Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What humanity now calls monstrous - some Stefan Zweig stories

The Austrian miscellany continues with some Stefan Zweig period pieces.  If I am looking for masterpieces, these ain't them; if I am trying to learn about a period, they are where the action is at.

I read the three stories in one of the attractive Pushkin Press miniatures, Wondrak and Other Stories, translated by Anthea Bell, who also supplies a surprisingly cool endnote.

Zweig was born in 1881, just as Vienna was changing from a society where anti-Semitism was a faux pas to one where anti-Jewish hatred was close to the accepted norm.  An openly anti-Semitic mayor had only recently been elected mayor of Vienna, triggering a two-year political crisis that the reactionary party won decisively – the “last stand of Viennese liberalism” is how Carl Schorske describes the struggle.*  Theodor Herzl responded by founding the Zionist movement.

It is possible that “In the Snow” (1901) is Zweig’s criticism of Zionism.  A group of medieval Jews try to flee a blood-crazed crusade but become trapped in a blizzard.  The last sentence:  “Soon it [spring] will be bringing buds and green leaves back again, and will lift the white shrouds from the grave of the poor, lost, frozen Jews who have never known true spring in their lives” (26).  Or maybe the story is pro-Zionist.  That line sounds so hopeful.  But the characters have all frozen to death!

In “Compulsion” (1920) an Austrian painter working in Switzerland receives his conscription notice.  He and his wife are pacifists, and he had assumed that he would ignore the draft and stay in Switzerland, but once he receives it he feels strangely compelled to return to Austria and join the fighting.  The scenes in which the painter deals with the consular bureaucracy and rides the train, scenes where he tries to understand his compulsion, are not bad, but they are mixed with long one-sided arguments where his wife batters him with what are presumably Zweig’s own sentiments:

“And why do they have the power?  Because the rest of you hand it to them.  And they’ll have it only while you’re still cowards.  What humanity now calls monstrous consists of ten men with strong wills in the countries concerned, and ten men can destroy the monstrosity again.  A man, a single living man can destroy their power by saying no to them.”  (64)

Then she took a long drag from her cigarette, which had little dollar signs on the tip.  No, not true, but during the “discussions” I felt like I was reading Ayn Rand – that last line is entirely Randian in sentiment, and just as artful.

So that was half dud.  “Wondrak” (unpublished and unfinished, presumably written during the war) is also about conscription, but this time a weird, ugly (she is missing her nose) Czech peasant tries to save her son from the Austrian army.  The change in setting alone is good because it introduces competing national loyalties, but it also helps that the mother is not a theorist.  She just wants to keep her son:

She snapped and bit; it was a terrible sight.  “God must see this,” she howled, “God must see this.”  Finally the soldiers had to drag both of them away like beasts going to be butchered.  But she went on shouting, her voice cracking horribly, “God must see this, God must see this!” (116)

I know very little about Stefan Zweig.  Knowledgeable readers can tell me is these stories sound representative or unusual.

*  I am relying on Chapter III of Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, 1981, Vintage Books; the quote is on p. 116.

19 comments:

  1. I've only read Zweig's 1942 Chess Story (what I remember as a rather great novella), Tom, so I can't speak to how typical these works are other than that they sound quite less-impressive than the one I read. Given the guy's eventual double suicide pact with his wife, the despair sure sounds typical enough, though (and no Hitler to blame for that move in these early works, yikes).

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  2. I've read 'Schachnovelle' and 'Angst' (1925), and I thought both were excellent novellas. Pushkin have been pushing(!) a recent Zweig comeback, but there are dissenting voices. I saw a very nasty piece somewhere where Michael Hoffman butchered him...

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  3. If it was you that pointed me to that article, forget that I said that ;)

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  4. I've only read 'The Post Office Girl' (unfinished) and 'Beware of Pity': the first I think is interesting if rough, perhaps rather closer to the stories you've read, the second I would really recommend, an exploration of the damage which may occur when you try not to hurt someone's feelings.

    The Hofmann piece was in the LRB and is a bit weird, interesting criticisms interspersed with complaints about the manner of his suicide.(!)

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  5. I have not read Zweig. I laughed when I read your allusion to Ayn Rand. That quote really sounds like it could have been written by her.

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  6. Thanks for these suggestions. Chess Story and Beware of Pity do sound like richer, more complex works.

    Hofmann's hatchet job is valuable for its catalog of Zweig's contemporaries who loathed him, either his work or person or both. Mann, Musil, Hofmannsthal, Kraus, and many others. A "sixth-rate talent" says Hofmannsthal.

    But there is no reason that Zweig has to look the same to us, especially once the weakest parts of his large output sink into the bog and only his best works remain.

    Chris Powers, who writes about short stories at the Guardian, calls "Compulsion" "one of his finest" stories, although earlier he calls Zweig "subtle" and writes that the "profound moral sense which underpins [Zweig's stories] never tips over into moralising." None of these three stories are subtle, and "Compulsion" is openly propagandistic.

    In place of the cigarette line, I could have gone with "Now build your skyscraper, Howard!" That's not any more obscure than John Galt's cigarettes, is it?

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  7. Chess Story (also known as The Royal Game) is superb. That was the first story of his I read, and it came in a book of other short stories that were all good and interesting. In one memorable one (the name escapes me at the moment)a young doctor being driven almost mad by the tropics is asked to give a woman an abortion...kind of forward leaning topics for the time. Beware of Pity is also very good.
    He is a favorite of mine. The Micheal Hoffman piece was so violently ad hominem I hardly know what to do with it. Rather made me question Hoffman instead of the intended victim.

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    1. The story was Amok. Very good. Letter From an Unknown Woman is also lovely. I can still feel the impression left from his thumbprint of melancholy on my heart.

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  8. This is timely for me. I've never read any Zweig (I have his biography of Marie Antoinette waiting on the to-be-read shelf) but he's sort of suddenly become visible to me in the last six months and I've been curious about his fiction.

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  9. That Pushkin Press and others are returning Zweig's biographies to print, now that is dedication. I am curious, too, Scott!

    A possibility is that Zweig improves with experience. Beware of Pity and Chess Story are circa 1940, while the two stories soveryvery mentions are from 1922, close to "Compulsion," but who knows, perhaps Zweig got his desire for advocacy out of his system.

    That older story, "In the Snow," was written when Zweig was only twenty!

    Hofmann's piece was written in a spirit of contempt and incredulity. A champion of Joseph Roth, he cannot believe that anyone is bothering with Zweig.

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    1. I actually purchased (which, for me, is a rare event) Journey Into the Past (another wonderful novella of his) at the Neue Galerie in NYC, a wonderful source of Austrian and German art and literature. I guess it is the -love can last- aspect that I love. At any rate, the museum, and bookstore within the museum are well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in New York.

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    2. And surely there is room to love both Roth and Zweig, geesh.

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  10. You know, I only agree about 80% of that last point. The world needs hatchet men, too. I don't want everyone to be an Appreciationist like me. I want 80% of people to be like me.

    I have been to the Neue Galerie. If I lived near it, I would go to every show they organize. A treasure. And then I would eat in its authentically Viennese cafe.

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    1. Well I never would presume to speak for the haters!

      I wouldn't let myself look at the cafe. That's a lie, I peeked. But, I spent all my extra cash on the damn book! Next time...

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    2. Ah, the Neue Galerie cafe is so good but so expensive! Not more expensive than it would be in Vienna, necessarily, but still...

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  11. Hi Amateur,

    I think Zweig is much more highly regarded here in France (at least that's what I'm deducing from your post and the comments), seen as a classic by many. What makes me say that is that nobody here seems to acknowledge is best known work, for french readers at least, which is a short story, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman (and Maybe Confusion, too, with its muche more inspiring title La Confusion des sentiments, along with The Royal Game). I read it a long time ago, and I can't say I remember it well, but it had a lot of effect on me at the time. I would call it a master piece (I guess I'm among the 80 %).

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  12. (Also, muche should be a word.)

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  13. As far as I am concerned, "muche" is a word.

    I think you are right that Zweig is better regarded in France - he was more popular in France back in his best-seller days and his books have hung around. In the U.S. and U.K. there is a definite "revival" supported or driven by two presses, New York Review Books in the U.S. and Pushkin Press in the U.K. The Zweig story you mention is available in English via Pushkin Press.

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  14. I agree with those who endorse Chess Game. I read yesterday "Mendel the Bibliophile". - it is in the just published Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig- might be first time available in English- I loved this story beyond all reason and logic

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