Back in the summer of 2015 I was fortunate to stumble on a pair of lovely Pushkin Collection volumes of Stefan Zweig stories – “The Governess and other stories” and “Wondrak and other stories”. I read a story from each and then, typically for me, popped them on a shelf to read later. Roll on nearly 18 months, and I came across them whilst I was reshuffling a few books, and thought that I should at least give Zweig some reading time during German Literature Month!I recalled flipping through “The Governess…”, and the first story in that volume (“Did He Do It?”) is a really intriguing and unexpected one for a tale from Zweig; so I thought I would re-read it and see what I thought second time round.
Unusually, the story is set in England, near Bath to be precise, and it’s narrated by a lady called Betsy. She opens her tale with the bald statement that she’s sure that “he” is the murderer – who “he” is and who was killed is left to be revealed as the story progresses, but it’s a dramatic opening guaranteed to ensnare the reader from the very start!
Betsy and her husband have retired to a little cottage in the area, near a canal, and are enjoying their rest. Their tranquillity is ruffled a little by the arrival of some neighbours, the Limpseys, who build a love nest nearby. The Limpseys have been married for some years, and it’s clear from early on that it’s the husband John who dominates. An overenthusiastic man with no restraint, he throws himself into situations and relationships, exhausting those around him with his over-the-top zeal – it’s clear he has an abundance of energy which needs an outlet! His poor wife is overwhelmed and in many ways secretly happy when he’s away at work.
The couple are childless and Betsy makes the mistake of procuring a pet dog for them, given the name of Ponto. Needless to say, Limpsey throws himself into pet ownership, so much so that before long it’s the dog that rules the roost in the household and the neighbours are actually quite happy that he has an aversion to them. However, life for the Limpseys takes another odd turn, one which will have a dramatic effect on Ponto and then tragic results for his owners themselves. More than that I cannot say without risking ruining the story for you.
What could be a straightforward, whodunnit-ish type of tale is transformed here in the hands of a master storyteller. This is less of a mystery than a psychological study – of the relationships between man and animal, of the dangers of unchecked behaviour and of the consequences of extreme emotions. The portrait of Ponto’s temperament, changing from devotion to dominance through abandonment and then malevolence is impressive, and he becomes the central character of the story.
I love Stefan Zweig’s writing, and this was something of a departure – but a fascinating one! In a short work he can pack in so much and his narrative voice, as a retired Englishwoman, was entirely convincing (apparently Zweig did live near Bath for a while). “Did He Do It?” was further evidence of Zweig’s talent (if that was needed!) and I constantly find myself wondering why he was ignored for so many years. If you haven’t yet read Zweig, I highly recommend you do – you have so many treats in store!