Translated from German by Anthea Bell
I’ve been rationing myself so as not to come to the end of the Pushkin Classic editions of Zweig’s novellas, but I reckon that the week of the 75th anniversary of his suicide is as fine a week as any to do so. I also wanted to evaluate this volume, published in 2011, against the critique that Seksik has Zweig level against himself in The Last Days.
In the end, they were all invariably similar to one another: short stories about single-minded passions, irrepressible loves and macabre consequences … His work lit a series of conflagrations in the hearts of his heroes … The characters would attempt to resist their passions and once they relented and gave into them, their guilty consciences prompted them either to turn their backs on life or to lapse into madness.
Actually this is Zweig repeating the accusations of his critics and fellow writers (Klaus Mann and Ernst Weiss are specifically named) which they used to argue his status as a minor writer. And yes, they have a case, but those very same qualities are what make Zweig’s novellas compulsive reading for me and numerous others. Still what about the four novellas in The Governess and Other Stories?
The Miracles of Life (1903), written at the age of 21, clearly demonstrates that the interest in history, that resulted in multiple biographies throughout Zweig’s career, began early. It is set Antwerp in 1566, the year of rebellion and rioting against Spanish rule, which forms the background. Esther, a Jewish girl previously rescued from a pogrom by a kind-hearted soldier, becomes the subject of a religious painting destined to hang in a Catholic church. A number of passions are evident here: that of the artist for getting his painting just right; that of both artist and subject for their respective religions (he is Christian, who believes his task is to convert the girl, while she, although having lost all connections to her own religious community, remains passionately attached to the Jewish faith); and finally, the passion that proves fatal, that of the girl for the child, who is the Saviour to her Madonna in the painting. This is the longest and most complex of the stories in this volume, full of atmospheric historical detail and dramatic irony. While the painter couldn’t convert the girl, he nevertheless unsuspectingly inflames her with a love for the child. This leads directly to the girl’s death. For the Jewess, who has rejected the Christian faith, dies defending a Catholic icon in the aforementioned riots. It’s also fascinating to see the conflict between Christian and Jew taking centre stage, particularly as Zweig never was an observant Jew.
The Governess (1907) is the usual tale of a governess who falls from grace, following her seduction by a member of the famiily she is working for. Or rather it would be the usual tale except that the episode is described from the uncomprehending viewpoints of her two charges, aged 12 and 13. Their naivety is charming, and it lends a bittersweet charm to their narrative, because, of course, the reader knows where this is heading. That the girls have absolutely no clue of what has happened at that age is incomprehensible to us today, but this is Vienna in the early 20th century, and the disgrace is the governesses’s own. Of course, she must pay the penalty.
Downfall of the Heart (1927) moves us beyond the First World War, when the younger generation had rejected the moral values at play in The Governess. The problem here is that old man Salomonsohn is stuck in the past. The discovery that his daughter is sleeping with one of the three men flirting with her on a family holiday is as a blow to the heart, triggering an obsessive reaction that sees him increasingly withdraw from both wife and daughter. This is the story that best fits the monomaniacal template of the critique above. Yet not quite. I usually feel sympathy for the victims of their passions. I felt none for maudling old Salomonsohn.
If I were to describe Did He Do It? (1935-1940) in one word, it would be playful, and that even though it incorporates tragedy and a monomaniacal murderer! Written sometime during the years Zweig spent in exile in the UK, this is both his homage to Bath, where he spent those happy years, and to the classic British murder mystery. Obviously I can’t say too much about this, particularly as the ending is left open to interpretation, but there’s no doubt in my mind. He did do it!
There’s no denying it – all these novellas fit the emotional template quoted above for tragedy is to be found in all walks of life – from the working classes to high society. After all, human nature is the same regardless of station in life. Yet Zweig rings the changes with historical settings (from the beginning of the Reformation to the roaring twenties and beyond) and narrative point-of-view (naïve young children, chatty middle-aged women, kindly or otherwise old men). Atmosphere and tone always fit.
Zweig was better writer than his critics have and still do suggest, and for me, reading him is much more enjoyable than reading many an acclaimed masterpiece. Which would explain why Zweig has more shelfspace than any other author in my personal library.
Stage 5 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.
Next stop: Italy
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