Category Archives: Zweig Stefan

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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Genius and Discovery: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017Genius and Discovery is another nifty little collection of Stefan Zweig gems from Pushkin Press. Triumph and Discovery contained select moments in history, and this collection contains the following five sections:

Flight into Immortality

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel

The Genius of a Night

The Discovery of El Dorado

The First Word to Cross the Ocean. 

In the preface, Zweig talks about “genius

Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky. 

Genius is pushing it a bit with a few of the people mentioned here.

Flight into Immortality is the incredible story of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Gold fever grips Spain after Columbus “who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time” tells tales of “gold mines of immeasurable extent,” in the Americas.  Gold seekers, adventurers, ruffians, you name it, arrive in Española (“later San Domingo and Haiti”).

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honorable nobleman arrive, wishing to gild their coat of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cadiz.

While lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso readies a ship to sail to the San Sebastián colony “near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela,” many of the Spanish adventurers are stranded on Española and hope to avoid debt by taking a ship out. The governor orders that no man may leave without his permission, but that doesn’t stop Vasco Núñez de Balboa who boldly smuggles himself aboard Enciso’s ship on a crate.

Genius and Discovery

And so begins Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s incredible adventures as he seeks gold and becomes the first European to see the Pacific ocean. This is a story of the highs and lows of human nature; mention is made of how he used hungry dogs to tear apart prisoners.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel is the story of how Handel recovered from a stroke and eventually wrote the Messiah.

The Genius of a Night is the story of how The Marseillaise was created, and this section wasn’t that interesting for this reader. The First Word to Cross the Ocean is the story of Cyrus Field and the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean

And now The Discovery of El Dorado. This is the story of John Augustus Sutter, born in Switzerland, who traveled to California, and becomes the luckiest and unluckiest of men when gold is discovered on his property. The Zweig version differs wildly in several aspects from the Wikipedia version, and while some of this can, perhaps, be ascribed to our modern sensibilities, some of it cannot. Zweig paints Sutter as a more tragic figure, and tells us that Sutter’s wife died after shortly arriving in California. Zweig says Sutter had three children while Wikipedia says five. Zweig portrays Sutter as a man stripped of everything: attacked by a mob, his “eldest son, threatened by these bandits, shoots himself.  The second son is murdered; the third runs for it but is drowned on the way home.”  Zweig creates a portrait of a widower, a demented beggar whose children are all dead. Wikipedia has Sutter’s wife living to a ripe old age, and one of his sons became the founder and planner of Sacramento.

Zweig didn’t have Goggle.

Apparently Zweig wrote 12 of these vignettes, so between this collection and Triumph and Disaster, we can read ten. Sadly omitted: Cicero and the (mock) Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Review copy

Translated by Andrea Bell

 

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Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman: Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s novella, Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, opens with guests at a French Riviera resort gossiping and “obsessing” over an incident that took place at the Grand Palace Hotel. A new guest, a handsome, charming young Frenchman man, arrived one day a little after noon and spent his time in a whirl of activity. The young man left abruptly that same evening, claiming that he’d “been suddenly called away.” Imagine the shock, when the guests learn late that night that a married woman, Madame Henriette, the wife of “a stout, thick-set manufacturer from Lyon,”  has left her husband and two children to run off with the young Frenchman she just met. Tongues start wagging with the delicious gossip which is fed by a dramatic scene from the husband, and the gossip leans to earnest discussion about whether or not the married woman, a “minor Madame Bovary,” is crazy to leave her husband and family behind or whether her actions can be understood.

You will understand that such an event, striking like lightning before our very eyes and our perceptions, was likely to cause considerable turmoil in persons usually accustomed to an easygoing existence and carefree pastimes. But while this extraordinary incident was certainly the point of departure for the discussion that broke out so vehemently at our table, almost bringing us to blows, in essence the dispute was more fundamental, an angry conflict between two warring concepts of life. 

The debate between the guests takes a very specific form which focuses on morality:

But what aroused so much indignation in all present was the circumstance that neither the manufacturer nor his daughters, not even Madame Henriette herself, had ever set eyes on this Lovelace before, and consequently their evening conversation for a couple of hours on the terrace, and the one-hour session in the garden over black coffee, seemed to have sufficed to make a woman about thirty-three years old and of blameless reputation abandon her husband and two children overnight, following a young dandy previously unknown to her without a second thought.

Some of the guests, who struggle to accept that Madame Henriette ran off with a man she just met, believe that there was a “clandestine affair” conducted long before the assignation at the hotel, and the dominant opinion is that “it was out of the question for a decent woman who had known a man a mere couple of hours to run off just like that when he first whistled her up.” The narrator, however, perhaps a romantic, takes the position that it was “probable in a woman who at heart had perhaps been ready to take some decisive action through all the years of a tedious, disappointing marriage.”  

24-hours

Our narrator, defending Madame Henriette, who he believes was “delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgement,” finds himself in the minority opinion while the other married couples “denied the existence of the coup de foudre with positively scornful indignation, condemning it as folly and tasteless romantic fantasy.” An elderly widow, an Englishwoman, Mrs C, who has an “eccentric obsession” with the behaviour of the now-absent Madame Henriette, seems fascinated by the narrator’s moral stance. As the narrator’s holiday comes to an end, Mrs C tells her own story of twenty-four hours of madness….

This superb novella argues that married women, especially of a certain privileged class, are cocooned from life’s passions and ugly realities, and are, therefore, vulnerable to love affairs.  Are they kept like little pets in gilded cages? The story of Madame Henriette and Mrs C echo all stories of other great fictional heroines: Anna Karenina leaps to mind–although of course, Zweig’s story doesn’t follow the aftermath of Madame Henriette’s decision. While Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is concerned solely with the impulsive decisions of two women, nonetheless, there’s an arc to the story that continues beyond the first page. Anna Karenina, one of literature’s great tragic heroines, threw aside her tedious marriage for love, and we all know how that story ended. Madame Henriette’s fate will most probably be ignominious. Zweig allows us to imagine the consequences of her rashness, but he tells us, instead, the story of Mrs C’s extraordinary behavior.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a beautifully constructed, almost perfect tale of two women who went off the rails. There’s a 19th century feel to this story, and the narrator tells us almost immediately that the events he describes took place “ten years before the war.” So it’s a tale told in retrospect by someone who can’t forget either Madame Henriette or the confidences of Mrs C, a woman haunted by her actions decades after they took place.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell

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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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Confusion by Stefan Zweig

“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.

And:

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.

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Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig

You know how it is. You’re reading a book or watching a film and the same name keeps popping up. Is this a cosmic signal to pick up:

a) a book written by that suddenly ubiquitous name

or

b) a book written about that person?

Everywhere I turned, there was Casanova…and this led me to decide that I should read his memoirs. They have, after all, languished on my shelf now for far too many years. But first, I decided to read Stefan Zweig’s book  Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. My copy is one of those delightful Pushkin Press editions, and I’ll admit that this was part of the lure. Casanova was originally one section of the volume Adepts in Self-Portraiture along with sections on Tolstoy and Stendhal.  Zweig placed this in part of a series called Master Builders in which he “analyse[d] the distinctive types of creative will.” According to the afterword, Master Builders included Dickens, Balzac and Dostoyevsky, and the final section The Struggle with the Daimon included Holderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche. Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture is devoted to Zweig’s long-time correspondent, Maxim Gorky.

The pint-sized volume is not a biography of the Great Lover–instead the book is composed of a series of nine essays analyzing various aspects of Casanova’s life. At the end of the book, I wondered if Zweig liked Casanova. At times, I thought not. Zweig’s essays are threaded with hints of dislike, but then as he delves into the topic at hand, it’s almost as though he begrudgingly acknowledges–almost against his will–a sort of admiration for Casanova. Here’s the opening paragraph from the first essay, The Man and the Book:

Casanova is an exceptional instance, a chance intruder in world literature, above all because this famous charlatan has as little right in the pantheon of creative geniuses as the name of Pontius Pilate has in the Creed. His rank as an imaginative writer is as questionable as his invented title of nobility, Chevalier de Seingalt: the few verses he penned hastily between bed and the gaming table in honour of one lady or another reek of musk and academic paste…. In very truth, Casanova has as little claim to enter the company of great writers as he has to a place in the Almanach de Gotha; in both he is a parasite and an unwarrantable intruder. Nevertheless, this son of a shady actor, this unfrocked priest, this un-uniformed soldier this notorious cheat (a superintendent of police in Paris describes him in his dossier as a fameux filou), is able to ruffle it for a large part of his life among emperors and kings, and dies at last in the arms of a great nobleman, the Prince de Ligne: and, though he seems a mere pretender in the world of letters, one among many, ashes to be blown about by the winds of time, his roving shade has found a place for itself among the immortals.

Beautifully put, and Zweig is right of course. Casanova is immortal; you don’t have to read the memoirs to know his name.  He is one of those rare historic figures whose name enters the lexicon, and if we see indefatigable sexual behaviour we can stick Casanova’s name on it. Zweig asks: was Casanova unique or special in some way, or was is some tremendous stroke of luck that made his name live forever?

Zweig comes to some marvellous conclusions about Casanova. In the essay, Home Eroticus Zweig compares Casanova to Don Juan and explores the differences. Zweig argues that Casanova loved women whereas Don Juan’s women are “victims.” “Never,” Zweig writes “like Don Juan, does he [Casanova] desire crude possession; he must have a willing surrender.” Zweig argues that Don Juan enjoyed “debasing” his victims while Casanova’s women join him in an act of liberation of the senses, “inhibitions and scruples.” Also in this chapter, Zweig discusses the lack of ‘harm’ caused by Casanova, and he states that the women who “passed the night with Casanova  do not feel they have been cheated of platonic explanations.” According to Zweig, Casanova’s peccadilloes were fairly straightforward sexual transactions with no deception; Casanova was there to give and receive pleasure.  I’m not sure I agree with that, especially since Zweig also argues that the game to Casanova was the elaborate art of seduction. Surely, in some instances at least, seduction does involve deception? I have to read the memoirs to be able to form anything other than a superficial judgement on that. But here’s a great sentence I have to include:

The path of a Goethe or a Byron is strewn with feminine wreckage.

In contrast to Goethe, Byron (and Don Juan), Zweig argues, Casanova left his lovers in a glowing, happy, and grateful post-coital state:

Casanova’s flash of earthly passion … does very little harm to their souls. He is not responsible for any shipwrecks, for any outbreaks of despair. He has made a great many women happy, but has made no woman hysterical. From the episode of sensual adventure, they return undamaged to everyday life, to their husbands, or to their lovers, as the case may be. Not one of them commits suicide or falls into a decline. Their internal equilibrium has never been disturbed, for Casanova’s unambiguous and radically healthy passion has never touched the mainspring of their destiny.

That’s a sweeping statement there. Zweig’s argument is that Byron and Goethe misled women with words of eternal love & devotion. To Zweig, they are the destroyers and the deceivers–not Casanova–a man for whom it was all about mutual, albeit, fleeting pleasure.

One of the points Zweig makes is that Casanova was an anomaly. Zweig argues that most creative people are busy creating (often in solitude) and not off out living a life of adventure, and that those devoted to adventure do not possess the skill to describe their experiences. According to Zweig, this is a paradox:

“Men of action and men of pleasure have more experience to report than any creative artist, but they cannot tell their story; the poietes, on the other hand, must fable, for they have seldom had experiences worth reporting. Imaginative writers rarely have a biography, and men who have biographies are only in exceptional instances able to write them.”

Zweig’s paradox is solved in Casanova–a talented, amoral man who “changes countries, towns, estates, occupations, worlds, and women, as easily as he changes his shirt.” Actually I disagree with Zweig; there are examples that defy that paradox. I’d argue that Lermontov lived the short, spectacular life of an adventurer while wearing the uniform of the Tsar.

Zweig concludes that Casanova was a tremendously talented individual, but a dilettante at heart. Most of Casanova’s talents were the sort of things that got him to the homes of the wealthy set and into the knickers of the women. Zweig states Casanova was:

 Almost a savant, almost a poet, almost a philosopher, almost a gentleman. But this ‘almost’ was for Casanova the heel of Achilles. He was almost everything: a poet and yet not wholly one, a thief and yet not a professional one. He strove hard to qualify for the galleys; yet he never succeeded in attaining perfection. As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.

Zweig does get a bit carried away at times. He embellishes so much that his elegance almost escapes the recognition of repetition, but it’s all so beautifully written, I didn’t mind a bit. My favourite essay is The Philosophy of Superficiality, and the title alone gives more than a hint of its subject matter. There’s so much to quote here–so much to chew over, but finally here’s one final quote to spur me on until I begin the memoirs:

What makes Casanova a genius is not the way in which he tells the story of his life, but the way in which he has lived it.

Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

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Zweig on Casanova

“No real man, therefore, I repeat, can read Casanova’s memoirs in certain moods without feeling envious, without feeling himself to be a bungler as compared with this master of the art of life. Often–again and again and again–one would rather be Casanova than be Goethe, Michelangelo, or Balzac.”

I’m reading Stefan Zweig’s Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture, and I came across this quote today. Is it true, I wonder? My first response is to say I’d rather be Balzac. Balzac didn’t have a particularly easy life, and he died far too young, but those books….who wouldn’t want to be the author of La Comédie Humaine? Perhaps I’ll have a different opinion after I read Casanova’s memoirs….

 

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Twilight and Moonbeam Alley by Stefan Zweig

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.

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