February 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Stefan Zweig

The political forces which led to the Second World War spelled the end for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In its dying days, this was a politically flawed but remarkable example of cosmopolitan multiculturalism and tolerance. Jews, Catholics, Serbs, Prussians, Muslims, Gypsies and numerous other peoples mingled and lived in something close to harmony. But nothing good ever lasts, it seems. Austria-Hungary splintered and then vanished into the Fascist hell of Hitler’s expanding ambitions. Not everything was lost, however. There were, as eyewitnesses, several great writers who recorded this terrible collapse, and the heady times beforehand which increasingly took on a utopian glow as Europe lurched towards destruction.

I will look at two of these writers, Arthur Schnitzler and the great Joseph Roth, in future columns. First, though, it’s time to try and bring more light onto the sadly neglected work of Stefan Zweig.

The son of a wealthy Viennese Austrian-Jewish family, Zweig’s career as a man of letters took him through translation, poetry, biography and, finally, fiction. In the ’20s and ’30s he produced a series of wonderful novellas and stories, and only one full-length novel, Beware of Pity. My battered old copy of this novel makes the claim on its dustjacket that Zweig was “during the last decade of his life… arguably the most widely read and translated author in the world." Frankly, this seems hard to believe -- not because his work isn't good enough, but simply because nobody seems to have heard of him. He is missing from most of the standard reference books on literature, and his work is currently available only from a few small publishers, most significantly Pushkin Press.

The collapse of the empire hit Zweig particularly hard. As the Nazis took hold, he moved briefly to England, and took British citizenship, before moving again, first to New York, and then to Brazil. It was here, homesick for a vanished Austria and in despair at what seemed the end of liberalism and humanism, that he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.

Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman: This short, rich novel almost glitters with the characteristic properties of Viennese fiction of the period: gamblers and casinos, proud sabre-carrying soldiers who’ve never fought a battle in their lives, lost love and romantic misunderstandings, heady Freudian undertones, and decaying aristocrats. As you might expect, it traces a woman through a single day, but that day is simultaneously the most vividly wonderful and ultimately terrible of her life. She is an English widow who becomes mesmerised by the almost suicidally reckless gambling of a failed Polish diplomat one evening in Monte Carlo. From this first spark of interest, she is drawn into his troubled, unstable life. Readers of the Pushkin edition benefit from Anthea Bell’s excellent translation, and those of us who grew up reading the clever and funny English versions of the Asterix books already know her work.

The Invisible Collection and Buchmendel: These are two linked novellas of obsessive collecting: one about hoarding art, the other about hoarding books. Both of these stories place the single-minded pursuit of great, lasting artworks against the background of a Europe where all noble ideas were being ground to dust under the jackboot. They also question exactly what causes the joy that can be found in art, and, despite their bleakness, suggest that this joy can survive the most surprising disasters of life.

Confusion: The longest of the books described here (at around 130 small pages), Confusion is also another of Anthea Bell’s fine translations. It tells the story of a slacker student who falls under the influence of, and moves in with, an eccentric professor and his troubled wife. The student grows more and more intrigued by the older man, and the strange marriage, but all the while is oblivious to the far-from-innocent interest that flows the other way.

The Royal Game: You might struggle to name any great chess novels, but they do exist. Many metaphors have been drawn from the game to add weight to books about other things, but it takes real skill to make such a cerebral pursuit as chess central to a good story, and to keep it entertaining and exciting. Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense manages it, as does Walter Tevis (of The Hustler fame) in The Queen’s Gambit. The last story Zweig wrote also pulls off this tricky feat, in the tale of the reigning world chess champion coming up against an unknown opponent while on a cruise ship headed for Argentina. It demonstrates that games can be as serious as anything else in life.

The example of Stefan Zweig and Pushkin Press goes to show the value of some of the small presses that have started up in recent years, rescuing great works of literature that would otherwise have vanished into the wasteland of out-of-print literature. The good folk at Pushkin also publish a number of other neglected (and short) European masterpieces, including work by the aforementioned Arthur Schnitzler. Furthermore, all of their books are pleasant, well-designed objects, as well as being great to read.

After a couple of months spent in the early decades of last century, next month’s column will lurch a little closer in time.