The Zweig Pile

 Pushkin Press has been busy commissioning new translations of Zweig novellas and stories and autobiographies during the last few years and Lizzy has been busy collecting and reading them.  Why?  For all the wrong reasons, if you give credence to this piece of vitriol.  Let me list a couple.

1) “Nice paper and pretty formats”.   I see no problem with books as objets d’art and Pushkin do produce a lovely objet.  Whether it be their now classic square format or their beautiful full colour painting style .  This latter now my favourite  and I do wonder if  Hofman has taken a dislike to the format of his latest translation.

2) “Monodrama”.   Frankly, I don’t read Zweig for intellectual stimulus but when I want to feel, I willingly immerse myself  into the emotional crisis of one Zweig’s characters. They are intense – it’s interesting  but the only Zweig I haven’t enjoyed is his  full-length novel.  The moral crisis went on for far long.  In the end I was bored.  Such intensity, on the other hand is strengthened in the short story or novella format and that’s where Zweig is at his best.

As for instance, in the latest standalone novella, Fear, the story of Irene Wagner, a wife and mother who is bored in her comfortable 8-year old marriage. She embarks on an affair only to find herself blackmailed by her lover’s former mistress.  Irene is forced to reassess her motives, her lover and her husband but the situation means that she cannot do this with a clear head.  Gradually the icy tentacles of fear tighten their grip and just when her mind capitulates and the outcome becomes obvious, a twist.  All is not as it seems and I don’t think I’ve seen Zweig do this before but the clues are there.  See if you get there before he does.  I did but that didn’t detract from my pleasure.  No-one writes a woman’s mind as well as Zweig.

Selected Stories is an anthology of stories previously published by Pushkin in a number of smaller volumes.  It contains 6 stories and novellas, 5 from the 1920’s and one from 1906.  This latter story, The Fowler Snared, a little out of place, not reaching the pitch or the standard of the other 5:  Fantastic Night, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Invisible Collection, Buchmendel, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of A Woman.  These are all typical Zweig containing an emotional epiphany; some short-lived – a few hours (The Invisible Collection),  a day (Fantastic Night, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of A Woman);  some sustained over years (Letter from an Unknown Woman). There are examples of Zweig describing the situation from both a male and a female point-of-view and he’s good at getting inside his protagonist’s heads.  There are also two stories in which he introduces a third person as narrator.  This outsider looking-in instead of  distancing the reader from the impact actively magnifying it.  Tellingly too, both stories deal with the social issues, not personally-inflicted crises,  In Buchmendel,  the title character  runs his rare book business from a cafe table.  He is a “magical walking book catalogue” and his clientele include the rich and famous.  It is his misfortune, however, to be Russian-born Jew and a period of internment during WWI, cut off from his beloved books, breaks his spirit.  Returning from internment to rising inflation and growing anti-semitism, Buchmendel’s defeat is a foregone conclusion.  So took is the downfall of the art collector in The Invisible Collection – the angle here is that he doesn’t know it  Blindness may have taken his sight but he is still capable of stroking and appreciating the detail of the works that he has collected over the years. What he doesn’t realise is that, in order to live, his family have slowly been selling off his pieces in order to feed themselves during the years of post World War I inflation and have substituted his pictures, engravings and lithographs with blank sheets of canvas.  The  illusion keeps him happy proving that beauty is in the mind’s eye of the beholder.  In the word’s of Goethe, “Collector’s are happy people” ….

and my Zweig collection means you can count me among them, no vermicular dither about it!


Selected Stories