Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Burning SecretBurning Secret (1913) by Stefan Zweig – translated by Anthea Bell and published in a lovely edition by Pushkin Press – was one of the books my friend Malie gave me for my birthday last year. Being honest, she gave me a voucher and I picked it – but I filled her in on my choices! It matches the Confusion edition I reviewed last year and now, of course, I want all of Pushkin’s Zweig series…

It’s another short and powerful novel – this one takes place in a hotel where the Baron is on holiday. He is bored and, for want of a better word, horny. I think that’s the first time I’ve used that word on this blog, but it’s the most apt.

He was welcome everywhere he went, and was well aware of his inability to tolerate solitude. He felt no inclination to be alone and avoided it as far as possible; he didn’t really want to become any better acquainted with himself. He knew that, if he was to show his talents to best advantage, he needed to strike sparks off other people to fan the flames of warmth and exuberance in his heart. On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box.

He casts his eye around the hotel for the most desirable woman to have a brief affair with, and lands upon a woman staying there with her young son, Edgar. He is 12, but this is the 1910s – so he seems very young and innocent to modern readers. The Baron decides that the best way to approach the woman is via her son – so he sets up a jovial friendship with Edgar – ‘Edi’ – in order to get closer to his mother; without this ‘in’, he couldn’t be introduced.

His ploy works. Edgar is flattered and entranced by this friendship with an adult – having been lonely through the stay so far – and his mother is quickly beguiled into an adulterous affair with the Baron. Once his goal is achieved, the Baron no longer puts any effort into charming the child – and Edgar is hurt, abandoned, angry. He knows something is going on between his mother and the Baron – but no idea what; only that they have a ‘burning secret’.

As I say, Edgar’s innocent naivety doesn’t quite translate to 2017 – but age him down a few years and it would. We don’t quite get prose from his perspective, it remains in the third person, but Zweig does enough to put us in the Baron’s mind and in Edgar’s mind in turn. Zweig is expert at bringing strong, painful, awkward emotions to the fore – and he masterfully interweaves Edgar’s fierce and confused anger through the narrative.

The story is simple, and short – 117 pages – but it is such a brilliant depiction of how unthinking unkindness can affect somebody, and how emotions that aren’t quite understood by the child experiencing them can reverberate and have their impact. Like Confusion, this is an excellent novella about the power of recognisable conflicts in recognisable places. I can see I’m going to have to buy more Zweigs…

Old Friends

A while ago I emailed Danielle from SourceBooks, Inc. and she very kindly agreed to send me Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton all the way from America (available through their website, or Amazon – or in bookshops if you’re in the US). I first heard about this book on Elaine’s blog, Random Jottings, and knew that I’d have to read it at some point. For those who didn’t read that post on Random Jottings, I’ll fill you in – Old Friends and New Fancies is the first Jane Austen sequel ever written, back in 1913, but Brinton didn’t stop there, no sir. This book is a sequel to ALL the Austen novels – characters from each of the six crop up and meet each other and – well, just think of all the possible matches to be made!

They include a list of characters at the beginning for those not completely familiar with all JA’s oeuvre, or just because there are so many – have just done a quick count, and there are forty of Austen’s characters listed. Pride and Prejudice contributes the most, at fifteen, while Emma only offers two, but each is represented in some manner. We kick off with Elizabeth and Darcy, which is probably how it should be, but before long we are whirled off into the various interrelations between novels…

The central questions are – with Mary Crawford end up with Colonel Fitzwilliam? And, will William Price choose Georgiana Darcy or Kitty Bennet? What delicious choices. William Price and Georgiana Darcy were always two of my favourite background-characters, so to witness them dancing at a ball was quite something (even if Brinton does what Austen never did, and gives Georgiana dialogue). On an aside, whom would I have paired, or just occasioned to meet… Mr. Palmer and Mr. Bennet would be a joyous pair to eavesdrop. Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Jennings! Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton! Catherine Morland and Harriet Smith! Oh, endless, endless…

I wonder quite how Brinton made her decisions about central characters? Obviously the young, single folk were thrown to the forefront… but Mary Crawford is the oddest decision and portrayal. Brinton obviously didn’t love Mansfield Park that much; not only are Fanny and Edmund excluded from proceedings, we also have a volte face in how Mary Crawford appears. She is misunderstood, meek, sensible, kind and has none of the flirtatious, slightly selfish, overly loud persona Fanny distrusts in Mansfield Park… interesting.

Brinton doesn’t really try to write in the style of Austen – the period feel is more or less there, though it’s worth noting that we’re as far (time-wise) from Brinton now as she was from Austen then, but Brinton doesn’t attempt to echo Austen’s wit and narrative asides and general Austenness. Having said that, she doesn’t try to soak the characters in Brintonness either, whatever that would be like; she is content to set them loose together on a shared stage, and see what happens.

Old Friends and New Fancies, I would think, is for Austen-fanatics like myself. Without knowing all the characters beforehand it would lose a lot of its enjoyment factor – there are the odd comments to savour, such as ‘Mrs. Knightley’s matchmaking doesn’t always work out well’ or Tom Bertram’s ‘We only had one real failure in amateur dramatics’ (I paraphrase both). This shared knowledge is a reward and a treat whenever it appears. On the whole, this book (republished in 2007 by SourceBooks) is rather silly, a lot of fun, and very well managed by Brinton.

Danielle also sent me a couple of other Austen sequels, Pemberley Shades by D. A. Bonavia-Hunt (1949) and The Darcys & The Bingleys by Marsha Altman (2008) so… more to investigate!