Home > 1920, Austrian Literature, Made into a play, Novella, Zweig Stefan > Unrequited love: from book to play

Unrequited love: from book to play

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.

  1. June 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    I have a copy of this in a collection of Zweig, so I will get to it sooner or later. I saw a Chinese film version of it from director Jinglei Xu, and somehow the story line (the woman staying in the background as she nurses this hopeless love) suited the setting (30s and 40s Peking). I haven’t watched the Max Ophuls version yet.


    • June 22, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Sorry for the slow answer, June is always a really busy month.
      I didn’t know there was a Chinese version of it. Did you like it?
      It’s not a book I would have chosen for you, there’s too much romance in it.


  2. June 21, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    I know I did read it but quite a long time ago. Zweig is good at capturing this type of strong emotion.
    The play sounds very appealing. I love these little theaters, actually like them often better that the big ones. Maybe it is out of print in English and can only be found in anthologies.
    The woman reminds me of Adèle H. I wanted to re-watch it for the July in Paris event.


    • June 22, 2011 at 9:03 am

      The play was great. There are many of those little theatres in Paris. I have colleagues who enjoy going to the theatre too, so we try to go when we’re in Paris for work.
      About the July in Paris event, why not watch “Two days in Paris” by Julie Delpy? It was really funny.


  3. June 22, 2011 at 11:05 am

    I’ve got so many Zweig books, yet more keep appearing. For me, nothing has equalled the first one I read – Beware of Pity, which stands as a classic of European literature. The others are “good” but don’t quite reach the standard set by Beware of Pity in my view. However, I enjoyed reading your review and will seek this one out


    • June 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm

      I’ll have a look at Beware of Pity. (La pitié dangereuse, for me) I have read Journey into the Past and loved it. I think it’s superior to Letter from an Unknown Woman.
      I have his Marie-Antoinette at home, I’ve never read any of his historical novels.


  4. June 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    My father mentions the French translation of Beware of Pity often. To this day I had no idea which book it is, finally I have looked it up and am suprised that the original German title Ungeduld des Herzens is so different. I would say that Beware of pity does sound better than “Impatient heart” or something along that line. I think his title contributed to his not being read so much anymore in Germany. They really are a tad tacky.


    • June 22, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      That difference in the title is strange. Usually, French titles are the exact translation of the original. The impatience of the heart? I like that a lot more than La Pitié dangereuse. I’m not expecting the same thing from the book according to the title. It’s intriguing. Does the German title suggest that “impatience” has to be taken is the sense of “lack of patience” and not in the sense of “looking forward to”?


  5. June 22, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    La pitié dangereuse tells you exactly what it is about. Ungeduld des Herzens could mean a lot of different things. It isn’t the meaning of “looking forward to”, it’s impatience. The use of the word “Herzens” makes it sound like a very old fashioned title. (Aside I have hard time posting comments with this new format, name and mail keep on getting lost or switch weirdly…)


    • June 22, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      I have hard times with the new system too. It depends on the computer.


  6. June 24, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    If I ever spot this in English translation I shall snap it up. In my limited experience of Zweig I have found that I often disagree with his basic precepts. A lot of the fun comes from seeing past his writing, which can be fantastically persuasive.

    A tale about an infatuated woman has plenty of potential to invoke my ire. Sounds wonderful! (Thank you for unearthing it.)


    • June 25, 2011 at 11:58 am

      I have to admit I have a hard time believing such a crushing love is possible. That’s my down to earth side. It’s like science-fiction to me. You have to admit that what is written exists to enjoy the ride.
      I hope you can find it, not as a stand-alone but in a collection probably.


  7. June 26, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Very Zweig. This for me is his classic territory. An overwhelming, insane, obsessive passion. I still have unread Zweig’s (including Chess) so I won’t be adding this to the TBR pile just yet.

    It’s interesting how some writers have their territory. Zweig’s I think was the territory of suppressed yet burning desire.


    • June 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm

      I agree with your idea of Zweig’s territory as overwhelming, insane, obsessive passion
      But here the desire isn’t suppressed at all. It leads the way, all her decision making is based on her desire for him and she never tries to tame it. Her whole life is a frail boat floating on the sea of her desire for this man.


  8. June 27, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Regarding suppression, I was thinking here of this:

    “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. ”

    All that love, but she doesn’t tell him for so long.


    • June 27, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      Yes and no. It’s more complicated than that. I can’t tell more without spoilers.


  1. November 16, 2011 at 12:37 am

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