Whenever I take a Pushkin Press novel along with me somewhere, it always attracts a good deal of attention. There’s something about these pint-sized beauties that makes you want to pick them up, fondle them, and then go out and buy the entire collection….
I bought Twilight and Moonbeam Alley by Stefan Zweig thanks to the wonderful press one of Zweig’s books (Burning Secret) got over at Pechorin’s Journal. Max seems to have a complete disregard for my book budget because he keeps recommending books that I feel compelled to buy and read.
At around 57 (pint size) pages it may be a stretch to call Twilight a novella, while at 25 pages Moonbeam Alley is a short story. Of the two, I preferred Twilight, but more of that later.
Twilight is based on the real-life story of the Marquise de Prie, a woman who was married at the age of 15 and rose in power and prominence when she became the mistress of the Duc de Bourbon. The Marquise de Prie, who was at one time considered the power broker in France, even arranged the marriage between Louis and Marie Leszczynska, the daughter of the King of Poland.
The Duc de Bourbon, who’d had tremendous influence over Louis since he became king at the ripe old age of 5, eventually crossed the line in the power department, and both Bourbon and his mistress went into exile at the order of the then 15-year-old Louis. Bourbon and Madame de Prie must have thought they had the world in their hands, and no doubt it came as a shock when they were effectively stripped on all those notions.
Madame de Prie exists in the history books as little more than a footnote, and in Zweig’s small masterpiece she comes to life. Whereas she exists in history only in relationship to other people, in Twilight, Zweig shows her in isolation–a brilliantly coloured butterfly futilely beating its wings in a glass jar, noted and observed by the reader until the inevitable happens….
When Twilight begins, the Marquise de Prie is ordered to leave the court of Louis XV and ‘retire’ to her country estate of Courbepine. Those who dabble in intrigue tend to be sly, manipulative and great dissemblers. Madame de Prie is no exception. Adept at masking her emotions, she initially carries off the disgrace of exile well. Here she is after just receiving a letter from Louis dismissing her from court:
“She was in high spirits and made risque jokes, partly from a deliberate intention of showing how carefree she was, partly from habit, for in general a careless and easy levity made all her dissimulations seem natural, even transforming them into sincerity.”
So Madame de Prie leaves court a little shaken, but still proudly confidant that her “exile couldn’t last more than a few days.” She’s certain that with the help of her powerful friends, her exile will be short and she even begins plotting revenge on those who orchestrated her dismissal from court. She journeys to her country estate and spends a day romping around the fields:
“With the wonderful facility of forgetfulness available to women of no great depth throughout their lives, she did not remember that she was in exile and before that had ruled France, playing with the fate of others as casually as she played now with the butterflies and glimmering trees.”
But Madame de Prie’s enthusiasm with the delights of the country dwindles and disappears within a twenty-four hour period. Her next response to her exile is to engage in a desperate round of frantic activity:
“She wrote to the king, although she knew he hated her; she promised in the humblest, most pitifully grovelling of terms never to try meddling in affairs of state again. She wrote to Maria Leszczynska, reminding her that she was Queen of France only through the agency of Madame de Prie; she wrote to the ministers, promising them money; she turned to her friends. She urged Voltaire, whom she had saved from the Bastille, to write an elegy on her departure from court and to read it aloud. She ordered her secretary to commission lampoons on her enemies and have them distributed in pamphlet form. She wrote twenty such letters with her fevered hand, all begging for one thing: Paris, the world, salvation from this solitude.”
Twilight is a marvellous psychological study of one person’s disintegration. Madame de Prie excels at intrigue and flounders in days and nights of endless isolation. From ruling the French court, she sinks into oblivion in the countryside, and here she grasps–but cannot accept–her complete unimportance. Yes, she is still a wealthy woman, and she has a magnificent country estate. You or I might lock ourselves up for a year or two in the library and be glad of the excuse to read, but to Madame de Prie, exile in the country, days without intrigue and power, and a life in which she is unimportant is simply the worst punishment that can be inflicted upon her. In disappearing from court, Madame de Prie, who exists through her importance to others, becomes almost invisible to herself. She becomes ill and fades away…but then plots an astonishing comeback.
Exile was a common punishment for the wealthy in those days. The Duc de Bourbon, incidentally was also sent into exile. But in Madame de Prie’s case, it is a particularly cruel punishment, and what a superb stroke by her enemies. Surely, it is the greatest manoeuver to engineer the destruction of one’s enemies by their own design, by calculating their weakness and then capitalizing on it….
Moonlight Alley is the story of a traveller who is drawn to the “shady streets” of a “small French seaport.” Wandering in the sleazy alleyways frequented by drunken sailors in search of prostitutes, the traveller wanders into a tavern where he meets a prostitute named Francoise. Also in the room is an emaciated man who appears to be fascinated with Francoise. Realizing that he’s becoming entangled in some bizarre relationship between the man and the prostitute, the traveller, feeling uncomfortable, leaves. Later the man in the tavern accosts the traveller and proceeds to tell a strange tale.
Moonbeam Alley reminds me very much of A Woman’s Revenge from Les Diaboliques by Barbery d’Aurevilly. Both tales concern wives who go wild–but for different reasons. I prefer the d’Aurevilly story as it’s infinitely more chilling.
Twilight really is an incredible little tale. So much is packed into those pages, and the final lines of the story, which I won’t add here (as much as I want to) are incredibly haunting. Twilight has made me a fan of Zweig for life. I avoid historical fiction as modernities tend to peep through and spoil the mood for me, but Zweig never misses a beat. In these pages Madame de Prie is a product of the Court of Louis XV, and the psychological aspects of the tale never tread beyond those boundaries.
These two stories are translated by Anthea Bell, and at the end of the volume, there’s an afterword by Bell which includes a black and white portrait of Madame de Prie. In the afterword, Bell notes that Zweig, a Francophile, wrote several historical biographies, but that the details about Madame de Prie are sketchy (back to that footnote idea). Twilight, this “vignette of high society” was expanded and fictionalized by Zweig. Its portrait of “psychological decline” shows the author’s deep interest in Freudian psychology.
As for Madame de Prie, I want to add this Nietzsche quote:
“Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus: one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and grey. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him.” (from Nietzsche’s Daybreak)
On a final note, Zweig, who was an Austrian jew and a lifelong pacifist, kept one step ahead of the Nazis during the 30s and for part of WWII. Zweig and his wife ended up in Brazil. In despair over the future of Europe, he committed suicide along with his wife Lotte in 1942.