Friday, October 24, 2014

The fire of life

How is it that I can claim a familiarity with Stefan Zweig's oeuvre when I've read merely two of his novellas? (And I've seen Wes Anderson's Zweig-inspired Grand Budapest Hotel, but that hardly counts.) I'll try not to make sweeping generalizations about his work, but the temptation is great, owing to the shroud of intimacy with which he encircles the reader. I feel like I have secret knowledge of the workings of Zweig's heart and mind, but I know it is a trick.

Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig, is a terrific story — intensely, relentlessly, heart-poundingly emotional.

It's established in the opening pages that the Baron is a ladykiller. It's no secret how this will play out...
It was very likely that he wold not pursue his quarry in vain. 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 between maternal and feminine love. At such a moment a life that seemed to have chosen its course long ago is questioned once again, for the last time the magic compass needle of the will hovers between final resignation and the hope of erotic experience. Then a woman is confronted with a dangerous decision: does she live her own life or live for her children? And the Baron, who had a keen eye for these things, thought he saw in her just that dangerous hesitation between the fire of life and self-sacrifice.
There are a few secrets in play that aren't much of a secret to anyone: that the Baron is using 12-year-old Edgar to make a play for his mother; that the Baron and the mother may be about to embark on something illicit (she is quite married, after all); that both of them want Edgar to keep out of the way. But Edgar, "he had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them."

The burning secret is the one kept from Edgar: the mystery of love.

What's most remarkable about this short work is how much psychology is packed into it. The events take place over just a couple days, and Zweig essentially gives a play-by-play of the characters' actions and intentions: why they say and do what they say and do, what they hope to gain, what they stand to lose, what they're hiding from others.

Nicholas Lezard sums this up nicely in "Zweig's Perfect Triangle" (The Guardian):
One wonders what they were putting into the water in Vienna a century or so ago to produce people with such a capacity to enter into the human soul, and then render it into art or analysis. Around the time Zweig published this, Freud was writing On Narcissism, and there are moments here when you marvel at the psychological accuracy and plausibility of Zweig's characters.

1 comment:

Meredith said...

Well, whatever you know of him, you know more than I. I've planned on reading Letter From An Unknown Woman for German Lit Month, then I'll be able to discuss him with you more lucidly.