Were the remarks concerning Iréne Nemirovsky‘s “Jezabel” (see “Jézabel”) too harsh? Not if one has read Stefan Zweig’s “Brief einer Unbekannten”. It is a masterly short novel – or long story – which leaves a deep impression.
This story and similar ones, can often be bought as independent booklets. I read “Brief einer Unbekannten” in a collection containing nine short works. This selection of Stefan Zweig’s works is called “Meisternovellen”. “Episode am Genfer See” takes up only ten pages, but the others are longer. Of course this collections contains the well-known “Der Amokläufer” and “Schachnovelle”.
Brief einer Unbekannten
Stefan Zweig deals with a similar theme as IréneNemirovsky: a “fallen” woman. But the treatment of the subject, viewpoint, character – practically everything is treated differently. Contrary to “Jézabel”, “Brief einer Unbekannten” is a story one does not lightly forget – if at all.
The story opens with a home-coming. A famous novelist – we never learn his name – returns to Vienna after a short trip in the mountains. It’s his birthday and on his arrival, his man-servant hands him his messages and mail. Among the latter, there is a bulky one. When the man finally opens the envelope, it contains about 2000 sheets written in a hurried, female hand.
It is an anonymous letter written to the man in great haste and stress. The woman has suffered a terrible blow. Moreover, the letter will only reach the man when she is dead. Her name is never revealed, for she is the totally unknown woman of the story; “die Unbekannte”.
The letter contains her life-story. She writes about her unhappy childhood. She writes how the novelist and she got to know each other and how she fell in love with him. But then her mother, a poor widow, accepts another offer of marriage in the interest of her daughter. They will never be poor again, but have to move to another town.
After a few years, the anonymous woman returns to Vienna. People still recognise her, but not the novelist. As she is still totally besotted with him, they bump into each other again. They have an extremely short love affair. On his side, it’s totally casual and no strings attached.
For her he is the love of her life, but she realises how he treats and views women. She has become one of many and disappears out of his life again. Their paths will cross again in Vienna, but by then she is a “fallen woman”. She has embarked on the kind of life recorded in “Jézabel”. Like the woman in “Jézabel”, she does find a very wealthy aristocratic protector who wants to marry her.
The story takes up about 40 pages of this pocket. Apart from the first paragraph and the last one, the clever use of a letter to tell it, ensures everything is completely told from one point of view: the woman’s perspective. Her feelings, her main ups and downs, her motives and emotions are all there. Moreover, this fictional character undoubtedly stands in for many a real-life woman who went through similar experiences.
The conclusion of the story is shattering of course, but very strong and impressive. It is impossible not to be impressed and touched by it. This story is truly a “Meisternovelle”.
Vierundzwandzig Studen in dem Leben einer Frau
The author is staying at a hotel and the behaviour of one of the guests causes a rift between other guests. His stance in the dispute impresses an English lady, who kept herself to herself. His behaviour so impresses her, that she decides to share a memory with him. It concerns a day in her life which took place decades earlier, but still looms over her.
Think “What Maisy knew” and here is a story of another child. This child is staying with his mother in a hotel to recuperate from an illness. The behaviour of adults, the cruelty and betrayal he experiences ensure he will never forget what he witnessed. His childhood is over.
Read Henry James’ “What Maisie knew” and this story by Stefan Zweig. Then compare the handling of the adults and suffering children. Neither story is better than the other one, both are simply brilliant – though Zweig’s child realises what is going on and its emotions and reactions are perhaps slightly better described.
Episode am Genfer See
“Am Ufer des Genfer Sees, in der Nähe des kleinen Schweizer Ortes Villeneuve, wurde in einer Sommernacht des Jahres 1918 ein Fischer …. “( p 398). Well the Swiss fisherman catches a very odd fish. It takes a while for him and his fellow villagers to find out, he has saved a deserter from drowning.
A few tourists and a few who are staying in the region to survive the war are in favour of shooting the deserter. Police is called and makes a report. Kinder folks give him clothes and some food. Someone is found who speaks his language.
The deserter wants to go home. He was forced to enlist and leave his family behind. He was dragged through half of Europe against his will to fight. He never wanted this, he never wanted to be anywhere near where he now is. He has a family, who will find it difficult to survive without him.
But time has lapsed. The world the deserter unwillingly left behind has changed forever. Moreover, the whole world apart from Switzerland, is fighting. So everybody tells the simple man he can’t return home. The result is inevitable. “… Ein Protokoll wurde “uber den Vorfall aufgenommen und da man den Namen des Fremden nicht kannte … eines jener kleinen kreuze “uber namenlosem Schicksal, mit Denen jetzt unser Europa bedeckt ist von einem bis zum andern Ende.” ( p 407)
This short story clearly brings out Zweig’s hatred of war and what it means and does to the ordinary man. Especially the last paragraph illustrates his anger yet powerlessness against what is happening.
Die unsichtbare Sammlung
This story can be compared to one of Roald Dahl’s crafty ones with the usual twist in the tale. But unlike Dahl, Zweig is not much interested in horror stories. Moreover, Zweig wrote it long before Dahl was born. Stefan Zweig is far more concerned with human relationships and especially compassion.
The First World War has ended and Germany lies in ruins. Worse, people face mega-inflation. Everybody sells off heirlooms, antiques, great works of art to survive. The simplest food and bare necessities of life cost fortunes. It is extremely difficult to make ends meet. On a train near Dresden, the author meets an art dealer. The art dealer is still shocked by what he has experienced and shares his story with the author.
This story of the Weimar Republic captures the horror of a war’s aftermath. Stefan Zweig cleverly uses the technique of a story within a story, retold by one of the characters. It lacks the suppressed anger of “Episode am Genfer See”, but deals with the horror of survival in a country ruined by war. Similar scenes would take place in Germany again, after the Second World War. One can understand that all the suffering and horror and the aftermath of one World War simply made having to go through another such horrid experience too much to bear.
These are just a few of the nine novellas. I did not want to spoil your pleasure by revealing too much of each story or discuss all in the collection. You can read all of them in this German collection, but there are plenty translations available. I noticed a French publication of “Brief” which only contained this story, as well as a publication of “Amok” with two short stories. “Schachnovelle” has two different English titles: “Chess Story” and “The Royal Game“. It is one of the last works Zweig completed before committing suicide as an exile in Brazil.
Reading the novellas in the original language will give you the pleasure of becoming familiar with Stefan Zweig’s German, its peculiarities as well as his many “voices”. Each of these novellas, but especially “Brief einer Unbekanntes”, are brilliant. They are must-reads and not only for readers looking for an absorbing book. They are beautifully crafted and offer writers and students of literature interesting examples of story-telling techniques.
“Meisternovellen” contains the following short stories written by Stefan Zweig, in German:
• Brennendes Geheimnis
• Der Amoklaufer
• Brief einer Unbekanntes
• Die Frau und die Landschaft
• Verwirring der Gefühle
• Vierundzwandzig Studen in dem Leben einer Frau
• Episode am Genfer See
• Die unsichtbare Sammlung
“Meisternovellen”, Stefan Zweig, 495 pp, pocket, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2006 is available through Amazon. Most of the above short novels have been translated in various languages.