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Unrequited love: from book to play

June 21, 2011 19 comments

Brief einer Unbekannten by Stefan Zweig. 1922. (Letter from an Unknown Woman)

She has no name, he has an initial, R. She’s no one, he’s a famous writer. They live in the same building. At 13, she meets him in the staircase and falls in love with him. Totally, irrevocably and passionately. Love at first sight literally. From that day, she builds her life around him. He will never know it until she writes to him a heartbreaking letter after her son died. She has no reason to live any more.

Her love letter is a canto, a long cry, her testament.

When he receives her letter, she will be dead. Her letter will keep her love alive. She tells everything without any shame, she’s an open book. It’s the story of an uncontrollable passion, according to the Latin etymology of the word: to suffer. Her love is consuming, stubborn and inextinguishable. She loves him unconditionally but not blindly. She observes him and knows his flaws. She gives herself away, whatever the consequences and yet always aware of the consequences. She fully accepts the aftermath of her decisions and never condemn him for his selfish or indifferent behaviour. She adores him with a curious blend of lucidity and worship.

There’s a sort of despair in her love, as if she were doomed to love him. I pitied her but I also tried to walk in the writer’s shoes. How do you recover from such a discovery? After all, he has been spied for years. A woman dedicated her life to him, in the shadow. Isn’t that creepy? It’s a gift so huge it’s a burden for the one who receives it. How can someone repay such a love?

Letter From an Unknown Woman has been made into a theatre play in Paris. Sarah Biasini (Romi Schneider’s daughter) is the woman, Frédéric Andrau is the writer. The text is by Zweig, I recognized the words, the rhythm, the sentences. In the letter, she imagines the writer’s reactions, she talks to him. In the play, these phrases are transformed into dialogues. The two characters interact, the writer reading and walking, choking, nodding or sighing at her words; the woman crying and suffering. It’s vivid but it assumes that his reactions are the ones Zweig says she imagines. However nothing in the book confirms that the reactions she pictures are the right ones. After all, what does she know from him? Only what she observed from a rather remote spot.

The intensity of her feelings and the craziness of her passion were more obvious on stage than in the book. The actors were really good and we were in a tiny theatre. The stage and the actors were perhaps 10 meters away from me, sitting in the fifth rank. I’m always impressed by theatre actors, giving so much of themselves and sometimes so close to the public they must hear us breathe.

It’s a good novella, hard to find in English. I couldn’t find an English version or samples to type a quote or two and give you the flavour the text. Sorry. I think it’s worth reading though.

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