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I got ‘Abandon the Old in Tokyo‘ by Yoshihiro Tatsumi as a present from a friend sometime back. When I was thinking of reading a graphic novel today, I decided to pick it up.

Japanese writers believe in presenting stories in comic form. They are pioneers in it. Comics probably occupies a bigger literary landscape in Japan than regular books – there are probably more readers of comics there than there are readers of other kinds of books. One of the reasons for this is that there are comics written for both kids and grown-ups. Writing comics for grownups was a quintessentially Japanese thing, before others started copying it. Sometimes these comics weren’t just fictional stories but were biographies and memoirs. The Japanese were much ahead of comics writers from other countries on this front – in presenting nonfiction books in comic form.

Why this long rambling passage on Japanese comics? Because this book is a perfect example of Japanese comics. It has eight stories. It doesn’t tell one story in eight chapters. It has eight short stories told in comics form. It defies the norm that a comics story should be long, should have a longer narrative arc. Who defies the norm, who writes a comics short story collection? A Japanese writer, of course.

The first thing about this collection of stories is that it is not for children. The stories are on themes which are of more interest to grownups. One of the stories might make even grownups squirm with discomfort. The first story ‘Occupied‘ is about a comics writer who loses his job. What he does when he hears this news forms the rest of the story. ‘Abandon the old in Tokyo‘, the title story, is about a young man who takes care of his old mother. His mother is domineering and tries her best to make him feel guilty and hold on to him and not let him go. Our young man is engaged to a young woman though. How our young man manages his relationship with the two women in his life forms the rest of the story. This was probably my most favourite story in the book. ‘The Washer‘ is about a man who washes windows of tall buildings. One day when he is washing a particular window, he notices that his daughter is inside that apartment and she is having an affair with someone. What this window washer does about it forms the rest of the story. ‘Beloved Monkey‘ is about a worker in a factory who has a pet monkey. It is a beautiful story about modern life in a big city in which a person feels alienated and lonely. It reminded me a lot of the Vittorio De Sica movie ‘Umberto D.‘ ‘Unpaid‘ is the story about an old man whose business goes under and who is hounded by creditors. This is the story with some shocking scenes. I won’t tell you what they are. It is a heartbreaking story. ‘The Hole‘ is almost a horror story – it is dark and scary and gripping. ‘Forked Road‘ is about a young man who is always drunk and we are taken back to his past to find out what happened to him which made him be this way. ‘Eel‘ is the story of a young man who works as a sewer cleaner.

One common feature across most of the stories is this – there is a young man who lives in a big city which is undergoing major change and modernization, he feels lonely and alienated from others inspite of the hustle and bustle around, he is awkward with women, he is introverted, his life is hard. This is the central feature of most of the stories. Alienation and loneliness are key themes in every story. How the story’s central character reacts to this alienation and loneliness is the main part of the story. It is beautifully and realistically told and sometimes it is insightful, and at other times it is heartbreaking. Yoshihiro Tatsumi says this in the interview featured at the end of the book, about his storytelling style –

“My basic approach was to come up with a ‘bleak story’ gekiga style that completely eliminated the requisite gags and humor so prominent in mainstream manga. The gag style defied realism. Unlike my contemporaries, I felt no need to incorporate humor into serious stories. I wanted to represent reality.”

Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s artwork is beautiful – it looks deceptively simple in its quintessential Japanese style and Tatsumi plays brilliantly with light and shade throughout the book. I have included a few pages below to give you a flavour of the artwork and the stories. There is also an insightful one page introduction at the beginning of the book by Koji Suzuki, who wrote the acclaimed ‘Ring‘ trilogy.

Beloved Monkey – 1

Beloved Monkey – 2

Beloved Monkey – 3

Beloved Monkey – 4

Forked Road – beautiful play of light and shade

Eel – 1

Eel – 2

I loved ‘Abandon the old in Tokyo‘. I discovered that more of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work has been translated into English, including his memoir. I can’t wait to read them.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Illegal‘ when I was browsing in the bookshop a couple of weeks back. A new Eoin Colfer book is always a reason to celebrate and in this case it was a graphic novel too, and so I was doubly overjoyed.

The book starts with this Elie Wiesel quote –

The book then proceeds to tell the story of Ebo, a boy who lives in a village in Niger. One day Ebo discovers that his brother has disappeared, and people around tell him that his brother has left for Europe. Ebo doesn’t have much of a family left – his parents are no more and his uncle who is supposed to take care of him is drunk most of the time. The story is narrated by Ebo as we follow his quest in search of his brother across the desert to the big city and across a bigger desert to a huge capital city and the journey into the sea and beyond. Is Ebo able to find his brother? Do they manage to get to Europe? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

Illegal‘ is a fascinating book. Though it is fictional, it is based on real stories of real people who have had experiences similar to Ebo. It is sometimes beautiful, sometimes bleak and it is hard to believe that this story happens every year. At the end of the book there is a map which shows Ebo’s journey and we discover that the distance covered is unbelievable. The artwork by Giovanni Rigano is brilliant. The scenes depicting the voyage through the sea are spectacular. I have included a few pages below so that you can get a flavour of the artwork.

First page – In the sea – 1

Ebo’s village

Agadez

In the sea – 2

Tripoli

I loved ‘Illegal‘. Eoin Colfer continues to surprise by experimenting with new narrative forms and it works brilliantly. I loved the artwork by Giovanni Rigano and I can’t wait to read more books illustrated by him. I hope they make this into a movie.

Have you read ‘Illegal‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered ‘And the Ocean was our Sky‘, when I was browsing in the bookshop last week, and I thought I will gift it to myself as a Christmas present. I started reading it yesterday and finished reading it today.

Call me Bathsheba‘, the narrator says in the first words in the book. Before long, we learn that the narrator is a whale, she is an apprentice in a boat with an all-female hunting crew, and they hunt boats sailed by humans. Captain Alexandra runs the boat and she is an experienced campaigner. We learn subsequently how Bathsheba got into hunting and how her family believed in prophecy. We also learn more about her Captain and the two other apprentices working in the crew, Treasure and Willem. The book takes us through happenings in a whale’s life at sea, their relationship to each other, their love, friendships, rivalries, their relationship to humans and the war they both have waged against each other for centuries. Then we get to know about a mythical creature which is supposedly human, called Toby Wick, which has killed whales in the past, and how whales dream of hunting this strange enemy down. At one point Bathsheba and her crew get a human captive and he gives clues to the whereabouts of the mythical Toby Wick and the whales go on a search of this mythical creature. Do they find this mythical creature? Is it real or a product of their imagination? Do they survive the hunt or is that the end of them? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

If you haven’t guessed it already, ‘And the Ocean was our Sky‘ is inspired by ‘Moby Dick‘. Patrick Ness, of course, turns the Moby Dick story upside down and makes the whale the hunter and tells us the story through the whale’s perspective and ‘Call me Ishmael‘ becomes ‘Call me Bathsheba‘. The result is a brilliant beautiful story which takes us deep into the ocean, makes us fall in love with the ocean currents and creatures and makes us live the life of a whale. It is fascinating. Patrick Ness’ prose zings and there are beautiful passages throughout the book. For example, there is this beautiful passage about prophecy :

“Was it prediction? Had she had a proper vision? Or was it a command, as it so often feels in the case of the prophetic? When you predict the future, when you do so strongly and you cling to it, how much of that future do you then cause to happen?”

And this one :

“We are always saying things like this, us as a people. Prophecy of the purest sort. What does that even mean? If prophecy were pure, it would be fact, but it is not. And yet, how it drives us, even when all I have ever seen is that the only prophecy that has any accuracy – any purity – is the one that self-fulfils.
We should get to the mountains. We should meet our destiny. But was it a disc that made it true? Or our dogged pursuit of it? Will the world end in darkness because it is foretold? Or because there will be those who believe it so strongly they will make it so? In the fear that I always try to hide in my heart, I wonder if there is even a difference.”

And this insightful passage about war :

“I have discussed this with soldiers and they have confirmed to me that’ yes, there are those who romance the hunt the way they romance war; in their safety, they imagine heroism, they imagine a place in history, an invisible pride that won’t feed their children but will raise them above their neighbours; they never imagine the despair; they never imagine the blood and suffering; they never imagine how your heart dies and dies again; I, like nearly every soldier before our wars finally stopped, have taken refuge in a silence so firm it is only the most witless who dare intrude upon it.”

Rovina Cai’s illustrations are exquisitely brilliant and they literally take us into the ocean, making us live a whale’s life. The way the ocean is depicted, the surge of the waves and the currents, the immense size of the whale with respect to humans and ships – it is so beautiful and feels so real. She is as much the author of the book as Patrick Ness. I am sharing below, some of the artwork so that you can experience its beauty for yourself.

And the Ocean was our Sky‘ is a commentary on humans’ relationship to nature, the wars they wage with nature when they should actually consider themselves part of it and embrace it, the devils that the imagination creates and the tragedy that ensues. It is a powerful story beautifully told with exquisite artwork. It is a must read for our contemporary times. I haven’t read Herman Melville’sMoby Dick‘, but it is hard to imagine how he could have improved on this. I can’t wait to find out.

Have you read Patrick Ness’ and Rovina Cai’sAnd the Ocean was our Sky’? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read an Inspector Morse novel for a long time. I finally got hold of the first book in the series ‘Last Bus to Woodstock‘. The story goes like this. A beautiful young woman, alongwith her friend hitches a ride on a car in the highway. Later in the night she is found dead in the parking lot of a pub. It looks like she has been raped too. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate. Who the young woman was, where she was going, who had the motive to kill her, who are the suspects, how the secrets are revealed – these form the rest of the story.

Bad News

Well, there is good news and bad news. Bad news first. In any whodunit, I expect many suspects, the detective pursuing one based on clues and then realizing that the clues were false or the detective hits a wall in the investigation, and one thing leads to another, making us want to turn the page. All these are there in the story, but it is not sleek and elegant like in an Agatha Christie story. There are different story strands running here and there seemingly without any focus.When we discover the identity of the murderer in the end, it is so surprising, that we feel that this person has been plonked into the story in the end to shock us. There is also some romance between Inspector Morse and one of the characters and I found it so lame – if a detective falls in love with a new woman in every story, what will happen after the story ends and where does this thing end? This kind of stuff happens only in a Bond novel.

Good News

Now for the good news. The ending is surprising and I couldn’t guess the identity of the murderer. All the story strands get woven together and all the loose ends are tied together at the end with a bow on top. It is wonderful. The conversations between Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are interesting. I loved Sergeant Lewis – he is that old-fashioned honest policeman who does things in a structured way, by the book, and his struggles to get adjusted to Morse’s unstructured unconventional ways was interesting to read. Sergeant Lewis also speaks one of my favourite lines in the book. It goes like this :

“Do you think I’m wasting your time, Lewis?”
Lewis was nobody’s fool and was a man of some honesty and integrity. “Yes Sir.”

I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that 🙂 And, of course, I fell head over heels in love with Sergeant Lewis.

Beautiful Prose

Colin Dexter’s prose zings time after time and there are many beautiful passages which are a pleasure to read. Like this one :

“He was tormented by the thought that a sequence of events, not in themselves extraordinary, had taken place; that each event was the logical successor of the one before it; that he knew what one or two of these events had been; that if only his mind could project itself into a series of naturally causal relationships, he would have it all. It needed no startling, visionary leap from ignorance to enlightenment. Just a series of logical progressions. But each progression landed him at a dead end, like the drawings in children’s annuals where one thread leads to the treasure and all the others lead to the edge of the page. Start again.”

And this one :

“Morse noticed a copy of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Villette‘ balancing like a circumflex accent over the arm of her chair.”

And this one :

“… the trouble with murder is that it usually tends to wipe out the only good witness of the crime – the victim.”

And this one :

“For the last four years his uniformed career had been uniformly undistinguished…”

The English Language

There are also interesting commentaries on the English language and they are lovely to read. Like this one :

“Sylvia’s habit of omitting all final ‘t’s seemed irritatingly slack. ‘It’ in Sylvia’s diction was little more than the most indeterminate of vowel sounds, articulated without the slightest hint of a consonantal finale.”

And this one :

“No one in the schools cared much these days about the bread-and-butter mechanisms of English usage. He’d been brought up in the hard school : errors of spelling, punctuation and construction of sentences had been savagely penalized by outraged pedagogues, and this had made its mark on him. He had become pedantic and fussy and thought back on the ill-written travesty of a report he had read from one of his own staff only two days before, when he had mentally totted up the mistakes like an examiner assessing a candidate’s work. ‘Asessing.’ Yes, that was wrong in this letter – among other things. The country was becoming increasingly illiterate – for all the fancy notions of the progressive educationalists.”

Morse also loves solving crosswords and sometimes they are involved in deciphering clues and those parts of the book are wonderful. There is one place, where Morse and Lewis look at the bare evidence they have, take a piece of paper, do a thought experiment and some number crunching, and arrive at a final result and we get a peek into it and it is amazing and magical. It is like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft sat on the couch in the living room and using their intellect and imagination alone solved a crime. It was awesome.

In many places, Colin Dexter sings an ode to famous lines from famous works of literature, and it is fun to spot them. I am giving some of them in the quiz below. Do tell me whether you can guess the answer.

Quiz

The following sentences from Colin Dexter’s first Inspector Morse novel are inspired by famous sentences from great works of literature. Which ones? Can you guess the original lines? Do share in the comments.

(1) “In the beginning was the thought, and the thought became word and Morse unwrapped the text carefully and read the message.”

(2) “Gone were the flights of angels that had guarded him in sleep.”

I liked the first Inspector Morse novel. Though some aspects of it were not satisfying, other parts of it were wonderful. One of my friends, who is a huge Inspector Morse fan, says that the third novel in the series, ‘The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn‘, is his favourite. I hope to read that sometime.

Have you read ‘Last Bus to Woodstock‘? What do you think about it?

I read ‘A Long Blue Monday’ by Erhard von Büren for the readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, as part of the celebrations for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life .

Erhard von Büren is a Swiss writer. The last Swiss writer I read was Peter Stamm, I think, and the only other Swiss writer I have read is, probably, Pascal Mercier. So I was very excited and was looking forward to reading ‘A Long Blue Monday‘.

The story told in ‘A Long Blue Monday‘ is narrated by a retired school teacher. He used to teach English at school with a focus on American literature, and after retiring he is working on a book on Sherwood Anderson. The narrator starts the story from the present time and shares conversations with his daughter and talks about his own life now. He, then, slowly takes us back to his past, and tells us about his childhood, his parents, his sisters, his family, how they struggled when they were young, how hard the narrator had to work to get out of poverty, how he enjoyed life in smalltown Switzerland. The story then pauses at around the year 1959, when the narrator is in high school, when he falls in love for the first time. Her name is Claudia. The love story progresses slowly, it is beautiful and complicated, there is a gang of friends who hang out together each of whom have distinctive personalities (my favourite was Bede – he comes across as pretentious in the beginning, but I grew to like him as the story progressed). We get to know how young people lived their lives in the Switzerland of that time, what kind of conversations they had, what kind of parties they had, what their ideals were, what dreams they had and what they worried about, the difference between the upper classes and the others, how hard it was to move across class boundaries in real life but how easy it was to fall in love with someone on the other side – these and other things are beautifully depicted in this middle, biggest part of the book. In the last part of the book, the narrator describes how he moves out of his hometown, which friends he keeps in touch with and which ones he doesn’t and which ones he meets again years later, new people he meets, new lovers he has, how all his loves are all influenced deeply by his first love, and how he ends up being an English teacher (he says this in one place – “What’s strange is that I became a teacher, and stayed a teacher, although from early on I’d always preferred to study on my own. Just me and a book, no need for a teacher“) and how he ended up in his current situation. Throughout this interesting journey, the narrator shares his love for literature and films and we read a lot about Adalbert Stifter, Thornton Wilder, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and many others and the film adaptations of their books. Those pages were a pleasure to read. I loved this nod to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, ‘Goldfinger‘ – “Once doesn’t count, twice can be a coincidence, but now Katherine was caught.

A Long Blue Monday‘ is a nostalgic book. It looks back to the past and takes us on a beautiful journey. I liked it very much. I hope to read more books by Erhard von Büren. I discovered that there are atleast two more translated into English.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“An accidental meeting could only be made to happen with great difficulty.”

“Books and films were what showed me what true life was like. But what did true life have to do with my real life?”

“It was quite true, nearly everything my father did was wrong, and yet I was somehow fond of him. On the other hand, everything my mother did was always right, yet I never really managed to give her credit for it.”

“How easily I’d always memorised my part in plays, and how rapidly I’d also memorised what each of my opposite actors had to say. But this here was different. And I couldn’t do it.
I’d set out to do something I couldn’t do, something for which I had not the slightest talent. All the dialogues I’d ever heard or read, the dialogues I’d learned by heart, were of no use to me now. Writing a play was something different, something entirely different from learning a role and then performing on stage. That someone like myself should aspire to write a play was nothing but a bad joke.
And yet I had to do it.
If I only kept on writing and writing and then deleting and deleting, something might yet come of it. But today I hadn’t written anything for hours, and all the drafts I’d written so far needed to be deleted too.
It had to be a trilogy, a trilogy of all things! If not a work of intelligence it should at least be long, gigantic – sublimely ridiculous, for all I cared. Claudia, if anyone at all, would be the only person to read it. I had to prove something to Claudia, and to no one else. I’d got myself into this situation. I was right in the middle of it. Now I had to find a way out.
So I remained seated at my table beneath the lamp.
And then I found something to continue with.
Some sentence or other, and I typed it into the machine. Considering that I’d waited a whole afternoon and evening, that sentence would do, at a pinch.
And a single sentence wasn’t the end of it, the flow went on, and continued for one, even two whole pages. The sudden feeling of relief was immense, ridiculously so.”

“If you want something for long enough you get it in the end. Spare no effort and it can be made to happen. That was the principle that guided my life. And on the same principle I hoped to win Claudia, her respect, her friendship, her confidence, whatever: all the things that were to be found in the books I read, or that were shown so strikingly in the films I saw. If Claudia was always in my thoughts, it was inconceivable that I shouldn’t also be in hers. All you had to do was hang on to your passion, and in the end your passion would be reciprocated!
I confused winning someone’s love with scrupulously doing one’s homework. I thought the strength of a sentiment guaranteed that it would be reciprocated, I thought that when it came to sentiment, too, everything was determined by merit.
Ludicrous! It might be possible to earn the odd act of kindness because a faint feeling of justice is aroused, so that what was given comes back. But twenty acts of kindness still don’t make a friendship, they can’t be exchanged for love. Love accounts don’t balance.
‘The pangs of desprized love …’ I should have known, I’d parodied Hamlet’s soliloquy often enough. And anyway, wasn’t being crossed in love the rule rather than the exception? It had been childish to imagine that an exception would be made in my case.”

“Those dialogues can surely be improved. It’s not important that the sentences follow each other in an orderly pattern, question, answer, question. What matters is that I should make some discovery in the process. The sentences should lead me on to something I didn’t know beforehand, they should show me something I hadn’t seen before. That’s what they’re there for, that’s why I’m writing them down, that’s why I’m stringing them together. They don’t have to be to my liking, they don’t have to be to anyone’s liking. All I’m trying to find out by writing them down is how a simple love story could turn into such a calamity.”

Have you read ‘A Long Blue Monday’ by Erhard von Büren? What do you think about it?

This is the third book I have read for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

After reading the novellas of Stefan Zweig, I was tempted to read the collected stories. So I picked this up and after some readathoning finished reading it yesterday.

Before I get into the stories in the book, there are a couple of things I want to say about Stefan Zweig. This book has ‘stories’ in the title. Most of us, readers, will instinctively and automatically add the adjective ‘short’ before that word, and believe that the book contains short stories. We will be surprised though when we open the book. There are a few real short stories in the book, which are around ten pages long. But those are few. Most of the stories in the book are somewhere between thirty and sixty pages long. And they are in small font. If we give allowance to font size, they would be much longer. They are too long to be called short stories and too short to be called novellas. They are neither here nor there. They defy classification. Publishers and bookshops will be confused on where to shelve this collection. I loved that aspect of this book. It looks like Stefan Zweig didn’t care what his stories were called. He refused to follow the artificially created rules and categories. He just wrote what he wanted and he wrote it as long as he wanted it to be. It is so cool.

The second thing I wanted to say about Stefan Zweig was this. If something can be said in five words, and that something comes to Stefan Zweig, he will say it in twenty words. In the hands of ordinary mortals this will look like an inefficient use of words which doesn’t serve any purpose, but in the hands of Stefan Zweig, it is beautiful – the beautiful sentences, metaphors, descriptions, insights into the human condition are a pleasure to read. We delve deep into those long, ornate, beautifully sculpted Zweig-ian sentences and we don’t want them to end. They are not like the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ long sentences of Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner or the long sentences of Marcel Proust or Bohumil Hrabal. Zweig’s sentences are different. They are unique in their own way and offer a lot of delight to readers. He doesn’t necessarily write long sentences always. But he takes more words to say something. It is interesting, because Zweig mostly wrote stories and novellas. He wrote just two novels. He was not a writer of epic-length books. Within the short length of the overall story or book, he wrote long sentences or used more words to say something. This combination of short and long seems to have produced sparks and created magic. It is fascinating.

This book has twenty two stories. I had read some of them before – Forgotten Dreams, A Story Told in Twilight, Moonbeam Alley, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Invisible Collection, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, Incident on Lake Geneva, The Debt Paid Late. The other stories were all new to me. I read all the new ones, and re-read most of the already read ones. Here is a short description of the stories in the book. These descriptions are inadequate, as each of the stories deserves a separate review of its own with a proper discussion of the story, characters and favourite passages. Unfortunately, that will make things too long.

Forgotten Dreams – A woman and a man, who were in love with each other once, meet after a long time. They remember their past together. This is the first story in the book and the shortest one.

In the Snow – A story of Jewish people suffering at the hand of Christians. Very heartbreaking.

The Miracles of Life – A novella length story about a painter who tries to paint a picture of the Madonna and a young Jewish woman who models for the picture. So beautiful and heartbreaking. Esther, the Jewish woman, is such a beautiful, haunting character.

The Star Above the Forest – What happens when a waiter falls in love with someone who is way above his social station, like a Countess? This story presents one of those scenarios. So beautiful and tragic.

A Summer Novella – An interesting love story which is told through a conversation between two strangers during summer.

The Governess – A story about two young girls who lose their innocence because of some happenings at home. When towards the end of the story, I read this – “They know all about it now. They know that they have been told lies, all human beings can be bad and despicable. They do not love their parents anymore, they do not believe in them. They know that they can never trust anyone, the whole monstrous weight of life will weigh down on their slender shoulders. They have been cast out of the cheerful comfort of their childhood, as if into an abyss…access to their minds has been cut off, perhaps for many years to come. Everyone around them feels that they are enemies, and determined enemies at that who will not easily forgive. For yesterday their childhood came to an end” – it broke my heart.

Twilight – A story of a woman who falls out of favour and is banished from the French court and what she does about it.

A Story Told in Twilight – A beautiful, sensual love story of two young people.

Wondrak – A story about a mother’s love for her son.

Compulsion – A story about a man who is asked by his country to go to war when he and his wife don’t want to, and what he decides and what happens to them. So beautiful and realistic and asks some profound questions.

Moonbeam Alley – I was so excited to read this, because this was the first Stefan Zweig story I ever read seven years back and this is the story which inspired me to read more of his stories. This time around, the story didn’t have the impact that it had the first time, but this story will always have a special place in my heart, because it introduced me to one of my favourite writers. It tells the story of a man who has an adventure in the night in one of the port towns.

Amok – The story of a doctor who is working in the tropics and a strange experience he has. I discovered the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘running amok‘ through this story. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here.

Fantastic Night – One of my favourite stories from the book and probably one of my favourite Zweig stories ever. It is about a man who has everything but is bored with life and how a series of accidental experiences happen to him one particular day and how that changes his life profoundly. It is a fascinating story, almost Russian, almost Dostoevskian, and offers an insightful, amazing commentary on the human condition. There is this beautiful passage at the beginning of the story in which the narrator talks about the challenges of writing. It goes like this :

“I have not a trace of what people call artistic talent, nor any literary experience, and apart from a few rather light-hearted squibs for ‘The Theresianum‘ I have never tried to write anything. I don’t even know, for instance, if there is some special technique to be learnt for arranging the sequence of outward events and their simultaneous inner reflection in order, and I wonder whether I am capable of always finding the right word for a certain meaning and the right meaning for a certain word, so as to achieve the equilibrium which I have always subconsciously felt in reading the work of every true storyteller.”

He continues with this :

“For the whole thing is really just a small episode. But even as I write this, I begin to realize how difficult it is for an amateur to choose words of the right significance when he is writing, and what ambiguity, what possibilities of misunderstanding can attach to the simplest of terms. For if I describe the episode as small, of course I mean it only as relatively small, by comparison with those mighty dramatic events that sweep whole nations and human destinies along with them, and them again I mean it small in terms of time, since the whole sequence of events occupied no more than a bare six hours. To me, however, that experience – which in the general sense was minor, insignificant, unimportant – meant so extraordinarily much that even today, four months after that fantastic night, I still burn with the memory of it, and must exert all my intellectual powers to keep it to myself.”

Later he says this, in this almost Dostoevskian passage :

“With passionate ardour, I still relive what I experienced that day…But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word. Only now that, for the first time, I am to tell a story in its full context do I understand the difficulty of expressing the ever-changing aspect of all that lives in concentrated form. I have just written ‘I’, and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June, 1913. But the word is not really straightforward, for I am by no means still the ‘I’ of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former ‘I’ and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand. I am quite distinct from the man I was then, because of this experience of mine, I see him now from the outside, looking coolly at a stranger, and I can describe him like a playmate, a comrade, a friend whom I know well and whose essential nature I also know but I am not that man any longer. I could speak of him, blame or condemn him, without any sense that he was once a part of me.”

Letter from an Unknown Woman – A writer receives a letter from an unknown woman. The letter describes how she knows him. Very fascinating.

The Invisible Collection – The story of a provincial man with an amazing art collection. You have to read the story to find out why it is invisible. You can read Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman – Self explanatory title. Describes the strange happenings in life of that woman. One of my favourite Zweig novellas. You can find my longer review of the story here. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here. You can find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) review of the story here. You can find Brontë’s Page Turners’ review of the story here.

Downfall of the Heart – A beautiful study of family life and the relationship between parents and children. Very heartbreaking too.

Incident on Lake Geneva – A beautiful sad story and also a commentary on artificial borders created by humans. There is this beautiful dialogue towards the end of the story, which is heartbreaking.

Manager : “What do you want, Boris?”
Boris : “Forgive me, I only wanted…I wanted to know if I can go home.”
Manager : “Of course, Boris, to be sure you can go home.”
Boris : “Tomorrow?”
Manager : “No Boris…not just yet. Not until the war is over.”
Boris : “When is that? When will the war be over?”
Manager : “God only knows. We humans don’t.”
Boris : “But before that? Can’t I go before that?”
Manager : “No, Boris.”
Boris : “Is it so far to go?”
Manager : “Yes.”
Boris : “Many more days’ journey?”
Manager : “Many more days.”
Boris : “I go all the same, sir. I’m strong. I don’t tire easily.”
Manager : “But you can’t, Boris. There’s a border between here and your home.”
Boris : “A border?” (He looked blank. The word was new to him. Then he said again with his extraordinary obstinacy) “I’ll swim over it.”
Manager : “No, Boris, that’s impossible. A border means there’s a foreign country on the other side. People won’t let you through.”
Boris : “But I won’t hurt them! I threw my rifle away. Why wouldn’t they let me go back to my wife, if I ask them in Christ’s name?”
Manager : “No, they won’t let you through, Boris. People don’t take any notice of the word of Christ anymore.”
Boris : “But what am I to do, sir? I can’t stay here! The people that live here don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them.”
Manager : “You’ll soon learn, Boris.”
Boris : “No, sir. I can’t learn things. I can only work in the fields, that’s all I know how to do. What would I do here? I want to go home! Show me the way!”
Manager : “There isn’t any way at the moment, Boris.”
Boris : “But sir, they can’t forbid me to go home to my wife and my children! I’m not a soldier anymore.”
Manager : “Oh yes, they can, Boris.”
Boris : “What about the Tsar?”
Manager : “There’s no Tsar any more, Boris. He’s been deposed.”
Boris : “No Tsar anymore?” (He stared dully at the other man, the last glimmer of light went out in his eyes…)

Mendel the Bibliophile – About a bibliophile called Mendel. He almost seemed to resemble the way I am, some days. One of my favourite stories from the book. You can find Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Leporella – A story about a cook and her relationship with her employers.

Did He Do It? – A beautiful, heartbreaking story about a dog and his human masters. The dog is not the good person here.

The Debt Paid Late – The story of a woman, who accidentally bumps into her favourite actor which makes her reminisce her past. I had read this story before and it has preserved its magic when I read it again. Beautiful story.

I loved all the stories in the book. Each was beautiful in its own way. But one story which leapt up above all else is ‘Fantastic Night‘. It was incredibly beautiful and touched me deeply and pulled so many heartstrings. That is a story I want to read again soon, slowly, savouring each word.

So, that’s it. I think I have read all Stefan Zweig’s stories which are out there in print. There are two novels of his that I have to read still – ‘Beware of Pity‘ and ‘The Post Office Girl‘. I hope to read them sometime. It is a bittersweet moment, because there are no new Stefan Zweig stories left. But I am glad he wrote these beautiful stories which continue to delight readers, decades after they were first published. Stefan Zweig is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century who is virtually unknown today. I wish more readers discover his works and delight in the pleasures they offer.

Have you read ‘The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Stefan Zweig story?

Stefan Zweig is one of my most favourite writers and I have dipped into this collection of his, before, but this time I wanted to take this book and read all the novellas in it together, especially the ones I have not read before.

This book has five novellas – ‘A Burning Secret‘, ‘A Chess Story‘, ‘Fear‘, ‘Confusion‘, ‘Journey into the Past‘. I had read ‘A Chess Story‘ and ‘Journey into the Past‘ before (my reviews are here and here). I read the other three novellas this time. This is what I think.

In ‘Burning Secret‘, a young Baron comes on a holiday to a small town. He is looking for adventure. He discovers that there is a woman with her twelve year old son staying in the same hotel as him. He decides to seduce this woman. He starts by becoming friends with the son, and through him he becomes friends with the mother. At this point in the story, the point of view shifts to that of the son, and we see the story unfolding through the son’s eyes. What happens after that, does the woman respond to the Baron’s overtures, does the Baron’s plan succeed, how does the son react – the answers to these questions form the rest of the story. I loved the story more when the narration shifts to the son’s point of view. The way the son slowly loses his innocence and does everything in his power to thwart the Baron’s plans while maintaining an innocent face (at one point we read this line – “Now that he was certain he was in their way, being with them became a cruelly complex pleasure.“), is very fascinating to read, and makes us smile. The ending of the story was beautiful and heartwarming, which was not at all what I expected.

In ‘Fear‘, a thirty year old woman, who is happily married to a successful lawyer and lives a comfortable life, decides to have an affair with a young musician. One day while leaving the musician’s house, she is confronted by another woman who refuses to let her leave the building unless she gets paid some money. Our main character pays her something and leaves the building. She is then worried and scared. But nothing happens for the next few days and life goes back to normal. But before long, this other woman finds our heroine’s residence and starts blackmailing her for more money and this makes our heroine’s life a living hell. What she does about it and whether she is able to come out of the clutches of the blackmailer and whether her husband and her family discover her secret – the answers to these questions form the rest of the story. I loved the way the title of the story perfectly depicts the atmosphere pervading throughout – how our heroine’s fear of being exposed starts from the first page and continues till the last. The ending of the story was very unexpected and heartwarming, but also a little movie-ish. But I was happy with it.

In ‘Confusion‘, an old professor is honoured for his achievements. This professor, who is the narrator of the story, says that what is known about his career, is based on facts, but the real truth of how things happened, is a totally different story. He then proceeds to narrate what happened. When this professor was a young man, he had lost his way as a student, and one day he arrives at the university in a small town to focus on his education. He attends a lecture by an inspiring professor and before long he becomes close with the professor and his wife and is working on a book project with his professor. How this teacher-student relationship evolves and how the book project moves along forms the rest of the story. In the scene in which our young man first attends the professor’s lecture for the first time, there is a four page description of what happens. It is beautiful and inspiring and gave me goosebumps. It made me think of all my favourite teachers who inspired me, and all my favourite inspiring fictional teachers like John Keating, the character played by Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society‘ and Katherine Ann Watson, the character played by Julia Roberts in ‘Mona Lisa Smile‘. This story was worth reading for those four pages alone. But, of course, there is more to the story than that, and I suspected something at the beginning of the story, but ignored that because I thought it was just a product of my overactive imagination, but in the end, what I suspected came true. The ending to the story is very surprising and completely unexpected. ‘Confusion’ was first published in 1927 and it was way ahead of its times. I can’t tell you why. You should read the story to find out.

I loved all the three novellas that I read, but I think ‘Confusion‘ is the one I loved the most. Those four pages which described the inspiring teacher were something. I wish I could quote that part here, but it is too long. I can’t wait to read more stories by Stefan Zweig. I have another thick, chunky volume waiting for me 🙂

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Confusion

“I have never heard anyone speak with such enthusiasm, so genuinely carrying the listeners away – for the first time I experienced what Latin scholars call a raptus, when one is taken right out of oneself; the words uttered by his quick tongue were spoken not for himself, nor for the others present, but poured out of his mouth like fire from a man inflamed by internal combustion.”

“…when I had leafed through the two hundred industrious pages and looked my intellectual reflection in the eye, I couldn’t help smiling. Was that really my life, did it truly trace as purposeful a course with such ease, from the first to the present day as the biographer describes, sorting the paper records into order? I felt exactly as I did when I first heard my own voice on a recording : initially I did not recognize it at all, for it was indeed my voice but only as others hear it, not as I hear it myself through my blood and within my very being, so to speak. And so I, who have spent a lifetime depicting human beings in the light of their work, portraying the intrinsic intellectual structure of their worlds, was made aware again from my own experience of the impenetrability in every human life of the true core of its being, the malleable cell from which all growth proceeds. We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second when (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes – a magical second, like the moment of generation, and like that moment concealed in the warm interior of the individual life, invisible, untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone. No algebra of the mind can calculate it, no alchemy of premonition divine it, and it can seldom perceive itself.
The book says not a word about this most secret factor in my mental development : that is why I couldn’t help smiling. Everything it says is true – only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me. It speaks of me, but does not reveal what I am.”

Have you read ‘The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig‘? What do you think about it?