Book Reviews

Stefan Zweig’s Novellas – a Brief Review

For a while I had this idea of writing these quick book reviews for this blog; I don’t know if I will persist linger than one post (that’s the cynic in me), but I just want to try it out as it’s not something I have done before. And considering that it’s my first time writing this type of review, it’s probably going to be a bit of a mess – but, hey, I’m trying. If nothing else, it’s going to be interesting when I come back to these reviews after a while and try to recall how I felt while reading these works…

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Do you remember this post? It was a while ago, but I mentioned in it buying a book of some stories by Stefan Zweig. I didn’t have the chance to read them until a few months ago, actually – but once I finished, I felt a sudden urge to check out some other Zweig’s works. Isn’t it so rewarding and exciting to become interested in an author you haven’t even heard of before reading one of their books? See, I wasn’t familiar with Zweig’s name at all before I discovered him by accident around a year ago. And I’m so grateful I did. My first introduction to him was, unsurprisingly, Letter From an Unknown Woman; first I saw the 1948 movie and I read the novella afterwards. I read it only once so I might need to come back to it before I say how I feel about it exactly; I liked it, but not as much as some other of his works. But I’ll probably be forever grateful to it because it introduced me to Zweig, and even more importantly, his writing style. This one story was enough for me to notice that I really like Zweig’s way of writing. It’s a language that’s probably not overly descriptive, but says enough to create a certain mood; I’d say it isn’t as much about conjuring up an image, but more evoking a feeling in the reader. It is also very sensual at times, even when sexuality is not the central theme (and it often is, at least in the works I have read).

What short stories from Zweig have I read so far? Well, as I said I read The Letter From an Unknown Woman and some others back in July, and after a brief pause I picked up some other novellas, which I have just finished. These are the ones I’ve read:

Letter From an Unknown Woman

Woman and the Landscape

Confusion of Feelings

24 Hours in the Life of a Woman

Burning Secret

The Invisible Collection

Incident on Lake Geneva

Amok

The Royal Game (or the Chess Novella)

I won’t be reviewing each one separately, but rather will try to sum up my overall feelings and focus on the ones that left the biggest impression on me. Of course, the last five ones on this list are more fresh to my memory because I read them less than a week ago.

I’d say Confusion of Feelings was my favorite without much thinking. It drew me in, kept me hooked in a delirious way, and it was while reading it that I said to myself “I need to read more Stefan Zweig’s stories”. Amok has a similar way of drawing you in, and this one would probably also be quite high on my list. Talking about Amok, this one provides an example of what seems to be Zweig’s preferred way of storytelling, and that is setting a story within a story. He also used this method in 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, The Invisible Collection and finally The Chess Novella. The story begins and ends with one narrator, but the actual story is told to him (and to the reader) by someone else, mostly a person he acidentally meets somewhere and who confides in him. Maybe it would seem unrealistic that all those people feel the need to confide in a man who is more or less a complete strangers to them, but Zweig makes those characters so desperate and obsessive that we can understand their need to talk to anyone who would listen. Because his characters are often people with tragic back stories, completely obsessed with something from their past, monomaniacs even. Monomania seems to interest Zweig very much, and it’s probably because of that fascination that he often used the motif of gambling in his stories; indeed, gambling is sort of a personification of an obsession with one single thing where one loses their mind and forgets about everything else. The title of his novella, Amok, sums it up quite well. If you’re not familiar with this term like I wasn’t, apparently amok means “an episode of sudden mass assault against people or objects usually by a single individual following a period of brooding that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malaysian culture but is now increasingly viewed as psychopathological behavior occurring worldwide in numerous countries and cultures” (Merriam-Webster).

Even in the gentle and romantic novella Letter From an Unknown Woman there are element of insane obsession and, to overuse the word, monomania. The woman in the story is so much obsessed with R. that she makes her entire life about him, he’s literally her only goal and all she ever think about. In Confusion of Feelings, the narator becomes obsessed, in a somewhat similar manner, with his college profesor whom he idolizes. The young boy in Burning Secret is focused, if for a short period of time, solely on discovering “the burning secret” which represents the gateway to the adult world. I could probably go on, but I haven’t read enough of Zweig to form deeper conclusions about his theems and his way of writing. Suffice to say that I loved reading these stories, some more and some less, and I’ll probably be returning to Zweig after some time.

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