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Short stories by Stefan Zweig

November 16, 2011 14 comments

Die Hochzeit von Lyon by Stefan Zweig. (1881-1942)

My French edition entitled Die Hochzeit von Lyon includes seven short stories by Stefan Zweig. I picked up this book because of the title as I live near Lyon, irrational reason but who said we had to be rational? The stories are very different from one another and as they aren’t too numerous, I decided to give you a quick summary of each.

Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910), aka Histoire d’une déchéance aka Twilight

A bit of historical context. This story takes place in France, in 1727. Louis XV was enthroned in 1715 but he was only five at the time. As a consequence, Philippe, Duke of Orléans was in charge of the country as a Regent until 1723. The economic situation was disastrous, people were hungry and angry. The Law scandal didn’t help the regime. Madame de Prie, the main character of Zweig’s story had been the Regent’s lover and had been most influential at Versailles during two years. It is even said she arranged Louis XV’s marriage with Marie Leszczyńska. When the story starts, Madame de Prie is exiled from Versailles to her castle in Normandy. Alone. How can she handle the loneliness, the quiet? She misses the noise, the parties, the intrigues and the fun. She needs to be adored and feared. She needs to show off, to put her life on stage. She needs to orchestrate her death.

For a more detailed review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) aka Un mariage à Lyon, aka A Wedding in Lyon (*)

Another time in French history, another place. We’re in 1793, during the French Revolution. There had been a major Royalist uprising in Lyon in 1793. After a long fight, the Republicans took the city. During the Terror, the local administrator didn’t enforce the Parisian orders to destroy the rebellious city. When he was replaced, the newcomer put it into motion, killing people without trials. They were killing so many people at the same time that the guillotine wasn’t fast enough, they just shot them and threw the corpses into the Rhône. The story takes place in a prison, before an execution and relates the wedding of two condamned people.

Im Schnee (1901) aka Dans la neige aka In the Snow (*)

This one is about Jewish people who live in a small German town near Poland. It’s Hanoucka and they’re celebrating when they hear that the “flagellants” (i.e. Gangs of men who persecuted Jewish people. I have no idea of the English word for that) are coming. To fight or to flee?

Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916), aka La légende de la troisième colombe, aka The Legend of the third Dove (*)

This is supposed to be the story of the third dove mentioned in the Bible, the last one Noah sent to the Earth and that never came back. It’s obviously an allegory about peace as Zweig wrote this short piece (about five pages) during WWI.

Das Kreuz (1906), aka La Croix, aka The Cross (*)

This one takes place in Spain, in 1810 at the the time of Napoleonic wars. The Spanish fight the French. A French batallion is walking on a road, when the Spanish “rebels” attack them. The French colonel bumps into a tree, faints and when he wakes up, he’s all alone. He decides to follow the road, hoping to find other soldiers when he realizes that all the French soldiers are dead and hung at the trees along the road. What shall he do? How can he survive?

Episode am Genfer See (1919) aka Au bord du lac Léman, aka By Lake Léman (*)

This one relates the story of a Russian peasant who runs aground on the Swiss side of Lake Léman in 1918. He’s a deserter and wants to go home.

Der Zwang (1916), aka La Contrainte, aka Constraint (*)

Der Zwang is the most political story of the book. It’s WWI. Ferdinand and his wife live in Switzerland but they are from a country currently at war. It’s not mentioned but I guess they are either German or Austrian. Ferdinand receives an official letter telling him he’s mobilized and must join the army. He’s in Switzerland, he can hide there and not go. He feels the paper pushes the right buttons in him and he feels compelled to go even if he hates war, doesn’t want to kill and doesn’t agree with the idea of patriotism. Shortly said, he’s a pacifist. Where’s his duty? To be faithful to his ideas and stay with his wife or to go against his will?

There is no foreword, so I can’t tell why the publisher chose to gather these stories into a book but I suppose that war, power and the vanity of mankind is the common point of these tales. They all talk about war (except the first one, unless you consider politics as a battle field too) and the consequences of war on everyday life and on human behaviours. Zweig wonders at our ability to kill for ideas, to accept butchery. He questions our lack of reaction: why do people go at war like sheep? Why don’t the Jewish rebel? Why do people accept to endanger their lives for ideas they don’t share and fear to resist and die for their ideal of peace? What does power do to a humanbeing, creating an unquenchable thirst for honors and attentions?

So far, I’d only read non-historical fiction by Zweig and this was my first visit into this side of his work. (I have his Marie-Antoinnette at home too). As always, Zweig excells at describing landscapes and their interaction with people and at depicting the characters’ innerminds. If Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is a symbol of the German literature of the period, I understand why Caroline says the Germans consider Zweig as “corny”. Compared to Effi Briest, Jane Eyre is pornography; so of course, Zweig is more effusive, openly sensitive and romanesque. He has a pessimistic vision of humanity though.

I enjoyed reading these stories but to someone who wants to discover Zweig, I’d rather recommend Journey Into the Past or Letter From an Unknown Woman.

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time.

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.

Journey into the Past, by Stefan Zweig.

September 8, 2010 11 comments

This is going to be frustrating. Reading such a marvellous short-story, writing about it and not being able to quote anything of Zweig’s bewitching prose. That’s one of the inevitable limits of blogging in English while reading books in a French translation.

 Journey into the Past starts with an exclamation “Here you are!”. And yes, here we are, witnessing the reunion of a man, Ludwig, and a woman, whose name is never given, at the railway station in Frankfort. They are lovers meeting again after being apart during nine years. Can love survive such a long separation? During their journey in the evening train to Heidelberg, Ludwig recalls their love story, these years spent far from one another.

Their relationship starts in 1910 as the young Ludwig, 23, reluctantly moves in his rich and ill boss’ house to become his private assistant. He instantly falls in love with his benefactor’s wife, though he does not name the feeling until his boss decides to send him to Mexico to run the local branch of his company. His absence is due to last two years, but as WWI starts, an embargo on seas prevents him to come back to Germany.  

Zweig has a unique and sensual way to describe the internal mayhem created by young love, the overflowing of Ludwig’s body and soul when he finally admits to himself that he loves her, the mental fireworks in his head and explosion in his heart when he realizes that his love is requited. Zweig’s picturing of desire is sensitive and well crafted. In his worlds love throws a radiant light on places and circumstances. She is there. Her hostile home becomes his “home sweet home”; his job as a private secretary, half servant, half guest in this house, no longer looks like a degradation.

 War is the deus ex-machina of their lives. Once it closes all maritime routes and Ludwig is stuck in Mexico. Then it pollutes their reunion as a military march crosses their way nine years later. Zweig’s disgust for war leaks through Ludwig’s thoughts. “Haß, Haß, Haß” (Hate, Hate, Hate), Ludwig thinks while watching the demonstrators. It slaps in the air like military feet on the pavement. The French translation (“La haine, la haine, la haine”) sounds so soft compared to the hard German “Haß”. Can their love bloom again in the middle of this hate?  

Zweig’s prose is a delicate jewel. He has an overwhelming and yet simple way of portraying feelings. He perfectly catches how fleeting happy moments are, how petty details can ruin a mood and spoil a moment. Happiness is like a butterfly, beautiful, furtive and hard to catch and keep. Memories nourish Ludwig’s inner life in Mexico and help him going on with his life.

 I was blown away by Zweig’s prose. I’ve read Journey into the Past on a train, in a very noisy environment but I was more in that train to Heidelberg, Germany than in my train for Toulon, France. Definitely something which deserves to be read, no excuse, it’s only 70 pages!

 I bought this book because the cover caught my eyes. It is published in a mass paperback collection, Le Livre de Poche. This edition is unusual for this collection and I was surprised to discover the original German text just after the French translation and a long and documented foreword on the life in Vienna in Zweig’s times and relevant biographical details. Usually, Le Livre de Poche offers no dual editions and forewords are limited to one page. By the way, it confirmed that “Louis” was of course named “Ludwig” in the German text: I will never understand why translators should overdo it and translate names too. I expected a German name, “Louis” sounded so odd for a man living in Frankfort.

 PS : I have found another review by Kimbofo from Reading Matters and I have read it after I wrote mine.

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