Saturday, 27 April 2013
Letter From An Unknown Woman and Other Stories (translated from the German by Anthea Bell) by Stefan Zweig, Pushkin Press
Far be it from me - an interested but total amateur on classic European literature - to consider himself qualified to sum-up the virtues, or otherwise, of this greatly renowned, if rarely read, author.
All I know is, by the end of the fourth and final tale, I was smiling; not one, however, of ribald humour; not when that final tale's last line describes one fading with that of the protagonist's dreams.
I've long harboured a belief that what makes an uncanny tale truly successful is the ease with which its author holds back, or even disguises, the likely motive behind enfolding events. So that, by the end, one feels a rising awareness that we've read only the afterglow of a larger back-story and that there was rather more to say. If, after challenging our expectation, that author has rung real emotion from the reader by never cynically descending to overt romanticism or false pathos, they are one of an elite.
The title story concerns 'a famous novelist' and the sole multi-page letter he receives from a woman he claims to know nothing about. She, however, claims him as a former lover who left her with child, accusing him of never acknowledging her existence through subsequent meetings she 'knows' has taken place and the love for him she must continue to feel. Is her loyalty justified? Is she madly obsessed? Or is he a truly a bed-hopping shit? By the end our former allegiance will be challenged. 'A Story Told in Twilight' describes a nostalgic reverie about a spoiled pubescent youth, the mistaken identity over a ghostly lover, and the fate this missed opportunity for love in one so young delivered.
'The Debt Paid Late' is the one tale lacking the usual half-glimpsed truths, rolling out a more open, conventional plot. There is, again, a girlhood obsession, but one unexpectedly and satisfyingly returned during a much-needed break in a mountain-side rural inn. Perhaps the least fascinating of the tales, still it communicates an authenticity and warmth that equally draws you in. The male visitor to a former love in 'Forgotten Dreams,' the shortest tale, might be Zweig himself. At its centre resides a discussion on youthful idealism; how one lover's view can seemingly, gradually, run counter to that once presumed mutually held so causing ultimate estrangement. It is testament to Zweig's genius how such a convincing encounter can run to a mere eight pages.
'Letter...' is the most recent re-issue of the Zweig ouevre, with the collected tales mouth-wateringly awaiting hardback release at a modest price later this year.
Sunday, 14 April 2013
First published in hardback in 2005, this boldly-titled collection is now re-released with detailed illustrations by the author himself.
The prose throughout reads as conventional first-person reportage, Oliver's (MR) James-ian knowledge reflected in several ecclesiastical settings. What elevates it above most such referential nods are the ironic, post-colon reflections of cynical wit informing how seriously - or otherwise - a tale should be taken.
For a single collection, this is quite a hefty tome; sixteen tales running to 338 pages. Oliver's fascination with all aspects of English history are here; from present-day researching of late 17th century correspondence ('The Sermons of Doctor Hodnet') to that of a contemporary play-script ('The Constant Rake') to an 'am dram' company in an indeterminate period post-War. ('The Skins').
The title tale concerns the narrator claiming to have found a CD box-set bearing this name in a Magnum record store, its possibly credible contents, and the ubiquitous figure subsequently stalking him, who'll go to suicidal lengths to get it returned. The tale is surreal and quietly mad, to say the least, positing questions it has no intentions of answering.
The narrative voice is akin to wry, articulate bar-room anecdotage. Occasionally, its very matter-of-factness can - where a climactic murder takes place - rob a tale of rising tension. Where it occurs out-of-the-blue, it's with little pre-emptive build that something extraordinary is about to occur. 'A Nightmare Sang' - a black comedy-horror reminiscent of an installment from those overwrought budget filmed anthologies of the 60s' and 70s' - suffers this, and is, consequently, the least successful entry.
Oliver's strength are those tales in which such killings do not play out. On the ending that is simply downbeat he is very good. 'The Skins,' 'Difficult People' and 'The Babe of the Abyss' each culminate in a sombre twist, which satisfyingly belies expectation.
The best tales in this regard are hard to fault and deserving of future anthology. 'The Garden of Strangers' features the aged reflection of a once ambitious American journalist in the Paris of 1900, arrived to interview the ailing Oscar Wilde. It is one of two meditations on the nature of suicide ('A Christmas Card' being the second) and, perhaps, the most life-affirming as Oliver's Wilde recalls the spirit-visitants he encountered whose respective fate helped inform his own decision.
'Difficult People' is set in the late Sixties, appearing as a comment on the period and the shallowness of a generation who, through their own belief-system, could so easily be led to a self-destructive fate. Disguising this is a tale of possession by a work of art with a life of its own.
The Aickman-esque 'Bloody Bill' works superbly as each anecdote presented harbours a mystery that demands, but barely obtains, resolution. William Hexham - a former Eton housemaster and the 'Bill' of the title - is painted by the younger fellows as a figure to be feared, even hated, for his once physical prowess and quick, overbearing temper. But is he the man he once was? Has age withered him? Oliver is cunning in never actually showing what formed this reputation, suggesting Hexham is something other, while intimating what he truly is may be merely dormant - or a harboured sadness of non-achievement. But the real achievement is in Oliver making us - the reader - fear him.
The broad sweep of English social history alone, displayed here, should galvanise those new to this author into seeking out his other collections.