The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Zweig Stefan

15 responses to “The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

  1. But beautiful writing, that description of the canal.

  2. That’s a pity. I’ve had slightly mixed experiences with Zweig myself. While I like the themes and questions he addresses in his work, I do find him a touch melodramatic at times. Gert is right to highlight the quality of the writing though – that passage is beautiful.

  3. Jonathan

    I read Did He Do It? which was in the collected stories. I liked the characters but didn’t like the whodunnit aspect of it. I wonder if he wrote it for a particular magazine – the Pushkin Press collection had no info on the stories at all.

  4. Disappointed by Zweig ohhh noooooo. I have only read two of his books loved both of them . Will check this out

  5. That is too bad. Like Gert I enjoyed the quote and would have wished for a better story. I know he can be very sentimental but I’ve not read anything too silly yet.

  6. Now we know why these stories are not his most famous ones.
    Too bad, he always seemed to be a safe bet.

  7. I did not like Chess Story, you remember correctly. There’s a fairly scathing writeup at mine. Like Jacqui I think Zweig tends to melodrama, though he can write very good melodrama so I don’t entirely mean that as criticism. I’ve read Zweig I really liked and have more that I still expect to enjoy.

    With this, I wonder if maybe Pushkin have simply already published the good stuff? Zweig’s been a real discovery for them and clearly a popular author in their range, but even he only wrote so much. I suspect they may already have put most of his stronger material out there.

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