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.