I recently read The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig and although I enjoyed the collection I didn’t get round to posting about any of them, even though I wanted to post about every one. One of my favourites was Mendel the Bibliophile (originally published as Buchmendel in 1929), which is really ‘just’ a thirty-page character study of the extremely bookish Mendel.
The story begins with the narrator describing a return to Vienna after being absent for several years; it is raining heavily and he dives into a café, he soon settles down and falls into a state of lethargy as he waits for the rain to stop. He begins to have the feeling that he’s been there before but doesn’t recognise anything in particular.
But suddenly, and in a curious way, I was brought out of my drowsy state as a vague impulse began to stir within me. It was like the beginning of a slight toothache, when you don’t know yet if it is on the right or the left, if it is starting in the upper or the lower jaw; there was just a certain tension, a mental uneasiness. For all at once—I couldn’t have said how—I was aware that I must have been here once before, years ago, and that a memory of some kind was connected with these walls, these chairs, these tables, this smoky room, apparently strange to me.
It is annoying for the narrator not to be able to remember the place and he racks his brain to try to discover the connection with his past. When he walks around the café it dawns on him where he is; it’s the Café Gluck and the table in the corner is where Jakob Mendel, the bibliophile, used to sit.
I saw him at once as he had been, always sitting at that rectangular table, its dingy grey marble top heaped high at all times with books and other writings. I saw the way he persistently sat there, imperturbable, his eyes behind his glasses hypnotically fixed on a book, humming and muttering as he read, rocking his body and his inadequately polished, freckled bald patch back and forth, a habit acquired in the cheder, his Jewish primary school in eastern Europe.
Mendel was largely oblivious to his surroundings as he read his books and it was often difficult to attract his attention as the narrator discovered when he was introduced to Mendel one time when he was trying to find some books on Mesmer. Mendel had an incredible memory for books and was able to find any that were required; he could remember all the publisher details, where and when it was published, the different editions and so on. During this period, before WWI, he used the café as his office for trading in books; he was accepted and looked after by the owner and the employees of the café.
So, the narrator starts to wonder what happened to Mendel. No one seems to even remember who he was until the narrator asks Frau Sporschil, the ‘toilet lady’, who reveals that he died seven years ago and explains to the narrator what happened to him. With the onset of WWI, which Mendel seemed not to notice, he attracted the attention of the police who were shocked to discover that he was a Russian citizen who was unknown them. Things take a downward turn, but I won’t reveal any more of what happens so not to spoil things for potential readers of this story. There is no real plot to the story, instead we find out more about Mendel from Sporschil and the narrator discovers just how unwordly Mendel was. The narrator and Sporschil form a temporary, but compassionate, bond as they discuss the tribulations of Mendel and it is this as well as the remembrance of Mendel that makes the story heartwarming.
And yet we understood one another wonderfully well as we sat at his old table, now abandoned, in the company of the shades we had conjured up between us, for memory is always a bond, and ever loving memory is a bond twice over.