Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A presentiment of indistinct terrors

"Yesterday their childhood came to an end." Yesterday, their mother dismissed their governess, pregnant with their cousin's child. The governess was so happy in love, but lately she's been sad. The girls overheard that there was a baby; they think that's why she's sad — the governess in another life somewhere had to leave behind her baby to come work for them. Well, not quite. And then the governess is gone, and the circumstances of her departure are a little ambiguous even, but this is not her story.
That afternoon they grow many years older. And only when they are alone in the darkness of their room in the evening do childish fears surface in them, the fear of loneliness, of images of dead people, as well as a presentiment of indistinct terrors. [...] They still dare not talk feely. But now the younger girl at last burst into tears, and her elder sister joins her, sobbing wildly. They weep, closely entwined, warm tears rolling down their faces hesitantly at first, then falling faster, hugging one another breast to breast, shaking as they share their sobs. They are united in pain, a single weeping body in the darkness. They are not crying for the governess now, or for the parents who are lost to them; they are shaken by a sudden horror and fear of the unknown world lying ahead of them, after the first terrifying glimpse that they had of it today. They are afraid of the life ahead of them into which they will now pass, dark and menacing like a gloomy forest though which they must go. Their confused fears become dimmer, almost dreamlike, their sobbing is softer and softer. Their breath mingles gently now, as their tears mingled before. And so at last they fall asleep.
— from "The Governess," in The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, by Stefan Zweig.

Do you remember crying yourself to sleep? Was it like that, puberty? Some inkling of the mysteries of love, a sexual awakening of a sort. The dark and menacing forest of fairy tales.

I rather think it must be like that. In a phenomenon like childbirth, the memory of the pain of it disintegrates over time as it yields to a greater thing. But Zweig and the intensity of my daughter's emotions these days (she is 12; the girls in the story, 12 and 13) convince me of its reality.

Zweig writes love well — the blooming of it, the tragedy of it, the awareness and secrecy of it. In one story ("A Summer Novella"), one character suggests to another that he is telling "a story like your German novelists, that's to say with lyrical fancies, broad, sentimental, tedious," and it is taken as a criticism. Indeed, I am seeing Zweig falter when he paints broader landscapes, whole villages in historical context. But when Zweig writes of the personal and intimate, I think he is "German" (without the tedium), and he is magnificent.

About the stories.

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