Burning Secret: Stefan Zweig

Pushkin Press just released the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig which includes the following titles:

Burning Secret

A Chess Story

Fear

Confusion

Journey into the Dark

collected novellas

Burning Secret is the story of a young boy who’s staying with his beautiful mother in an Austrian hotel in Semmering when their quiet, idyllic, and at times boring stay (f0r the boy at least) is interrupted by a young man, “a baron from a not particularly illustrious noble family in the Austrian civil service.” With the Baron’s “inability to tolerate solitude,” the first thing he does is to check the hotel register. He’s looking for a “little light-hearted flirtation,” to ease the boredom. In the dining-room, he sweeps a gaze over the guests and a first glance leads him to think there’s “no chance of even a fleeting adventure.” We don’t exactly get a good impression of this baron. He’s:

a man who will never overlook any erotic opportunity, whose first glance probes every woman’s sensuality and explores it, without discriminating between his friend’s wife and the parlour-maid who opens the door to him. Such men are described with a certain facile contempt as lady-killers, but the term has a nugget of truthful observation in it, for in fact all the passionate instincts of the chase are present in their ceaseless vigilance: the stalking of the prey, the excitement and the mental cruelty of the kill. They are constantly on the alert, always ready and willing to follow the trail of an adventure to the very edge of the abyss. They are full of passion all the time, but it is the passion of a gambler rather than a lover, cold, calculating and dangerous.

This isn’t the entire quote, but it’s clear that Zweig made a study of this type of man. The Baron is a Ludic lover, and woe to the woman who takes him seriously.

Just as the Baron has accepted that a boring stay at the hotel awaits, another guest appears in the dining room: “a type he liked very much, one of those rather voluptuous Jewish women just before the age of over-maturity, and obviously passionate, but with enough experience to conceal her temperament behind a façade of elegant melancholy.” But she’s accompanied by a small pale boy named Edgar. The boy could be an impediment to seduction or a way into her company. …

There’s a wonderful scene in the dining room with Edgar’s mother very well aware of the Baron’s presence. She pretends to be unaware of his existence, but everything she does at the table becomes a performance for him. The Baron and ‘Mama’ are two erotically charged magnets. The Baron knows that “only sensuous attraction could stimulate his energy to its full force,” and that signals “the game could begin.” As for Edgar’s mother, “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.”

The Baron makes a point of befriending the boy and promises him a puppy…

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal. While the Baron and Edgar’s mother are central to this story, Burning Secret is really a coming-of-age story, and as such, in some ways the novella reminded me of Agostino. In Alberto Morovia’s novel, a boy is left to his own devices for the summer while his mother spends time with a lover. Agostino is extra baggage, and so is Edgar. The difference between the two boys is that Edgar is drawn into the affair and is more than a spectator; he’s a participant, and this episode in his life becomes a major factor in his relationship with his mother.

While I am not overly fond of stories told from the view of a child, Burning Secret (and this was made into a film BTW) shows the confusion experienced by Edgar as he’s courted by the Baron and then dumped. Edgar is too young to understand what is going on, but he senses that the Baron is a threat. Zweig captures the child’s mind with Edgar’s observations–observations that the child cannot fully understand–why, for example, are his mother’s lips redder than usual, and what is the connection between being sent out of the room and what happened between his father and the French governess? The meaning of these events seem secret to Edgar and he longs, in his loneliness, to understand the adult world that whirls so mysteriously around him.

Zweig creates a story, a child, and a chain of events that we can identify with. He’s a lonely child, confused and possessive, a protective son, and at times an annoying boy who is used as a pawn in a love affair. With a brilliant ending, Zweig winds up the story, creating a segue from the child to the man.

The other novellas will be covered in additional posts with the exception of Confusion which is here.

Translated by Anthea Bell

Review copy

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26 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Zweig Stefan

26 responses to “Burning Secret: Stefan Zweig

  1. Deepika Ramesh

    Great news! Thank you for letting us know. I read ‘Chess’ during a readathon last month, and I fully intend to reread it. Now, a collection sounds good.

    I look forward to reading your other reviews. 🙂

  2. The passage that you quoted is really good. I agree that Zweig seems to have studies a certain personality type. Such characters can make fiction so interesting.

  3. It’s a different selection from the German edition of novellas, but sounds like a good choice of novellas.

  4. Interesting that the author has the personality type so well defined. Like you, I’m often wary of stories told from a child’s perspective as it is hard to get the voice just right – it sounds as though this is the exception to the rule.

  5. I have recently read Journey into the Past by Stefan Zweig, also from Pushkin press. A slender vol. of around eighty pages concerning the revisiting of a great love by two people who lost each other and married elsewhere then meet again and arrange an assignation. It is a beautifully reflective piece about memory and morality. His prose is exquisite,

    ‘Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glace
    Deux spectres cherchent le passe

    And as soon as those lines lit up in his memory, an image joined them at magical speed-the lamp with its golden light in the darkened drawing room where she had read Verlaine’s poem to him one evening.’

  6. Great review, Guy – it really whets the appetite for the book. I have a standalone copy of Burning Secret, and I’m looking forward to it immensely. I wonder if Zweig is more suited to short fiction than the longer form? Like Gert, I was very impressed by his Journey into the Past, but a little less so by the much longer Beware of Pity (full of interesting themes, but a touch baggy in places).

  7. I haven’t read Zweig yet – for which I feel completely guilty. And I do like a novella. How many of his have you read, Guy? Just this and Confusion, or others in the past? Is there a good place to start with him?

  8. It reminded me of Agostino right away. It’s interesting to compare the two.

  9. I reviewed this one myself, in fact I think it may have been my first Zweig, and really liked it. It ends brilliantly as you say, and generally the whole thing is just paced very, very well.

    Chess by contrast I absolutely didn’t like at all. My piece on that is as scathing as my piece on this is glowing. I seem to be an outlier on that though.

    Anthea Bell is a tremendous translator (as best I can tell, not speaking German). I tend to see her name on a book as a bit of a badge of quality.

    I’m reading Zweig’s essay collection Messages from a Lost World at the moment. It’s interesting and affecting, but so far I prefer his fiction.

  10. I remember liking this – and the movie – very much. I can’t say I didn’t like Chess story but it’s a bit dry and very different from anything else he has written. I’m curious to see how you’ll like it.

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