made them shudder.
And then they discuss what Ferdinand will do. His decision shocks and confuses his wife. His explanation of his decision is age old, grounded in the desire to be seen as good, compliant, obedient, someone who pleases:
That’s the terrible part of these people’s power, you serve them against your will, against your own convictions. If you still had a will of your own – but the moment you have a letter like that in your hands, your free will is gone. You obey. You’re a schoolboy, the teacher’s calling to you, you stand up and tremble.
His wife doesn’t buy it and demands a better reason. His answer describes the power of the collective consciousness:
Perhaps because madness is stronger than reason in the world these days. Perhaps it’s just because I’m no hero and I daren’t run away… there’s no explaining it. It’s a kind of compulsion; I can’t break the chain that is throttling twenty million people.
Compelling stuff. His wife has the measure of him, and is one of many examples of strong minded women who aren’t afraid to speak out. I got the sense that Zweig believed in equality. Even though he was writing about a time when women didn’t enjoy equal status or rights, the way he portrayed women showed that their opinion or expectation was as valid as that of a man. Women could be equally as flirtatious as men, equally as willing to give into desire, equally as resolute in their opinions, without needing to be judged on it. Zweig shows that society is unjust towards women in judging them under a double standard, and also shows that there are consequences to that.
The stories range from 80+ pages to just a handful, but each one demonstrates Zweig’s mastery of the short story form. He captures the beauty and sadness in the life of a book seller who lives utterly absorbed by books, to the extent that he doesn’t know there’s a war on. He evokes the relaxation and bracing air of a Tyrolean break. In just a few short pages he packs a punch with a tale about a Russian army deserter desperate to get home. And I’m happy to say that Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman more than lived up to the expectation I had after Brontë’s review. I was under a spell as I read, reliving the events with the woman as though I’d been with her.
One last quote, from a story called The Debt Paid Late
Nothing makes one as healthy as happiness, and there is no greater happiness than making someone else happy.
Amen to that. This book made me happy. Go and read it.