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Posts Tagged ‘Austrian Literature’

I discovered Arno Schmidt’sBottom’s Dream‘ a few years back when the English translation came out. Someone in Twitter, probably the publishers, wrote about it. It looked like a chunkster and it was translated by one of my favourite translators John E. Woods – I loved his translations of Patrick Süskind’sPerfume‘ and ‘The Pigeon‘ – and so I decided to get it.

When the postal courier arrived, I was surprised, because he carried the package on his shoulder! It was huge! When I took it from him, I nearly dropped it! It was that heavy! I discovered later that it weighed around six kilos (if you are into pounds, it is a little more than thirteen pounds). It was bigger than any other book I had in my collection – ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Les Miserables‘ paled in comparison. It was so huge and massive that its immensity was intimidating. It was also the heaviest. It was next to impossible to hold it in your hand and read. It has to be kept on a table or a special book holder if one wanted to read it. It was also the most expensive single-volume novel that I had got till that time – it cost me the equivalent of fifty dollars. (It trades on Amazon at 855 dollars now, so not a bad investment 😁)

More facts emerged later. I discovered that only 2000 copies of the book were published, 1000 for the American market and 1000 for the rest of the world. I was able to get hold of one of the rest-of-the-world copies. There is no Kindle edition – the estate of Arno Schmidt refused to approve that. It was published by Dalkey Archive, who have been publishing beautiful works by lesser known authors for the past forty years. The publishers and the writer’s estate seem to have adopted a publishing philosophy from an earlier century – publish limited copies of the book, and that’s it. The book is out-of-print now and I hope existing copies cost a fortune when I get old – I hope to get rich with this.

The book is produced in a classic German (or rather European) style. That is there is no introduction, no analysis of the book or its place in literary history. The book proper starts on the first page. There are no distractions. No potted biography of the author, no description of the translator, nothing. It is you and the book, 1500 pages of it, and nothing in between. The translator seems to have taken pity on the readers and so has sneaked in a one-and-half page afterword in the end, which doesn’t say much. There is a short description on the back of the slipcase through which we discover that the book is about Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, the art of translating. Otherwise we can’t fathom anything about the book.

I know only three other people who have got the book – Melissa from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter’, Tony from ‘Messenger’s Booker (and more)’ and one more friend from Twitter. Only Tony has read a significant part of the book, I think. You can find his first post on the book here. Tony’s posts are encyclopaedic and an education to read. I don’t think there is anyone who has read the book fully. I see many readers have reviewed the book on Amazon. But I doubt whether any of these readers have read the book fully. Anyone can write a review of any book. I am very good at it – I can write a review of any book I haven’t read. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I will believe it only when I see it.

I thought for this year’s edition of ‘German Literature Month‘, I’ll read a few pages of ‘Bottom’s Dream‘. I thought that would be a great way of celebrating this 10th edition of GLM. I read the first three pages. I couldn’t understand anything. Only a vague inkling of what it was about. But it was nice to read the first three pages. I am sharing them here. Go ahead, do read them. And tell me whether you can understand what they say.

This is my last post for the 10th year celebrations of ‘German Literature Month‘ hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’. I couldn’t read much this year, but I had fun participating and sharing thoughts on my favourite German writers and poems and attempting to read Arno Schmidt’s magnum opus. Thanks so much to Caroline and Lizzy for hosting GLM. It is my favourite reading event of the year and I can’t wait for next year’s GLM already.

Have you tried reading Arno Schmidt’s book? What do you think about it? Did you participate in German Literature Month this year? Which were your favourite reads?

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I wrote this as part of the celebrations for the tenth edition of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

Marlen Haushofer is my favourite German author. She was Austrian and wrote in German. I first discovered her through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) post about the film adaptation of ‘The Wall’. I got inspired and got the book, and when I read it, I didn’t want it to end. When I finished reading the book, it became my alltime favourite book, at that time. It is still one of my alltime favourite books. It is one of my treasured possessions and a book I refuse to lend to anyone. If you are curious about the plot, it goes like this. A forty-something old woman goes on a holiday with her cousin to the countryside. She goes to take a nap in their cabin. She wakes up to an eerie silence. She discovers that she has been separated by a transparent wall from the rest of the world and everyone on the other side is dead. She has a dog, a cat and a cow for company. This is revealed in the first few pages. What happens to this one human character and three animal characters is revealed in the next 250 pages. We would think that with just one human character, the story would have nowhere to go, but what Haushofer does with this minimalist cast is absolutely magical. I’ll let you read for yourself and find out what happened. After I read ‘The Wall‘, I wanted to read all of Haushofer’s books. But there were just two more of her books available in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them and read them across the years. One would except that after reading a profound book like ‘The Wall‘ one would almost experience a sophomore slump while reading the next Haushofer book, but when I read ‘The Loft‘, I found it beautiful in its own way and it had one of my favourite lines, which goes like this –

“I hate that alarm…I am convinced this wretched thing is slowly killing us – a fraction every day. Merely waiting for it to start ringing is in itself a torment…Before the day can slip noiselessly into the room it is shattered to pieces by this vulgar rattling noise.”

I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a long time, because I didn’t want to read my last Haushofer book in a hurry. Sometime back I felt that I had waited for too long and I read that too. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story and one of my favourite coming-of-age stories. If I hadn’t read ‘The Wall‘ before, ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ would have been my favourite Haushofer book. It still is one of my alltime favourite books.

I don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer. Information about her is hard to come by on the internet. The Wikipedia page in English devoted to her has just the basic facts about her. She must have been well-known in her time in the German-speaking world or in Austria atleast, but after her death in 1970, she seems to have slipped into obscurity. She came again into prominence and burned brightly like star, briefly, a few years back when ‘The Wall‘ was adapted into a film which won lots of acclaim. Since then she has slipped back into obscurity again. I know only a few people who have read ‘The Wall‘ and half of them are friends to whom I recommended it to. ‘The Wall‘ is one of the great masterpieces of twentieth century literature. It deserves more readers.

Though we don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer, she reveals herself through her books. Atleast, I think so. If we try peeking behind the beautiful sentences, we find someone who is warm and affectionate, introverted, and who loves animals. How can someone who wrote this –

“The laurel is flowering. I don’t pick any because I’m afraid the plant might cry out in pain and I wouldn’t hear it. True, I don’t remember ever hearing laurel cry out, but everything is possible, and every sound is possible to a person who cannot hear.” (From ‘The Loft‘)

or this –

“That summer I quite forgot that Lynx was a dog and I was a human being. I knew it, but it had lost any distinctive meaning. Lynx too had changed. Since I’d been spending so much time with him he had grown calmer, and didn’t seem constantly afraid that I might vanish into thin air as soon as he went off for five minutes. Thinking about it today, I believe that was the only big fear in his dog’s life, being abandoned on his own. I too had learned a lot more, and understood almost all his movements and noises. Now, at last, there was a silent understanding between us.” (From ‘The Wall‘)

be anything but warm and affectionate, and a beautiful soul?

I am glad that Marlen Haushofer walked on earth once upon a time. I am glad that she was a beautiful soul. I am so happy that she wrote these beautiful, exquisite masterpieces. I wish our times had overlapped. I would have loved to meet her. But I am glad that she lives through her books. As they say about Beethoven and Mozart, that they didn’t die, but they became music, Marlen Haushofer didn’t die, she became her stories.

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Marlen Haushofer is one of my alltime favourite writers and her book ‘The Wall‘ is a masterpiece and one of my alltime favourite books. Haushofer was probably well known during her time, atleast in her native Austria, but has mostly been forgotten during the decades since. Interest in her work revived a few years back when a film adaptation of ‘The Wall‘ came out and it was received with great acclaim. But since those heady few months, Haushofer has sunk back into obscurity. I don’t even know whether she is read in her native Austria now.

The Wall‘ was the first book of Marlen Haushofer that I read. I loved it so much that I searched for all of her books which were in print. I found only two more in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them both and read ‘The Loft‘ soon. I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a rainy day. I read the first few pages many times, but refused to go ahead. A few days back I decided that it was time. It was time to take it out and read it properly and enjoy the pleasures and the insights it had to offer.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ is the story of a girl called Meta. When the story starts, Meta is around two-and-a-half years old. We see the world through her eyes, as she views grown-ups including her parents as giants, she loves the barrel in which someone keeps her for a while, while they work in the farm, she loves the tree, the big old stone, the dog, her house. As the story progresses, we get introduced to new characters – Meta’s uncles, aunts and grandparents, her neighbours, the people who work in her home, the casual visitors who turn up at her home. At some point Meta’s mother gives birth to a new baby and now Meta has a baby brother. Initially she is jealous of him, because now her mother ignores her and gives the baby her full attention. But one day, Meta is able to see the situation from her mother’s point of view and after that day she is not jealous of her baby brother anymore. We get to see how life is in the farm, the pleasures that it offers and the challenges that it provides. We get to see how the change of seasons initiates a new set of activities in the farm and results in the arrival of new people. We get to know about Meta’s relationship with her father and mother and how different they are – her father is a dreamy type who is nostalgic about the past while her mother is a practical type. We also get to know how Meta’s uncles and aunts are very different from each other but how they all love her in their own ways. We get to know about how Meta and her dog love each other and trust each other. There is even a white hen in the farm which the other hens ignore and Meta is kind to that hen and it gets attached to her and keeps following her everywhere. There are more things in the book, but I’ll stop here.

I loved ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. One of the things I loved about the book was the point of view from which the story is told. We see the world through the two-and-a-half year old Meta’s eyes at the beginning of the book, and we become two-and-a-half years old while reading it. And as Meta grows up every day and week and month and year, and as her perspective about the world and her relationship to her surroundings and the people around her changes and evolves, we continue growing up with her and see the world in new ways. This transformation of perspective is gradual and natural and is not rushed or forced. It is beautiful and we don’t even realize that it is happening. But after we finish reading, say, fifty pages of the book and then go back and check the first page, we realize that things have changed so much, but when the change was happening and we were in the middle of it, we were not aware of it. Only a master can pull this off and Marlen Haushofer does it so beautifully and elegantly. Haushofer’s prose is beautiful and charming. She is a beautiful soul and it shows in every sentence of the book. You will know why when you read it. There are so many beautiful passages in the book and I couldn’t stop highlighting.

How does ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ compare to Haushofer’s other two books, ‘The Wall‘ and ‘The Loft‘? It is hard to tell. I loved them all and they are all very different. ‘The Wall’ will probably be my favourite out of the three, but now after reading ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘, I am not very sure, because this is equally beautiful as well.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ starts when Meta is around two-and-a-half and ends when she is probably in her early teens. The ending is beautiful and poignant, because lots of things have changed since the beginning and Meta is not a baby anymore, and her relationship with the world has changed. The ending was heartbreaking for me. It was heartbreaking because while Meta mourned the passage of her childhood, I mourned the end of the last book of my favourite writer. It is sad that all good things have to come to an end. It is sad that there won’t be any more new Marlen Haushofer books. There is one novel, one novella and a collection of short stories of hers in German, which are still not available in English translation. I hope someday one of the translators decide to translate them into English. Till then, this is it. I am so thankful that there was a writer called Marlen Haushofer and she lived in the 20th century, and she was a beautiful soul, and she wrote these beautiful, sensitive books. I am so happy that I discovered her books and I am so glad that I loved them. I am so sad that the party is over now. One of these days, I’ll take down all the three Haushofer books I have and read them again, slowly, and enjoy the beauty of each sentence. But right now, it is time to mourn the end of an era.

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

“The best thing about Father’s stories is that they keep changing imperceptibly all the time. He is incapable of telling the same story twice in the same way, and this creates a kind of web that spreads out in all directions. Nothing is fixed and therefore nothing is boring. Meta could go on listening for ever, and for quite a while now she herself has in fact been helping to spin the web. She makes suggestions, promotes and demotes officers and troops. Unpopular figures are flushed into oblivion and nobody cares a hoot. Sometimes her imagination runs away with her, and then Father gently takes another tack. One evening, for example, she transfers the whole regiment to Beluchistan, simply because she likes the name; he doesn’t contradict her, he just leaves the fact hanging there until she forgets about it. He always maintains that nearly everything sorts itself out if you give it time. And it is important to remember this.”

“What can it be like, never to have been born? She closed her eyes tightly, shuts down as many senses as she can – sight, taste, hearing – and remains motionless. But she is still there : her tummy rumbles, her heart beats and there is a red sort of curtain affair behind her lids. She must make herself smaller, shut herself even tighter. Rolled into a ball, her mouth pressed against her knees, she does her best to achieve a state of never-having-been-born. The red behind her eyelids fades, her arms and legs go numb, her tummy falls silent and her heartbeat slows. She has never been born. There is nothing uncomfortable about not being in the world; you don’t feel anything at all. Then slowly she comes to life again. Her ears are the first things to open, and they hear the wasps buzzing in the roof beams. Next her nose catches the smell of the flour sacks on which she is lying; on her tongue she can taste saliva; and when she opens her eyes the whole world comes flooding back. She is there again, delivered up to the assault of noises and sights and smells. This not-being-able-to-fend-them-off is what life is…’You ought to be grateful,’ Mamma always says, but for the first time Meta starts to doubt it. She is not grateful; she is alive, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes it’s nice, often it isn’t, and always it’s a big oppression.”

“What grips her most is not so much the actual stories as the wealth of fascinating new words she learns from them. Just the words, not the meanings – she is in fact careful not to enquire too closely into meanings in case a fuller explanation should rob them of their mystical power. At one point she comes across the phrase ‘his voice rang with a note of triumph’, and spends the rest of the day in a trance, just musing on it. Triumph, triumph, what a dark, proud, shapely word; its meaning is not important; one day it will fall into place like everything else she hasn’t yet learnt, and in the meantime the word will retain all its magic. She is convinced that to discover new things, all you have to do is to get your words in the right order. All magicians know this, and it is the basis of their power. She would like to gain this power herself one day, but at present she is afraid of it and decides to put off working magic until she is older : she might, for instance, pronounce a wrong word by mistake and awaken some terrible monster, and she is too young and weak for that. No, for the moment her task is merely to swallow the words – not difficult because she has always had a desire to swallow things she likes – and wait for her time to come. Fortunately reading is a way of gobbling up things you love for which there is no punishment.”

Have you read Marlen Haushofer’sNowhere Ending Sky‘? What do you think about it?

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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?

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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?

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