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…

Confusion by Stefan Zweig

ConfusionDo you ever go to a bookshop and love the displays and feel of it so much that you want to buy something almost as a souvenir? I don’t often buy new books, but a morning browsing in the London Review of Books bookshop last September (when I had a lovely time with Rachel, incidentally) was so fun that I wanted to pick something to take home with me. And I couldn’t resist the beauty of Pushkin Press editions, and an author I’d been meaning to try for ages. Step forward Confusion (1927) by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. I think the cover art was created by Petra Borner, as she gets a note on the jacket (“Her roots are prominent in her work, which often merges natural and magical elements, with bold lines and colours.”) It is definitely lovely.

Confusion is a novella, and I don’t think it’s particularly at the forefront of the Zweig’s literary reputation – but I thought it told a very interesting tale. It is from the perspective of a revered and ageing Languages and Literature Professor, Roland, who has (as his brief introduction explains) recently been given a Festschrift dedicated to him by his department; ‘nothing short of a complete biographical record’. It is this gift that makes him feel an oversight:

The carefully compiled index comprises two hundred names – and the only one missing is the name of the man from whom all my creativity derived, who determined the course my life would take, and now calls me back to my youth with redoubled force. The book covers everything else, but not the man who gave me the gift of language and with whose tongue I speak: and suddenly I feel to blame for this craven silence.

And that takes us to the rest of the book. One of my pet literary peeves is a book which starts with the present day and then leaps back to the past, to wind back to the present – but in Confusion the present day is really only a vantage for stepping back – and that backward glance only encompasses a short period of time. A period that was extremely influential in Roland’s life.

The story is simple, really. After a brief stint as a rather riotous student at one university, more interested in finding willing local girls to share his bed than fine minds to share his study, Roland is asked to leave. A little reluctantly, he enrols in another university – and eventually goes along to a lecture, not expecting very much.

He is immediately beguiled. The lecturer – I want to say that we never learn his name, but it’s equally possible that I just don’t remember it – weaves a tale around literature that captivates Roland. The way he delivers the talk transfixes Roland, introducing him to theories and perspectives and attitudes that leave him excited and desperate for more. (Sidenote: this is the sort of teaching experience one sees occasionally in fiction; I never had it – but I am certainly grateful to Mrs Walker, Miss Little, and Mr Brooks – the teachers who most excited me in my subject throughout high school. Thanks y’all, even though you’ll never see this. I’m not sure I ever had quite that touch-paper moment at university, but that’s perhaps because I didn’t need it; I was already in love with literature. And that, perhaps, dates back to Miss McGovern in Year One.)

But the relationship does not stay purely academic. Roland and the teacher become friends, and he is welcomed into their domestic life – meeting the teacher’s wife too. She is young, dignified, kind, and unhappy. Roland cannot help getting involved in their lives.

From then on I became attentive in a new way; hitherto, my boyish veneration of the teacher whom I idolized had seen him so much as a genius from another world that I had entirely omitted to think of his private, down-to-earth life. With the exaggeration inherent in any true enthusiasm, I had imagined his existence as remote from all the daily concerns of our methodically ordered world. And just as, for instance, a man in love for the first time dares not undress the girl he adores in his thoughts, dares not think of her a natural being like the thousands of others who wear skirts, I was disinclined to venture on any prying into his private life: I knew him only in sublimated form, remote from all that is subjective and ordinary. I saw him as the bearer of the word, and the embodiment of the creative spirit. Now that my tragicomic adventure had suddenly brought his wife across my path, I could not help observing his domestic and family life more closely; indeed, although against my will, a restless, spying curiosity was aroused within me.

Confusion is so brief that I don’t want to spoil the denouement, though it is a natural conclusion to what has gone before and certainly isn’t played for shock. But the way it is told is what is important – and Zweig’s writing (in the hands of Anthea Bell) is beautiful, rhythmic, and with the natural balance and sensitivity of the born storyteller.

So, Confusion probably isn’t regarded amongst Zweig’s foremost fictions – or, who knows, for all I know it is – but I certainly loved reading it. And now I need to resist the urge to buy all of his books in Pushkin editions and no other.