T(he) S(hort) S(tory) – well, really novella – on T(he) S(unday) S(alon)

A few months ago I read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, an Austrian classic, which unfortunately plodded more than marched for me.  Given its acknowledged masterpiece status, I am obviously out of step.  There is more than one reason for this, but the main one is that as I read I kept wishing that Stefan Zweig had written it.  Why?  Because Zweig writes so vividly about his characters’ dilemmas that the reader feels the pain.  Roth holds his readers at a further distance and the experience isn’t as enjoyable, as roller-coastery, if you will.

One of my favourite passages of  Zweig comes from 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman.  Describing the desperation of a gambler in the midst of a losing streak, the eponymous woman focuses purely on the hands:

I knew at once that I was seeing a human being overflowing with emotion, forcing his passion into his fingertips lest it tear him apart.  And then – just as the ball, with a dry click, fell into place in the wheel and the croupier called out the number – at that very moment the two hands suddenly fell apart like a pair of animals struck by a single bullet.  They dropped, both of them, truly dead and not just exhausted; they dropped with so graphic an expression of lethargy, disappointment, instant extinction, as if all was finally over ……

So the release of a new Zweig by Pushkin Press is a highly-anticipated event for me.  This summer’s treat,  the publication of the 1913 novella, Burning Secret.   It is the story of a threesome: a 12-year old boy, his mother and an unscrupulous sexual predator.  The drama is flagmarked in the very first chapter when the Baron first beholds the mother.

 The hunter had scented his prey.

She, however, is resistant to the Baron charms but her lonely sickly 12-year old son is not. Neither is the Baron above seducing (in a figurative way) the child to get to his intended target.  It is a painful coming-of-age for the boy, who progresses from trusting innocence to deceitful spitefulness in the course of a few days.   The emotional arc of the mother is no less profound.  Her starting point:

She was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love.”

Each chapter is written by an omniscient narrator using either the Baron’s or Edgar’s point-of-view. This results in an intense emotional experience.  Events spiral out-of-control rapidly and very dramatically, the novella format ensuring the exclusion of anything extraneous to the central action.  Yet even within these constraints Zweig finds time to paint delightful pictures of the mountain landscape.

Spring was in the air.  Those white clouds that are seen only in May and June sailed past in the sky, a company clad all in white, still young and flighty themselves, playfully chasing over the blue firmament, hiding suddenly behind high mountains, embracing and separating again, sometime crumpling up like handkerchiefs, sometimes fraying into shreds, and finally playing a practical joke on the mountains as they settled onto their heads like white caps.

If only the clouds over the characters’ heads were as light and fluffy!

I’m aware that, based on these texts, my Zweig/Roth comparison is somewhat unfair in comparing the intensity of a novella  with a multi-generational epic.  So no further comment on The Radetzky March at this juncture.  That can wait a little while longer until I’ve read Zweig’s full length Beware of Pity, also published by Pushkin Press.  Don’t you just love them!

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