May 2012

Benjamin Taylor


Confusion by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell

It's certainly no secret that literary reputations -- as in every facet of the arts -- wax and wane; some writers are forgotten who should not be, while others would be best forgotten. It's always fascinating when the dynamic reverses itself, and a writer whose work had sunk into obscurity is rediscovered on its merits. Stefan Zweig, at one time, was one of, if not the most renowned belles-lettrist in the world. Certainly in Mitteleuropa he reached the height of his fame in the heady Weimar era, with its free-spirited cosmopolitanism and flowering of culture from Zweig to late Rilke to the Institut für Sozialforschung, the work of Richard Strauss (with whom Zweig collaborated), Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari... well, you get the picture. (To that end, I would highly recommend Peter Gay's Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider, particularly in relation to Zweig's work.)  

Zweig himself epitomized the concept of the outsider suddenly finding the cultural world revolving around his work. A Jew whose work was banned by the Nazis, he and his second wife fled to Brazil, then England, then Manhattan, New Haven, back to Manhattan, north to Ossining (the longtime home of John Cheever, with whom Zweig shared outsider status as well as a unique brilliance for short-form fiction), then back to Brazil, where he and his wife committed suicide in 1942. Zweig wrote biographies of figures as diverse as Romain Rolland, Nietzsche, Mary Stuart, and Marie Antoinette, and published several novels, novellas, short stories, and plays. His was truly a ravenous and unsettled talent.

Confusion, considered by many critics to be his finest novella, addresses that restlessness and hunger for intellectual fulfillment, in addition to being one of the finest and most nuanced explorations in fiction -- particularly given its 1925 publication -- of the complexities and depth of the human heart and sexuality. Beyond that, it is a masterwork of prose style. Now, one of the common criticisms of Zweig is that his prose is too lofty at times, too self-consciously lyrical to the detriment of his plot and characters; and moreover, that these flights of impassioned prose poetry hews to its era a little too closely for some readers' comfort, reminding some of the ecstatic productions of the Stefan George circle, which many historians view as closely related to the exaltation of Teutonism drawing a direct line from Wagner to Hitler. While that critique is not without merit, a novella that is essentially a paean to youth, self-discovery, and intellectual intoxication is well-served by Zweig's style.

A renowned and well-respected academic who gradually approaches the end of his career narrates Confusion. Reflecting on his academic career and life after being presented with a Festschrift by his colleagues in honor of his sixtieth birthday, he finds himself filled with nostalgia and a sense of incompletion, both related to his long-dead mentor. Their relationship and the complications and, well, confusion surrounding its meaning to each individual forms the crux of the novella. Roland (our narrator; we learn only his first name, and that quite late in the game) had been an indifferent, though talented, student in Gymnasium, and upon entering university in Berlin (at what is now the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), devoted his nights and occasionally days to getting drunk and procuring as much ass as he can. As an aside, this is one of many respects in which Confusion and Hesse's Der Steppenwolf share stylistic and thematic elements that place them firmly within one lineage of twentieth century literature.

Roland's father arrives one day to discover Roland and a random girl whose name he never bothered to ascertain in flagrante delicto; Roland hurriedly ushers her out the back door to face his certainly disappointed but even-handed father; an agreement is quickly reached for Roland to transfer to a small renowned provincial university in central Germany, in order for him to focus on the sort of pursuits his father, a schoolmaster, wishes him to aspire to. Roland packs off, unsure -- like any nineteen-year-old -- what to expect or what he wants, missing on the one hand the vivacity and novelty of a booming capital city, while also wishing to honor his father and his wishes, with a nagging desire to discover whether he actually has any intellectual aptitude.

Upon arriving (in Göttingen, I couldn't help imagining, though it's never actually said) without a place to stay and enrolled in no courses, he stumbles upon a seminar in English literature and slips in unnoticed to find his entire being stirred by the professor, his teacher, whose fevered lecture on Shakespeare "had broken through the wall between [Roland] and the world of the intellect," inspiring "a new passion... a desire to share [Roland's] enjoyment of all earthly delights in the inspired poetic world." He accepts an invitation to rent the flat above the professor's and his wife's, and devotes himself -- almost as if by sacred oath -- to the life of the intellect, finding in his mentor the apotheosis of literary and humanistic exuberance. 

Yet as his teacher and Roland draw ever closer, the one studying under the other, the elder relearning passion for literature from the younger, Roland notices shadows springing up all around him, crouching at his keyhole or flickering across his narrow room's walls. His teacher is at times the shining figure of intellectual ekstasis whose flights of poetic prose initially entranced Roland, yet at others strangely cold and dismissive. Roland inspires his mentor to take up again after decades his magnum opus on the Globe Theater and the Elizabethan stage, and just as often as the professor displays his warmth and gratitude toward Roland, he lashes out at him or simply vanishes for days.

Roland, for his part is torn between a similar unconditional admiration for his mentor and confusion and dismay at his occasional bouts of gloom and aloofness. Working tirelessly day and night to advance the professor's project while being at times beside himself at the latter's seeming indecision. Hovering over both men is the enigmatic figure of the professor's young wife, smiling with a secret knowledge at Roland, trying to get close to him, and sighing at his undying devotion.

The nature of that secret is the crux of the entire novella, though when it is finally revealed toward the novella's end, the reader is hardly surprised. All in all, this is a masterwork by a man of letters well-deserving of a reconsideration and reemergence into literary prominence, a glorification and reminiscence on the passion of youth and the complexities of the human heart.

Confusion by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell, with an introduction by George Prochnik
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-15901749999
176 pages