“Isn’t it confoundedly easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t burdened with the slightest idea that Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante or Napoleon ever lived?” (Stefan Zweig, Chess Story)

Yet again I’m posting late for a readathon. I hope Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life I will allow for my tardiness with this late entry for German Literature Month 2018.  I really need to get a grip on my blogging!

I had a couple of DNFs in my reading for GLM 2018, which really isn’t like me. One novel I suspect will never be for me, the other I think just the timing was wrong. Either way, it was with some relief that I turned to the safest of hands, Stefan Zweig, to finish my GLM reading on a high.

Image from here

In Fantastic Night and Other Stories (1906-1929 trans. Anthea Bell 2004) the wonderful Pushkin Press have collected together five of Zweig’s short stories which are compulsively readable. I don’t want to say too much as Zweig is such a subtle writer that the joy, I think, is going into his writing without an idea of plot or subject, to just see how he unfurls a story of such beauty and psychological insight before you. So I’ll just give a flavour of the first two, the longest in the collection.

In the titular story, a series of events in one evening sees a nihilistic playboy learn the value of living beyond one’s own pleasures:

“Those yearnings that then stirred unconsciously in me at many moments of half-realisation were not really wishes, but only the wish for wishes, a craving for desires that would be stronger, wilder, more ambitious, less easily satisfied, a wish to live more and perhaps suffer more as well.”

Such is the skill of Zweig’s writing that this spoilt and vacuous man undergoes a transformative experience without it seeming rushed or contrived.

“Life is a great and mighty phenomenon and can never be hailed with too much delight. It is something only love grasps, only devotion comprehends.”

Letter From an Unknown Woman I knew from the Max Ophuls 1948 film, starring the luminous Joan Fontaine (some kind soul has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube here); I had no idea it was based on a Zweig short story.

The premise is as simple as the title suggests: a man receives a letter from a woman he has no memory of, proclaiming her enduring love for him. Her young son has died from influenza and she is writing a letter to him to be sent after she has also succumbed to the virus.

Once again, Zweig manages a feat of characterisation. A woman spends her life devoted to a man who does not know of her existence: how is she not a doormat, the tale ridiculous and sentimental? Primarily because the woman is determined and unapologetic. She has a strength that comes through so clearly and is undeniable.

“I know that what I am writing here is a record of grotesque absurdities, of a girl’s extravagant fantasies. I ought to be ashamed of them, but I am not ashamed, for never was my love purer and more passionate than at this time. I could spend hours, days, in telling you how I lived with you though you hardly knew me by sight.”

She never makes excuses, for her life spent in this unrequited state or for her work as a prostitute, which she views as reasonable and profitable for her. She also does not make excuses for the object of her affection, who she sees clear-sightedly:

“You did not recognise me, either then or later. How can I describe my disappointment? This was the first of such disappointments: the first time I had to endure what has always been my fate; that you have never recognised me. I must die, unrecognised […] I understand now, (you have taught me!) that a girl’s or woman’s face must be for man something extraordinarily mutable. It is usually nothing more than the reflection of moods which pass as swiftly as an image vanishes from a mirror.”

She is also never bitter. There is no regret or rancour in her words. She chose her love, and lived it as fulfilled as it could be, given the man it was for:

“You care only for what comes and goes easily, for that which is light of touch, is imponderable. You dread being involved in anyone else’s destiny. You like to give yourself freely to the world – but not to make any sacrifices.”

These words are not angry, but just stating fact. Zweig demonstrates why she loves him, what makes him compelling to her, and why these same traits mean he can never love her back.

Zweig’s short stories are masterful. How he manages to get so much telling detail, such beauty and such insight into such economical writing is truly astonishing.

Secondly, Beware of Pity (1939) which was Zweig’s longest work, telling the story of the soldier Anton Hofmiller, who asks a young girl to dance at a party in the second decade of the twentieth century, unaware that she has a spinal cord injury which means she walks with braces and crutches.

“I had never been deeply moved by anything…Now, all of a sudden, something had happened to change me – nothing outwardly visible, nothing of any apparent importance. But that one angry look, when I had seen hitherto unsuspected depths of human suffering in a lame girl’s eyes, had split something apart in me, and now a sudden warmth was streaming through me, causing mysterious fever that seemed to me inexplicable…All I understood of it at first was that I had broken out of the charmed circle within which I had lived at my ease until now, and I was on new ground which, like everything new, was both exciting and disturbing.”

Out of pity, he repeatedly visits Edith Kekesfalva and is drawn into her life, and that of her father, a rich man driven to distraction over the fate served to his daughter:

“His obstinacy, his egocentric obsession, as if nothing in this world, which is full to the brim of unhappiness anyway, exists but his own and his child’s misfortune”

Hofmiller is callow; he doesn’t know what to do with the situation he finds himself in. The family doctor, Dr Condor, tries to warn him:

“pity is a double-edged weapon. If you don’t know how to handle it you had better not touch it, and above all you must steel your heart against it.”

But Hofmiller blunders onwards into more than one “compassionate lie” which will see all their lives unravel. How he behaves is completely believable, completely understandable, and completely devastating. For the modern reader who may not make such ableist assumptions as Hofmiller, certain situations that he crashes into seem to a certain extent avoidable, but he is naïve and well-meaning and completely oblivious.

Beware of Pity is a devastating read. The title warns of impending tragedy, but Zweig takes it a step further, by framing the story as a man looking back over what happened to a time before World War I, when World War II is just about to start. He shows how such notions of pity, honour and tragedy become swallowed whole under the terror and mass devastation of mechanised warfare. Ultimately though, Zweig suggests the need to keep hold of our humanity in such circumstances, however painful it may be.

“There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one at counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.” 

To end, an Anglophone artist who was hugely influenced by German culture, singing one of his most famous songs in German: