“Since that evening when the man I so venerated opened up like a shell that had been tightly closed and told me his story, since that evening forty years ago, everything our writers and poets present as extraordinary in books , everything shown on stage as tragic drama, has seemed to me trivial an unimportant. Is it through complacency, cowardice, or because they take too short a view that they speak of nothing but the superficial, brightly lit plane of life where the senses openly and lawfully have room to play, while below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution? Does the breath of those beasts alarm them, the hot and tearing breath of demonic urges, the exhalations of the burning blood, do they fear to dirty their dainty hands on the ulcers of humanity, or does their gaze, used to a more muted light, not find its way down the slippery, dangerous steps that drip with decay?”
Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion is a frame story narrated by a sixty-year-old professor, who at the end of his career in the Department of Languages and Literature, is presented with an “expensively bound” collection of his published works. The professor, Roland, notes that while the articles, no matter how trivial, are organised like a “well-swept staircase,” in reality, his life has not been this well-structured. The collected articles present just the surface of Roland’s life and that “missing is the name of the man from whom all my creativity derived.” And then Roland takes us back to his mis-spent youth…
A young Roland, the son of a headmaster from a small Northern German town, is sent to Berlin to study English. Since he hates books, he’d rather much join the army or the navy, but Roland’s father “with his fanatical veneration for universities” insists that his son should receive an education, so Roland finds himself in Berlin, away from home for the first time. With absolutely no interest in the lectures “a morgue of the spirit,” Roland instead throws him enthusiastically into a life of debauchery. He’s a good-looking young man and he discovers, to his delight, that his female conquests are “cheaply won.” The fun comes to an end, however, when his father comes to visit and discovers that his son does not attend his lectures. Roland is sent away from Berlin to attend university in a small provincial town in central Germany.
Roland is expecting more of the same–in other words, he expects to be as bored in his new location as he was in Berlin, but to his astonishment, when he tracks down his Professor of English, instead of finding a dusty old dinosaur, he finds an older man with a vigorous mind and a deep love of Elizabethan literature, a man whose lectures are so infused with enthusiasm, that his love for his subject is contagious. Roland finds his professor “curiously challenging,” and for the first time in his life, he felt a “superior force,“–a man he wishes to emulate.
In no time at all, desiring to be closer to his idol, Roland takes a room in the same building as the professor. There are some days and some evenings when the two men enjoy energetic discussions, but then there are periods when the professor disappears only to reappear days later rather the worse for wear. The professor’s much younger wife is always excluded but nonetheless she manages to lurk in the background when Roland visits his mentor. Is she jealous? Does this explain why she eavesdrops on their conversation?
For most of the novella, we see Roland as a young man, a confused young man–a man who doesn’t understand his emotional responses to various situations. While the big mystery here is just what the professor is up to, it’s fairly easy to guess the answer before Roland arrives at any conclusions, but the interest in the story comes not from the mystery behind the professor’s behaviour as much as it’s derived from Roland’s youthful and naive responses to the various difficult situations he encounters. This is essentially the story of how a young man matures and sees that his idol has feet of clay. Who cannot identify with this story? Who hasn’t admired someone formative only to discover that they are not the ‘perfect’ construct our imagination has created?
One of the elements I enjoyed about the novella was its buried sexuality which appears to come not only from young Roland but perhaps from Zweig himself:
We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes–a magical second, like the moment of a generation, and like that moment concealed in the warm interior of the individual life, invisible untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone.
I never understood and loved Berlin as much as I did then, for every cell in my being was crying out for sudden expansion, just like every part of that overflowing, warm human honeycomb–and where could the impatience of my forceful youth have released itself but in the throbbing womb of that heated giantess, that restless city radiating power? It grasped me and took me to itself, I flung myself into it went down into its very veins, my curiosity rapidly orbiting its entire stony yet warm body–I walked its streets from morning to night, went out to the lakes, discovered its secret places.
My copy from New York Review Books is translated by Anthea Bell and contains an introduction, which adds greatly to the novel, by George Prochnik. Prochnik tells us of Zweig and his wife’s joint suicide in 1942 and states “the question of how he could allow his much younger and cherished second wife to follow him into the realm of the shades is the only real outstanding mystery of his death.” The introduction goes into some depth on the subject of Zweig’s literary career, his dread of aging and the fear of having to “live on as one’s own shadows.” Zweig, who was Jewish, made an “unwise” statement regarding Hilter’s 1930 victory: “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics’ .” And, of course, we all know how that ended.
Zweig eventually fled from Austria and began a nomadic existence which ended in his suicide. My impression from other pieces I’d read was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis, but Prochnik’s excellent introduction throws a different light on the matter.
Confusion from Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) is part of Caroline and Lizzy’s joint celebration of German Literature month, and thanks to both of them for their energy and enthusiasm in organising this event.