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Posts Tagged ‘Stefan Zweig’

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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Summer Before the Dark‘ covers one summer during the year 1936, when a few Austrian and German writers got together in a Belgian seaside town called Ostend and bonded together, had conversations and discussed the state of their countries, fell in love, had intellectual fights, wrote books and had fun. The two main writers that the book focuses on are Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. It also talks about Irmgard Keun, who became Joseph Roth’s lover during this summer, and touches upon a few others like Hermann Kesten, Ernst Toller and Arthur Koestler.

I loved the way the book presented the bleakness of the situation in Europe, with the Nazis gaining power in Germany, Austria and England signing agreements with Hitler hoping to pacify him and keep him in check, and Jewish people being harassed and books of Jewish writers being banned, and contrasted all these with the good times a few writers were enjoying in a holiday resort, for probably the last time. The contrast between the bleak overall situation and the sunny interlude was interesting and fascinating. Though the book starts with a depiction of Stefan Zweig (which was the reason I started reading it), a significant part of the book is reserved for Joseph Roth, in which the book describes his background as a poor Jewish person from the east and how he made it into the Vienna and Berlin literary circles, how money or rather the lack of it plays an important part till his final days. I also loved the way his relationship with Irmgard Keun is depicted – how two very different people got attracted to each other. While nearly all the writers who were staying in Ostend were Jewish, Irmgard Keun was odd because she was not – she was a Catholic German and she was not harassed by the Nazis, but she was in exile by choice. It added to the complexity of her relationship with Roth. By the end of the book, I fell in love with Joseph Roth. I have read one book by him before, called ‘Flight Without End‘. Now I want to read more books by him, especially his masterpiece, ‘The Radetzky March‘. I loved Irmgard Keun too and I hope to read her books one of these days.

When the summer ends, the book also ends and we feel sad, because we know what awaits most of the characters we meet. Most of them die before the war is over and the ones who survive live hard lives carrying the scars of that difficult time. Irmgard Keun was presumed dead, but she survived and lived in secret till a journalist did detective work and discovered her decades after the war got over, and wrote about her, and after years of living anonymously, she came back into the public eye and a new generation of readers fell in love with her and made her feel wanted and she spent the last few years of her life feeling happy. I got goosebumps when I read that.

I loved ‘Summer Before the Dark‘. It may not interest everyone. But if you like the above writers and have wondered what they did when their books were banned by the Nazis, this is a fascinating book to delve into.

I will leave you with one of my favourite lines from the book, written by Joseph Roth.

“It is true that you cannot share your pain without doubling it. But this doubling also contains an immeasurable comfort. My suffering moves from the private sphere to the public and thus is easier to endure.”

Have you read ‘Summer Before the Dark‘? What do you think about it?

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I got Laurent Seksik’s book last year, when I got many books by Stefan Zweig – books written by him and books about him. I finally got to read it yesterday.

Seksik’s book is a novel. But it is based on actual events of Stefan Zweig’s life, especially, the last six months. Zweig was one of the great writers of his times. He wrote many books – his speciality was the novella which stretched to around a hundred pages. In most of his novellas the main character was a woman who was complex and fascinating, and Zweig’s portrayal of her was so realistic and wonderful and authentic, that many women readers loved his novellas and could identify with the main characters. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Zweig who was Austrian but also Jewish, felt that it wouldn’t be long before Hitler invaded Austria too. Having felt that, he left his native country and lived as an exile for the rest of his life, first in England, and then in America and then in Brazil. This book gives an account of his last six months in Brazil.

Laurent Seksik’s book is written beautifully – his prose is soft and gentle and introspective, we get to see the story through Zweig’s and his wife Lotte’s points of view, the anguish that they feel for everything that they had left behind, the guilt that Zweig feels for running away from his country and not staying back and fighting, their experiences with new friends in a new country, their feelings about the horror that is engulfing Europe and how it looks like it might spread to the rest of the world. Most of the book alternates between the bleak overall situation and the sunny beautiful moments which intersperse the gloom. The ending is heartbreaking. For readers who know about Zweig, you already know what it is. For readers who don’t, I will let you read the book and find out.

The Last Days‘ is a beautiful, poignant, haunting meditation on the last months of Stefan Zweig’s and his wife Lotte’s lives. I loved it. I hear that there is a play version and there is probably a movie version. If there is a movie version, I would love to watch it.

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

“He bent over the trunk and examined its contents : there were about forty tomes in there. The books had accompanied him on his journey, all the way from Salzburg. He had sworn to bring them out only once his spirit had regained a measure of calm. That moment had finally come.
He pulled the books out one by one. He slowly perused their covers and ran his fingers over their edges. Then, taking his time, he absent-mindedly – and a little comically – stuck his nose in the pages and sniffed them. These books hadn’t seen the light of day since they’d fled their house in Austria. The last fixed address they’d known had been his library in Kapuzinerberg. The passing of time and the crossing of oceans and continents hadn’t diminished their perfume. They exuded the scent of his living room in Salzburg. Over the years, the books had become impregnated with its smells : it was a mixture of pine, firewood, autumn leaves, earth after the rain, cigar smoke, apples, old leather, feminine scents and Persian carpets. After the initial enthusiasm and solemnity with which he had opened the first books, he stuck his nose into the other tomes. He inhaled their smell, filling his lungs with it. The pages had kept the fragrances intact. The past was neither dead nor buried. It had been kept alive between the pages of these books.”

Have you read Laurent Seksik’sThe Last Days‘? What do you think about it? Do you like Stefan Zweig’s stories? Which is your favourite?

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This is my second book for this year’s German Literature Month and this is my second Stefan Zweig book in a row.  ‘Journey into the Past‘ was highly recommended by Seemita from Fleeting Brook.

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The story told in ‘Journey into the Past‘ goes like this. A man and a woman meet after many years. There is warmth and friendliness and even sparks between them. They board a train and travel together. Their minds go back to the past. Once upon a time the man was poor. After working hard and getting himself an education, he ends up working in a company. He works hard there and catches the eye of the director who takes him under his wing and promotes him. At some point, as the director is keeping in poor health, he requests our hero to move into his spacious villa as a guest, so that it is easy for them to work together. Our young man, after some initial resistance, agrees. He is sceptical about the move, because he hates rich people, in principle, because they make him feel poor, even more. But then he meets the director’s wife who treats him with respect and removes all such negative thoughts from his mind. Before long a beautiful friendship develops between our young man and the director’s wife which later blossoms into love. But suddenly one day, the director recommends the young man for a new project in Mexico and the lovers are parted. He hopes to come back after two years and she waits for him. But then as they say, the best laid plans go awry. When our young man tries to return back, news breaks out that a big war has started. How things pan out after that and how this man and woman end up meeting again and what happens between them form the rest of the story.

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I like the way the story moves between the past and the present. We know that the two main characters are sitting next to each other in a train and they are travelling towards a potentially happy ending (are they?), but it is fascinating to find out how they parted and how they got back on that train, and what happened in between. I also loved the part of the story which talks about the young man’s poverty and how he works hard to get out of it and how he hates rich people for treating him like an inferior and how he guards his freedom fiercely. All these are beautifully portrayed. I loved the character of the director’s wife. She was my favourite character in the book – kind, beautiful, elegant, strong.

The war that the book talks about is probably the Second World War. This is interesting, because towards the end of the book, we are shown that the war is over, but interestingly, the Nazi party has survived. This is interesting because Stefan Zweig didn’t survive the war. He died in 1942 when the war was still in full swing. He imagined an end to the war which was very different from what actually happened. That pessimistic imagination is probably what most people believed would happen, during those dark days of the war. It is hard to imagine the bleak atmosphere that must have prevailed at that time.

The ending of the story was interesting – it was open-ended with things unsaid and what happens is left to the reader’s imagination. I can’t imagine what happened, because every ending I think of, has some unhappiness for one of the characters.

I loved ‘Journey into the Past‘. It is a beautiful love story set during an interesting time. It is vintage Zweig. I can’t wait to read my next Zweig story now.

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

“And the dense silence of the years, lying heavily as if slumped in the room, took alarm at their human presence and now assumed powerful proportions, settling on their lungs and troubled hearts like the blast of an explosion. Something had to be said, something must overcome that silence to keep it from overwhelming them – they both felt it.”

Have you read ‘Journey into the Past‘ by Stefan Zweig? What do you think about it?

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This is my first post for this year’s German Literature Month. I am late, but I will console myself by saying that I am the latest 🙂

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I read my first Stefan Zweig book last year. It was called ‘A Game of Chess and other stories’. I fell in love with it – with the stories and with Zweig’s prose. So I decided to read my second Zweig book, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘. This book has four stories, the title story and three others – ‘A Story Told in Twilight‘, ‘A Debt Paid Late‘ and ‘Forgotten Dreams‘. The first three are the length of a long short story or a short novella – somewhere between forty and fifty pages. The last one is a short story.

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In the title story ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘, a writer comes home after a walk and when he checks his mail, he finds a letter written in a woman’s handwriting. There is no name on it and no sender’s address. He takes it out and reads it. In that letter a woman tells the writer that she loves him, has always loved him from the time she was a girl, describes how they have met many times and how he didn’t recognize her each time. She then describes the details of her life and their interactions across the years. It is a beautiful, poignant story. I loved this passage from the story very much.

“…for there is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope : her love is so submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be. Only lonely children can keep a passion entirely to themselves; others talk about their feelings in company, wear them away in intimacy with friends, they have heard and read a great deal about love, and know that it is a common fate. They play with it as if it were a toy, they show it off like boys smoking their first cigarette. But as for me, I had no one I could take into my confidence,  I was not taught or warned by anyone, I was inexperienced and naive; I flung myself into my fate as if into an abyss. Everything growing and emerging in me knew of nothing but you, the dream of you was my familiar friend.”

The second story ‘A Story told in Twilight’ starts as a story told by one person to another as twilight sets in, in the evening. It looks like an imaginary story set in a castle in Scotland where a boy in his middle / late teens – an age which has been described by some writers as too old to be a boy but too young to be a man – this boy meets a woman in the night when he is taking a stroll. They have a passionate time together. The next day at breakfast time, all the women in the house are there in the dining room and everything is quiet like it has always been. The boy tries to find out which of these women he met in the previous evening. He devises ways to discover that. And then he makes a surprising discovery. And then he does something silly, like all love-smitten people do, and makes another shattering discovery which breaks his heart. I won’t tell you more. You have to read the story to find out what happened. I loved this passage from the story. It showcases the beautiful, evocative descriptions that Stefan Zweig frequently gives.

“In an hour’s time it will be night. That will be a wonderful hour, for there is no lovelier sight than the slow fading of sunset colour into shadow, to be followed by darkness rising from the ground below, until finally its black tide engulfs the walls, carrying us away into its obscurity. If we sit opposite one another, looking at each other without a word, it will seem at that hour, as if our familiar faces in the shadow were older and stranger and farther away, as if we had never known them like that, and each of us was seeing the other across a wide space and over many years.”

In the third story, ‘The Debt Paid Late‘, a woman who is a homemaker takes a break from her routine to re-energize herself and goes to a small village in the mountains and stays in an inn. Her plan is to stay there for two weeks, walk in the meadow, read a book, not talk to anyone and spend time in tranquility. But there she meets a man whom she recognizes from her childhood. What happens after that is the rest of the story. The whole story is in the form of a letter that this woman writes to her friend, after the events happened.

The fourth story, ‘Forgotten Dreams‘, is about two people, a woman and a man, who meet years later and remember their attraction for each other during their younger days, and talk about what has happened in their lives and what might have been. I loved this passage from this story.

“The apparently unruly confusion of her fragrant, shining curls was the careful construction of an artist, and in the same way the slight smile that hovered around her lips as she read, revealing her white teeth, was the result of many years of practice in front of the mirror, but had already become a firmly established part of the whole design and could not be laid aside now.”

I liked all the four stories in the book. The first three seemed to have some kind of theme in common – there is a question of identity in each of them. In the first, the identity of the narrator is never discovered though the writer tries to, in the second the identity of the woman is a big surprise, and in the third one, the discovery of the identity of the man brings back old memories. The book is vintage Zweig, with beautiful, flowing prose, beautiful passages and a perfect balance between story-telling and aesthetic beauty. I loved it. I can’t wait to read my next Zweig story now.

Have you read Stefan Zweig’sLetter from an Unknown Woman‘? What do you think about it?

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I had a not-so-good reading year in 2016. I read only 18 books. That is not not-so-good. That is bad. I left some of the books half-read. Not because they were not good, but because I was distracted or got into a reading slump. I could finish reading only 18.

That is the bad news. The good news is that I liked most of what I read. Actually loved most of them. That makes me very happy. That means, my list of favourites will contain most of the books I read 🙂 I don’t have to differentiate between them and choose some over others for arbitrary reasons. That is one of the great pleasures of reading less number of books. That makes me very happy.

So, without much further ado, here is the list of my favourite books from 2016, in no particular order.

Short Stories / Short Prose Pieces / Novellas

(1) A Game of Chess and other stories by Stefan Zweig

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My first proper book by Stefan Zweig. The title story was exceptional – it had some of the best passages I have read. There was also a beautiful description of the Riviera in another. Loved the whole book. I can’t wait to read another Stefan Zweig book.

(2) The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s love letter to the Russian Steppe. Also his longest story. My most favourite of his.

(3) A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov

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One of Chekhov’s longer short stories. Loved it.

(4) The Walled City by Zeenat Mahal

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One of my favourite discoveries this year was author Zeenat Mahal (the nom de plume of Faiqa Mansab) and her novella The Walled City. It is a love story set in the beautiful city of Lahore and evokes the sights, sounds, smells, people and culture of the city so brilliantly. It also had one of my favourite passages :

“Saqib watched his work with forced detachment. He’d put his dreams to sleep on canvas after canvas, crystallized in a vice of color and form. Some had emerged as twisted nightmares, others as singed vestiges of shattered hopes.
     This painting was both.
     Like the woman, it had exacted much from him. He could almost feel the weight of the palette knife in his hands again, as he’d mixed and smeared, brushed and stroked in a frenzy of ecstasy or despair, until she’d emerged out of its blankness in the arms of another man, a faceless lover. But her almond shaped eyes that had held him captive for so long, gazed out at him, even now. He wasn’t just the painter; he was voyeur and conspirator, sinner and judge, plunderer and savior. The man in her arms didn’t matter, not to her, not to him.”

If you want to read ‘The Walled City‘ online, you can find it here.

Faiqa Mansab’s new book “This House of Clay and Water” is coming out in May. I can’t wait to read it.

(5) Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling

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There is a story plot which I have been fascinated by. In this story, a character from a book jumps out into the real world. (Or conversely a real world character jumps into a book or a painting). When I first heard this story, it gave me goosebumps. I discovered that Jasper Fforde has written this. Jodi Picoult has also written this. Then I discovered that Cornelia Funke has written this before them both. I was amazed to discover that Woody Allen wrote a story with this plot in the ’70s. (In his story Madame Bovary jumps out of the book into the real world and falls in love with the reader). Then I further discovered that Raymond Queneau wrote this in his book ‘The Flight of Icarus’. I thought this must be the earliest form of this story. I let it be. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Pu Songling had written similar stories. In the late 17th century! He seemed to be saying from the distant past – “Experimental writers from the 20th / 21st century – Take that! All these innovative plots that you think you invented (or copied from others without acknowledgement) – it has all been written and done and dusted.” Songling’s book is made up of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural written for grown-up mature readers. There are probably 500 stories of his. I probably read around 30 in this book. Many stories involve the main character, who is a scholar, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but who turns out to be a ghost or a fox fairy or flower fairy. In many stories, the beautiful woman loves our scholar back, they get married and have children and live happily everafter 🙂 It is the kind of ghost story that I have never read before. This book deserves a proper review. Highly recommended.

(6) Contemplations by Franz Kafka

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I read ‘ The Metamorphosis‘ and many other stories by Kafka this year. My favourite was this one – his first ever published collection containing short one or two page prose pieces. Very beautiful.

Novels

(7) A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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A novel about an introverted, shy man whose life story it tells. Very beautiful. It got into many award shortlists. Wish it had won some.

(8) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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I got this book years back when it first came out. I finally read it. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in post Second World War America. The difference though is that our American Hamlet cannot speak and his parents rear dogs.  So, while we are expecting Hamletian madness to happen, we get one of the most beautiful dog novels ever written. Almondine is one of my most favourite dog characters ever and Easy is another favourite. There is a black pup (of which animal we never know) which our Hamlet’s dad saves from the flood. It refuses to eat or drink anything and the part of the story where it comes is beautiful and heartbreaking. I really should have written a proper review of this beautiful book.

(9) The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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This much awaited novel from one of my favourite writers is set in the aftermath of 9/11 and tells the story of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. Gae Polisner says that the manuscript of her next novel has gone out already. I hope that novel comes out this year. We readers are always greedy!

(10) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

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The longest novel of the year for me (862 pages). The longest novel I have ever read on the Kindle too. It has been called the Japanese Wuthering Heights. It was long and epic and I loved it.

Graphic Novels / Manga

(11) A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (graphic novel – part 1)

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I got this because I was planning to watch the TV show. Before long the show took over. But till then, the graphic novel version of the book was good, very good.

(12) Barakamon (part 1) by Satsuki Yoshino

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A Manga comic about a young calligrapher who goes and lives in an island and his friendship with the islanders. Very charming! Can’t wait to read the next part!

Science

(13) The Universe in your Hand : A Journey through Space, Time and Beyond by Christophe Galfard

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Stephen Hawking’s former student gives his own version of the history of the universe. And I can confidently say that the student has excelled the master here. Galfard’s book is very readable. (Hawking’s book is unreadable after the first chapter – believe me, I tried). He uses storytelling techniques and science-fiction-movie-style narration to bring the most complex concepts alive. Probably the finest book on physics written for the general reader. One of the wonderful things that I learnt from this book was about the things we don’t know and which we will never know. This is a book that I will be reading again.

(14) The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

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Weinberg’s book has been called the finest account of the Big Bang theory ever written. Weinberg being a Nobel Prize winner himself, this book has been well respected. I have wanted to read it for years. Finally got to read it. The initial few chapters are easy to follow. The book then gets more challenging. The thing I loved about the book though was reading Weinberg’s thoughts on physics and why it is important and why we should be doing it. Weinberg’s humility as a person and as a scientist shone through when he talked about the larger issues in science and his confidence as one of the great scientists of the 20th century shone through when he talked about the science we knew and could predict. It made me fall in love with him. I will be reading those parts of the book again.

(15) Mr Tompkins in paperback by George Gamov

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One of my friends has recommended this for years. I finally got around to reading it. It has two parts  – Mr.Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom. Beautiful book on relativity, radioactivity, structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. It has one of the finest descriptions of radioactivity that I have ever read. The book also has a foreword by one of my favourite scientists Roger Penrose. That doubled my pleasure! Great book to gift to your young ones at home. I wish I had read this when I was in school.

Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite books from 2016?

Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with great books and beautiful reading moments 🙂

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