I am having trouble getting started with my reading for GLM VI, what with prior reading commitments, work and general weariness/laziness. But in order to get things going I thought I’d re-read a story by Stefan Zweig that I read earlier in the year and one which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was one of my favourites in the Pushkin Press collection, Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. It was originally published in 1925 as Die unsichtbare Sammlung. Please be warned though that this review contains spoilers. I also reviewed another short story from the collection called Mendel the Bibliophile.
The main story involves an antique dealer who tells the narrator the troubles he’s been having recently—the story was written in 1925 and is presumably during the period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. He mentions that in order to stimulate trade he’d fallen back on lists of old customers. He was just returning from one such customer, an octogenarian, whom his firm hadn’t heard from since the outbreak of World War One even though he had been a regular customer for the previous fifty years or so. The antique dealer reckoned that it would be worth paying the gentleman a visit as either the old man or his heirs may be willing to sell some of his pieces. He discovers that the old man is still alive and as he has few visitors he is happy to talk to the antique dealer. Upon meeting the old man the dealer realises that he is now blind, which slightly unnerves him. The old man is not stupid and realises that the dealer is there to try to drum up business from his old customers but they nonetheless get on well together and the old man looks forward to showing the dealer his collection and talking to someone who knows the subject. But just when the old man calls for the key to his collection of artworks and engravings his wife attempts to put him off until after lunch when his daughter, Annemarie, can be present. The old man accepts grudgingly.
When the dealer has finished his lunch at the hotel he is visited by the daughter, Annemarie. She is flustered and explains that her father’s collection is not complete anymore as several items have been sold due to hard times. She tells the dealer how they attempted to get by without touching the collection but in the end they had to, without, of course, her father knowing. Every day he would ‘look’ through his collection not realising that most of it had been sold and replaced with cheap reprints. The daughter pleads with the dealer to play along and not to enlighten the old man.
“Maybe we have done him an injustice, but we couldn’t help it. One must live, and human lives, the lives of four orphaned children as well as my sister, are surely worth more than sheets of printed paper. To this day, what we did hasn’t taken any of his pleasure from him; he is happy to be able to leaf through his portfolios for three hours every afternoon, talking to every print as if it were a human being. And today…today would perhaps be the happiest day of his life; he’s been waiting years for a chance to show a connoisseur his darlings. Please…I beg and pray you, please don’t destroy his happiness!”
So of course the dealer agrees to keep the secret and returns with her to her parents’ apartment. The old man begins to lovingly show his Dürer prints and Rembrandt sketches to the dealer, gazing at them and touching them, caressing them as he describes them in detail and how he acquired them, not realising that they were cheap copies. Although at first disconcerted, the dealer begins to play his part of the enthusiastic art lover and exclaim when each piece was presented.
And so that headlong, eloquent recital of his triumphs went on for another good two hours. I can’t say how eerie it was to join him in looking at a hundred, maybe two hundred blank sheets of paper of poor reproductions, but in the memory of this man, who was tragically unaware of their absence, the prints were so incredibly real that he could describe and praise every one of them unerringly, in precise detail, just as he remembered the order of them: the invisible collection that in reality must now be dispersed to all four corners of the earth was still genuinely present to the blind man, so touchingly deceived, and his passion for what he saw was so overwhelming that even I almost began to believe it.
The old man is so pleased with showing his treasures to someone who knows their true worth that he doesn’t want it to end. Reluctantly he accepts that the dealer must leave to catch his train. The women look towards the dealer with gratitude that he has made the old man happy with his complicity. The dealer feels a little ashamed that he was being thanked when his original intentions had been to try to obtain a few good items to sell.
And I felt—I can’t put it any other way—I felt a sense of reverence, although I was still ashamed of myself, without really knowing why.
This is a beautifully simple story. I’m sure that most of us have been praised for something that has turned out well but where our original intentions weren’t so benevolent. Zweig’s clear, simple style is a joy to read; it reminds me of writers like Chekhov but also of Ingmar Bergman’s style of telling a story, at least his earlier works anyway, where there is no clutter, no side stories or tricks, just keep the story simple and keep to the point. Everyone should try Stefan Zweig at some point—I’m glad I have.