“It is impossible to live in a void.” #ReadIndies @PushkinPress #Montaigne #StefanZweig #WillStone


I was really glad when Lizzy proposed that we allow an extra week for #ReadIndies reviewing as, like many, I ended up reading far more books during February than I could squeeze onto the blog! And for my last review for the event, I was very keen to cover the wonderfully-named Pushkin Press, one of my favourite indies and a publisher whose books I’ve featured regularly on the Ramblings. They’ve produced any number of books I love, but during February I spent time with a very special title that took in two favourite authors: “Montaigne” by Stefan Zweig.

Both subject and author of this little book have appeared on the Ramblings regularly; Zweig is a wonderful author who’s deservedly been rediscovered after decades in the wilderness; Montaigne crossed my path more recently, and his work and life are inspirational (as are those of Zweig). So to discover that one had written a monograph on the life of the other was a real treat!

“Montaigne” is translated by Will Stone, who’s also appeared on the blog as he’s produced wonderfully rendered English versions of a number of books I’ve loved. Most recently, I read his translation of Zweig’s “Journeys”, which was fascinating and poignant; and Stone’s foreword to this volume makes sobering reading, as he reveals that this was the last book Zweig was working on before he took his life in 1942. Zweig took comfort from reading Montaigne’s work, hanging on to the threads of hope as long as he could; but in the end, the collapse of the civilised world he loved so much was too much for him.

… one of life‘s mysterious laws shows that we only notice the authentic and essential values when it’s too late: youth, once it has fled, health at the moment it abandons us, freedom of the soul, that most precious essence, at the very moment when it is taken from us, or has already been taken.

So in typically Zweigian fashion, the author explores the life and work of his great forebear and how it’s still relevant to the modern world. Interestingly, as I read through the book I found much of the biographical detail was familiar from my reading of Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book, so Zweig obviously did a wonderful job in encapsulating Montaigne in a much smaller work.

Only the contemptuous stand in the way of freedom, and Montaigne despises nothing more than “la frénésie“, the violent madness of those dictators of the spirit who crave with supreme arrogance and vanity to impose on the world their “glad tidings“ as the sole and indisputable truth, and for whom the blood of hundreds of thousands of men is as nothing in the fanatical pursuit of their cause.

However, what was particularly fascinating was seeing Montaigne through the prism of Zweig’s sensibility; much of the book is about his current experiences, how Montaigne’s words, writtin during a period of world conflict, resonated with Zweig as he was living through the catastrophe of World War 2, and how Montaigne’s life and work can stand as advice on the best way to stay true to yourself in difficult times. We are still in the middle of a particularly trying period of human history, one which Montaigne would have recognised as he lived through a plague era himself; and so reading his words brings comfort now, as it did to Zweig back in the 1940s.

Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

Zweig’s “Montaigne” was a joy from start to finish; a beautifully written little book which not only brought to life the great essayist, but also gave me a glimpse into the author’s mind at that late stage of his life. Reading this little gem from Pushkin Press was a poignant, deeply moving and yet uplifting experience, and I’m so glad I chose it as my last book for #ReadIndies month (and a bit…)

“Once again a terrific hurricane has broken on the world…” #stefanzweig #willstone


Journeys by Stefan Zweig
Translated and with introduction, notes and photographs by Will Stone

Do you ever get that feeling where you’ve read so many novels and novellas and short stories that you’re kind of all fictioned out and need a change? That happened to me recently, and I suddenly had the massive urge to read some kind of non-fiction. It’s a genre I do love, from history to philosophy to essays to biography to travel writing, and it’s not as if I don’t have many unread choices on Mount TBR to select from… In the end I turned to Stefan Zweig; I had thought of him recently when Pushkin were promoting his titles and I spent some time tracking down a copy of his “Montaigne”. So I plumped for a slim collection of his writings about his travels, “Journeys” – and it definitely turned out to be the right book at the right time!

My edition of the book has been lurking for a number of years, and is a lovely Hesperus edition from 2011. Translated by Will Stone (who I’ve encountered on the blog before – I do love his translations!), “Journeys” collects together a number of pieces by Zweig on a variety of European destinations he visited, presented in chronological order from 1902 to 1940. Stefan Zweig was of course a peripatetic man, constantly on the move either from temperament or external pressure. As a Jewish man from Austria, the period in which he was living of course necessitated constant relocation, until his final journey to Brazil where he took refuge from the Nazi scourge in Europe. Alas, his stay there was not for long…

Stations and ports, these are my passion. Four hours I can stand there awaiting a fresh wave of travellers and goods noisily crashing in to cover the preceding one; I love the signs, those mysterious messages that reveal hour and journey, the shouts and sounds dull yet varied that establish themselves in an evocative ensemble of noise. Each station is different, each distils another distant land; every port, every ship brings a different cargo. They are the universe for our cities, the diversity in our daily life.

Whether visiting Ostend and Bruges, meditating on Hyde Park, spring in Seville or a food fair in Dijon, Zweig simply writes beautifully. He brings alive the location, considers the architecture and the history of the place, and records his impressions with an experienced traveller’s eye. His early journeys were at a time when the concept of tourism was in its infancy, and he could move from place to place on his own, spend quiet time assimilating his impressions and explore a town or city or area in peace. That, of course, would change…

In truth, Zweig’s writings always had a somewhat elegiac tone which I guess perhaps represented his temperament. However, inevitably this tone changes as the book goes on. There is the First World War and its aftermath; and Zweig visits many places affected by the conflict and decries the effect of war. In fact, his piece from 1928, “Ypres”, is one of the most powerful things I’ve read by Zweig (and I *have* read a number) as he revisits a place he knew before the conflict to see how it is now, and whether there has been reconstruction.

Not a shop exists where they don’t profit from the dead. They even offer curios made from shell splinters (perhaps those very same shells tore out the entrails of a human being), charming souvenirs of the battlefield…

In fact, this particular piece leads on to another issue in a changing Europe, that of the increase in mass tourism, the threat this poses to the places visited, and the modernisation taking place to enable this. Zweig is unhappy about coachloads of tourists turning up, being force-fed a tour of some place of historical significance, buying a souvenir and ticking the visit off their list. This is particularly pointed in somewhere like Ypres, where he titles one section “Jamboree upon the Dead” and I am completely in sympathy with his view; turning a place of massacre into a tourist attraction seems wrong, and this  resonated with the horror I’ve felt when seeing people posting selfies of themselves laughing and posing at Auschwitz. We can’t spend our life wringing our hands over past horrors, but we can remember and respect those who suffered and certainly we shouldn’t be trivialising these places and those victims.

Young Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

But there are lighter moments; his lovely essay of how the British cope during wartime by gardening is a delight. Then there is a piece on the Jewish Shelter in London, a haven for refugees, which is very moving. “To travel or be travelled” attacks the package tour head-on; acknowledging that although journeying on your own involves more planning and risk than having someone else whisk you from place to place on a coach, the rewards are worth it. Only by travelling on your own do you really stand a chance of getting to know a town or city, spending time exploring and perhaps having one of those chance pieces of seredipity when you stumble upon something unknown or unexpected.

Each morning the paper barks in your face wars, murders and crimes, the madness of politics clutters our senses, but the good that happens quietly unnoticed, of that we are scarcely aware.

Stefan Zweig started writing and travelling when it was easy to move around Europe from country to country. He saw that freedom eroded and eventually had to flee the continent to a kind of life which became unacceptable to him. I fear we’re actually regressing into those times again, having had the luxury of free movement for so many years; and it’s chilling to read Zweig state: “Is it the premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breath quickly, while you still can, a little of the world’s air?” His writing is always elegant and beautiful (and as you can see from the amount of post-its, I could have quoted half the book); these pieces are evocative and atmospheric; and the more I read of Stefan Zweig, the less I can understand why his books were neglected for so many years. “Journeys” was a moving and transporting read, and if you’ve never read Zweig you could do no worse than to start here!


I wanted to say a little bit about this edition of the book, because it has so many lovely elements to it. As I said, the translation is by the poet, Will Stone, and as well as rendering the pieces in English he also provides an erudite introduction. There are useful notes and a little biography of Zweig, and most delightfully a selection of Stone’s own photographs of some of the places Zweig writes about. This was an element Stone added to the excellent “Rilke in Paris” and it’s a wonderful idea, helping to bring alive the places the author visited. As I mentioned, my edition is a Hesperus Press one, but “Journeys” is currently in print from Pushkin Press, so I imagine it will also have the extra material as it *is* the Will Stone translation. Definitely most highly recommended…

An unexpected tale from Stefan Zweig



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.

Zweig with Lotte and neice Eva in Bath - 1940

Zweig with Lotte and niece Eva in Bath – 1940

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!

Evoking a Lost Europe – Part 2


Messages from a Lost World by Stefan Zweig

To accompany their rather lovely edition of “Summer Before the Dark” (which I reviewed here), Pushkin Press have brought out a collection of Stefan Zweig’s essays. Subtitled “Europe on the Brink” they touch upon one of Zweig’s lasting obsessions (and in fact the one that would probably bring about his death) – the loss of the Europe of the mind, the civilised world of arts and culture which he saw being buried by barbarism.


In fact, Zweig witnessed this twice: firstly, with the First World War, which was cataclysmic but in some ways less apocalyptic; and with the lead up to WW2, where he saw culture being trampled under the Nazi boot. He came out of the first conflict desperate to see civilization rebuilt and the birth of a truly united Europe; however, the rise of Nazism was to put a stop to this dream.

I have to confess that up until now I’d only read Zweig’s fiction. However, as translator Will Stone points out, the majority of Zweig’s work is actually in essay form, so it’s about time these started to appear in English too! Stone has already translated a collection of Zweig’s travel writings, “Journeys” (Hesperus Press) and here he also provides an erudite and invigorating introduction which throws much light on Zweig’s eventual fate in Petropolis in 1942.

The pieces in “Messages” have been collected together for their commonality, sharing the running theme of the need for humanity to get past the divisive effects of the Tower of Babel (an image he uses repeatedly) and work together. Zweig had a vision of Europe as a cultural and spiritual whole, taking the Vienna he loved and recalled as its model, and the essays are a clarion call for peace and unity. Far ahead of his time, he envisaged a union of European countries where there were no borders and people from all nations could mix freely and exchange ideas, in a celebration of European culture and its possibilities.

And it’s culture that is the watchword here; for Zweig was not interested in the economic unit we’ve become nowadays, but in the union of the mind. Pre-WW1 Vienna was his image of perfection, a cultural state he lauds at several points during the book, and he hearkens back to this age repeatedly. His essays are informed by his yearning for this lost Europe and his great wish for it to be reborn.


The cynical amongst you might wonder what relevance this can possibly have nowadays, but in a world where civilisations are crumbling, intolerance is once more on the rise and culture is under threat, Zweig’s plea for us to understand one another is remarkably timely. Europe itself is struggling with all kinds of crises which are exacerbated by suspicion and mistrust, and it is only if humans can get past this that we’ll progress.

There is no longer any pacifist organisation to speak of and barely any will to form one. Even the artists and intellectuals are weary of signing manifestos, for they know well enough how absurd it is to wave a scrap of paper at an onrushing locomotive.

The presentation of the essays in chronological order makes for a fascinating read, as we watch the evolution of Zweig’s thought, his gradually diminishing hope for a successful future for Europe and his poignant evocation of the Vienna he recalls. Despair finally gripped the author in South America, when the resolution of the War looked hopeless and he could see no future for himself in the world that would follow.

“Messages” is an essential and timely book from Pushkin; a reminder of what a wonderfully talented and varied writer Stefan Zweig was, and also an opportune look at how the hopes and dreams of the past have not come to fruition. Zweig was a humane and thoughtful writer and thank goodness his work is now back in favour!

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy)

Evoking a Lost Europe – Part 1


Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann

There are many things we have to thank Pushkin Press for (Gaito Gazdanov, Teffi, gorgeously produced books, to name just a few); but one of their major achievements is their part in the rediscovery and championing of Stefan Zweig, making available so many of his works in English.

Zweig probably needs very little introduction here as I’ve written about him before; his writings, once so popular, slipped into decline but have now come back into vogue, and there is a large selection available from Pushkin. He’s often bracketed with Joseph Roth, a slightly younger author from the same era (and whom I’ve also covered) and so when I saw that Pushkin were bringing out a beautiful-looking volume dealing with their ‘last summer’ in 1936 at Ostend, it was a must!


This lovely little hardback (and the cover image is gorgeous) tells the stories of not only Zweig and Roth, but also their friends and colleagues in exile; from Egon Erwin Kisch and Herman Kesten to Romain Rolland and Arthur Koestler, as well as several others, some of whom I’d heard of and others who were new to me. The book also loops back to the past to cover Emile Verhaeren, Zweig’s early inspiration, and his second-wife-to-be Lotte is prominent in the narrative.

“Summer” is initially a difficult work to categorise as in some ways it almost reads like fiction. At first, the writing seems a little simplistic, but as the book progresses you find yourself gradually being drawn into the world of Zweig, Roth and co. The atmosphere of the times is brilliantly brought to life, and I found as I read on that I was visualising the seaside setting, the little cafes, the group of emigres eating, drinking, arguing and loving. Zweig and Roth really come alive as characters of course, but their friends are also brilliantly portrayed. Weidermann really captures the petty rivalries, the loves, the despair and the desperation that consume them.

… The more I thought about it, the more I realised that our spiritual world is made up of millions of atoms of single impressions, whose minimum number stems solely from what we see and what we experience – while everything else, the existential interwoven world, we owe to books, to what is read, transmitted, learned.

Central to the book is the relationship between Roth and Irmgard Keun (whom I’ve written about before). Their short, intense affair was pretty much the last love of Roth’s life, although the much younger Keun went on to have a long and fascinating existence, managing somehow to survive the war living in Germany.

circa 1940: Stefan Zweig (1881 - 1942) the writer, poet and translator of Ben Johnson. He was born in Austria but became a British citizen in 1940. He died by his own hand. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What’s fascinating is seeing how the emigres completely understand the threat of Germany and Nazism; the pain of having to leave their homeland or lose their lives is palpable, and it’s quite incredible looking back to realise that large sections of the world just ignored the rise of Hitler and his cronies, despite their despicable behaviour throughout the 1930s.

At one point, the author describes a photo of Zweig and Roth which was taken at the time by Keun, going into detail about the pose and what it says about the two writers, making you long to see it. It turns out to be a kicker of an image which appears on the last page and really hits you in the gut. The two men were obviously very different in background and temperament, and it shows, but they still managed to retain a connection and a fragile friendship based on their intellectual lives.


Weidermann quotes a variety of sources at points through the book, from letters and biographies, and it’s clear he’s done much research to enable him to paint such a wonderful, impressionistic picture of this exotic group of people. I was mildly puzzled, therefore, by the lack of any notes or references at the end of the book; it’s the kind of thing I would have expected, to enable me to go on and explore further if nothing else, but there are none at all, meaning that the reader does have to trust Weidermann’s interpretations and accuracy.

However, this is a minor quibble, and what the book gives is a rich, moving and entertaining portrait of a wonderful group of artists in transit. At the end, we find out the eventual fate of each character, and in most cases it’s not pretty. It’s all to easy to forget how hopeless things must have seemed at some points during the conflict, and how it appeared that civilisation was going to hell in a handcart.

Alas, the world that was theirs has gone; Ostend apparently looks completely different, and I doubt any of the group of emigres would be happy with the direction we have gone in since. But this book takes you back to 1936 and lets you live through the times of Zweig, Roth and their friends alongside them. Another winner from Pushkin!

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for very kindly providing a review copy)

Shuffling the immediate TBR


Actually, calling it a TBR is a bit of a misnomer – I have no *physical* TBR in that all of my books are muddled together, read or unread. This is not always helpful when trying to decide what to read, or indeed find a specific book… A case in point being “Point Counter Point” by Aldous Huxley which I knew I had and couldn’t find till yesterday when I realised I had moved my Japanese books to the front of a double stacked shelf and some unread books (including the Huxley) to the back of the same shelf, out of sight….

This set me looking at the shelves downstairs where I keep kind of current books and I had a bit of a revamp. I’m *supposedly* in the middle of two self-imposed reading challenges (Proust and The Forsyte Saga) but I’ve come to a grinding halt, so I brought them downstairs. I took a lot of books away to stash in a spare room and now the current shelves look like this:

revised tbr

Note the Galsworthys and the Prousts displayed prominently! Next to the Galsworthys on the top right hand side is a little pile of poetry books. I need to read more poetry but I’m failing, basically. I’m considering setting myself another little challenge with verse (will I never learn?) If I go ahead, an explanatory post will follow…. Meanwhile, I shall try to decide which one of these books I’ll read next!

Alas, no donations to the charity shop this weekend (life got in the way of more weeding out) – but I did find two little treasures in the Samaritans Book Cave:

zweig x 2

Two lovely Pushkin Press collections of Stefan Zweig short stories – *who* would want to give these away?? Nevertheless, they did and so they came home with me. I’ve read one story from each so far, and they’re utterly brilliant.  Zweig’s a deceptive author – what seems simple ends up packing such a punch. I’m going to ration them so as to appreciate them better by reading one when the mood takes me. But in the meantime – off to rummage in the TBR! 🙂

The Joy of Library Sales! (and of course charity shops…)


It’s been an odd sort of week at the Ramblings – mostly because I chose to spend the bulk of the half-term break being ill with some kind of flu-like virus. I was not amused, but at least I seem to be coming out of it – just in time to return to work!

I also got a *lot* of reading done before the illness really kicked in (reviews to folllow) and then hit a slump, which I am only just coming out of – I didn’t much like it when I was in it, though. And it was also a week in which no new books arrived – until today, that is…

I felt well enough to pop into town and return a library book; only to find that the library were having a little book sale. This is often an excuse for wild abandon and mass book buying, but I *was* restrained, picking up just two:

beauvoir zweig

I was most chuffed with the Stefan Zweig – I already have Buchmendel, but not the other story, and having been bowled over by “The Grand Budapest Hotel” recently, I feel ready to read more Zweig. I already own the Beauvoir, but this copy comes with extra material at the end. And it was 50p for two books, so there you go!

As for the charity shops, I wasn’t intending to visit them today, but I slipped into the British Heart Foundation as last week they’d been moving their bookshelves around and so I couldn’t browse. The newly tidied shelves had one volume that caught my eye:

mystery in white

This particular volume of the British Library Crime Classics has been highly rated by many bloggers I respect, so I was happy to part with my £2 for a copy in brilliant condition!

And last, but definitely not least, I thought I’d show my face in the Samaritans Book Cave – a place where I could happy pick up umpteen books – and came away with two wonderful Virago titles:

miniver robertson

I was particularly pleased with these because they’re original green covers and they’re in fabulous condition – the Samaritans peeps opined that they looked unread, and I’d agree; they’re just a little tanned on the pages with age, but the covers are lovely. The peeps were saying they hadn’t had many Viragos in lately (they know of my love of them!) and so it was an extra delight to find these. I’ve actually read “Mrs Miniver” in a modern cover version, so it was nice to get a green. And I own a different E. Arnot Robertson (an author who strongly divides Virago readers!) so was a great find.

So the week ends well, with some lovely new acquisitions to make up for a dullish, illish few days – off to do some reading! 🙂

Recent Reads – Chess by Stefan Zweig


It’s odd how I keep finding myself drawn back to Stefan Zweig’s short fictions. I’ve read several now (and I still have the rest of the “Selected Stories” volume to read through). “Chess” seems to be one of his best-known fictions, and my copy is translated by the excellent Anthea Bell and published by Penguin. I picked it up a year or so ago, but I needed something slim and easy to read, and “Chess” jumped out of the shelves at me!

Easy to read it may be – like all the Zweigs I’ve read so far – but that’s not to say it doesn’t punch above its weight. “Chess” takes place on board a cruise ship heading from New York to Buenos Aires, during the Second World War; already a setting guaranteed to indicate much of the background to the tale. The narrator learns that the world chess champion is on board, and when he tells a (wealthy) fellow passenger, McConnor, the latter challenges him to a match. The champion is a strange concoction – an unintelligent country boy made good, who can’t visualise a chess match in his head like most Grand Masters, but who can always win and will play anyone for money – even McConnor together with the crowd surrounding him. The champion wins the first game and is challenged to a rematch. And here things change – at a crucial point, a voice from the watching crowd takes over, giving urgent instructions that actually cause the champion to lose…


The narrator is intrigued and tracks down the voice in the crowd, who turns out to be a fellow Austrian with quite a tale to tell. More than this I won’t say for fear of spoiling things; but what I will say is that this novella convinces me even more of Zweig’s genius. Again, this story counters the accusations that he was simply a light-weight, telling tales of the old regime. Here, he is dealing with modern concerns and modern issues but in his own way (much as he did in the story “Buchmendel” which I reviewed here). Zweig tackles a big theme (and what could have been bigger in his lifetime than the rise of Nazism?) but because he does this on a small, personal scale it’s all the more chillingly effective. And we see how the effects of extreme human actions linger, under the surface, to be brought back to life when the right trigger is pressed; man’s behaviour towards man can be devastating and long-lasting.

When is a novella a novella, and a short story a short story? I don’t know if there’s an actual dividing line and I don’t know if it actually matters. All I need to say about “Chess” is that it’s 76 pages of pure genius: clever, tragic, perfectly written, evocative and evidence that Zweig is a writer of real substance. If you haven’t read any of his work yet, you could do no better than to start with “Chess”.

Stefan Zweig: More thoughts plus “Buchmendel”


There was a bit of a furore over on the LibraryThing NYRB group recently on the subject of Stefan Zweig. I follow the group because I like a lot of the books NYRB publish, and I was interested in the thread because I’ve read a few Zweigs and in many ways feel I haven’t quite got a handle on him yet. The views on LT were quite polarised, with some writers loving his work and some trashing him. One commenter linked to a piece from the London Review of Books several years ago, a really venomous article that absolutely laid into Zweig – pilloried him as a writer and a person, which seemed a little out of proportion to me (and frankly, in places it was really distasteful and disrespectful). Certainly, the Zweigs I’ve read are very personal, inward looking stories, but that doesn’t seem reason enough to condemn him.

Digging about on the net, I came to another piece in the Guardian which again questioned his reputation. The feeling seems to be that he wrote trivial, superficial tales, refusing to engage with the changes in the world around him, the collapse of his empire and the bigger issues. However, one commenter on the Guardian, Will Stone (I assume maybe the translator of “Rilke in Paris, which I reviewed here) sprang to Zweig’s defence and mentioned the short story “Buchmendel” as an example of Zweig’s art. I was intrigued enough to search this out, as I felt much of the criticism was unjustified.

“Buchmendel” appears in an old volume from Pushkin Press of Zweig’s “Selected Stories”, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. As it opens, a writer takes shelter from the rain in a bar. Sitting waiting for the storm to pass, a hint of memory flashes into his consciousness – he knows the bar somehow, has been there before, and as he struggles to regain the past and walks round the room, his memory suddenly comes back. Before the First World War, he used to visit the same bar, when he was a student; and he starts to recall the most striking personality in the bar, Jakob Mendel, who was in effect a walking library. On any subject, his prodigious brain could recall the books to read, and he could find rarities for students and scholars. His celebrity was such that he was allowed to stay in the bar at all times, sending out for meals, while people came to consult him. But now the war is over, the world has changed and the bar is in different hands. How can the narrator find out what happened to Mendel? Luckily, there is still one old staff member at the bar who can tell him…


Well, Will Stone was right. This story is a powerful argument in favour of Zweig’s talents as a writer, and a strong refutation of the accusation of his lack of engagement with the real world. The narrator is emotional about  the changes that have taken place in his world, saddened at the fate of Mendel, regretful of the missing past. But this is no overwrought and highly coloured tale of love and loss; instead it is the story of an intelligent but blinkered man overtaken and crushed by events. Zweig engages with the brutality of the real world, the stupidity of those in uniform and authority, and the increasing intolerance of modern society towards those who do not fit in. Mendel lives in a world of his own, of books and learning, and is totally unsuited to deal with the closed, narrow minds of the military. The end is inevitable and moving, and I empathised with Zweig’s narrator in his elegiac recalling of a lost world. And the writing is superb, particularly at the start when the narrator is suddenly assailed by a sense of deja vu, trying to dredge for lost memories, for a past he has put out of mind.

I’m so glad Stone’s comment pointed me to “Buchmendel”; the criticisms of the naysayers have gone down in my estimation and Zweig has gone up. His talent as a writer is enormous, to be able to pack such emotional punch into one short story, and comment on civilization versus brutality. There is room for all kinds of literature in the world, and you don’t have to write a huge political novel, railing at the world, to make a point. Like Zweig, you can work on a smaller canvas, but with skill like his the effect can be just as devastating. I shall *definitely* be reading more Zweig.

Recent Reads: Confusion by Stefan Zweig



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.

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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