Stefan Zweig is an author I’d never heard about until recently, and then suddenly I started noticing his name everywhere – on blogs, Amazon recommendations and in the very attractive Pushkin Press catalogue. The covers are so lovely they’re enough to make you buy the book anyway, but as I still had a Waterstones gift card burning a hole in my purse, I decided to see if they stocked any of Zweig’s books – not holding out a lot of hope, tbh, as our local store don’t stock many of the small presses. But lo and behold! They had two lovely volumes: “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “Journey into the Past”. So I snapped them up, both slim, lovely books, and decided that I would tack first “Letter…” as it contains short stories, and I haven’t read any of these in a while.

First, a quick summary of Zweig from Wikipedia:

“Stefan Zweig (November 28, 1881 – February 22, 1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most famous writers in the world.”

Doesn’t tell you a lot, does it, but if you read the full entry here – it’s very illuminating and it’s amazing that such a prolific and well-known writer had fallen into obscurity until recently. Anyway, on to the book.

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“Letters…” contains four stories, the title story being the longest one. The bulk of the narrative takes the form of the letter of the title, addressed to a famous, middle-aged writer, who receives it on his birthday. The letter is not signed and the recipient does not know who it is from, but she claims to have loved him all his life, and goes on to relate the story of this love. The three other stories concern lovers labouring under mistaken identity; a woman repaying a long-overdue debt of gratitude; and a meeting between two former lovers.

You will note I’m not saying an awful lot about the plot, and that’s deliberate – these are short pieces and to reveal too much would spoil the enjoyment of reading them. In fact, there is a kind of spoiler in the blurb on the rear of this book which meant I was reading one of the stories anticipating a particular turn in the plot and that did take away some of the effect for me. So I shall try here to keep my comments a bit general.

Firstly, I should say that Zweig’s writing is just lovely – he captures emotions and sensations wonderfully, in beautiful prose, and the translation here is very, very readable. Some of the atmosphere he conjures up is almost hypnotic. He’s also a very clever writer, gradually revealing the plot through the narrative, and in the title story in particularly, the story of the woman’s life takes shape as we read her letter and from what she says, she unconsciously reveals the type of man the love object is.

“I loved you from that second on. I know that women have often said those words to you, spoilt as you are. But believe me, no one ever loved you as slavishly, with such dog-like devotion, as the creature I was then and have always remained, 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.”

Zweig is writing in all these stories about love and human emotions, but this never seems soapy or schmaltzy – as Andrea Bell, the translator, writes in an afterword to the other book I bought, his writing is highly emotionally charged, but this makes it very moving and the end of the first story was quite devastating. The feelings on show here are intense ones, but they need to be to make the stories dramatic, and to allow Zweig the denouement at the end. Although the stories are set many years ago in Vienna, the sentiments are universal, and still relevant today.

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I was very, very impressed with my first reading of this “lost” writer and am very much looking forward to reading “Journey into the Past”. Alas for my bank balance, Pushkin Press publish an awful lot of books by Stefan Zweig…..

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