confusion

Last year I first made the acquaintance of Stefan Zweig and his work; I read two lovely Pushkin Press volumes, “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “Journey into the Past”. Both were intense, emotional reads and I’ve since amassed a few more volumes of his which are teetering about on Mount TBR. “Confusion” is another Pushkin book, similar in style to the Szerb I read recently, and I do like these cute little books – French flaps, lovely thick paper – they really enhance the reading experience!

Anyway, enough rambling! “Confusion” is another of Zweig’s short, intense novellas, subtitled “The Private Papers of Privy Councillor R von D”. Our narrator, who is eventually named as Roland, is a retiring scholar who has been presented with a volume created in his honour (a ‘Festschrift’) which purports to cover his life. Ruefully, Roland looks back on his past and realises that they actually know nothing about the most important part of his life, when in his youth he experienced a friendship that changed him forever.

As a young man, Roland was sent to university in Berlin, and rebelled against his sober background by going wild in the city. To counteract this dissipation, he is sent to a provincial university and meets the man who will change his life – an unnamed professor of English. The professor is a strange character – moody, changeable, bored by some types of teaching but, when he is allowed to improvise and soar mentally his teaching is inspirational. Roland is immediately drawn to him, with a quite excessive intellectual passion. But the professor has a secret – all is not well between him and his wife; there are mutterings from others in the university about him; he is somewhat ostracised and Roland finds the same thing happening to him. As their work progresses, Roland is drawn closer to the Professor and his wife. He yearns to know the secret, but fears it also. Will all be revealed?

“Confusion” is an appropriate title, as Roland spends much of the book in this state, unable to always comprehend his Professor’s changing moods, puzzled by the relationship between the man and his wife; but the Professor is also confused as becomes clear as the narrative reaches a climax. Events reach the point of no return and Roland finds out the truth of the confusion of the Professor’s life – a truth that will stay with him throughout his life.

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To the modern reader, the secret is probably quite obvious before the end, but as the endnote to the book points out, Zweig was very much a writer of passion. The extreme emotions feature in all of the works of his I’ve read, and this is no exception. The characters are in thrall to intense feelings which often overwhelm them. But the book has another topic – it glows with the joy of learning, receiving knowledge from an inspirational tutor, the flights the mind can take in the right circumstances. The Professor is a truly gifted tutor when he wants to be – the kind of teacher we have all probably encountered at least once in our life, someone who has the knack of transmitting their love and knowledge of the subject in a way few have.

Like the other Zweigs I’ve read, this is a little gem of a book. His passions are often cerebral, reflecting the fine line between a love of the soul and a physical love. His work is vivid and his stories involving and moving; reading too much in one sitting would be rather like eating a very rich cake!  I shall definitely read more of Stefan Zweig’s work and I feel he’s an author best appreciate in small doses; unlike some who you have to gulp down all at once when you’ve discovered their work. To do that wouldn’t do justice to the beauty of his prose!

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