Category Archives: Zweig, Stefan

‘The Invisible Collection’ by Stefan Zweig

german-literature-month-viI 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 Zweig-Collected-Storiesfrom 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.

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‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ by Stefan Zweig

Zweig-Collected-StoriesI 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.

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Bits and Pieces from July & August

Apart from the Clochemerle book & TV Series I haven’t posted much lately, but I have been reading, believe me. I had a couple of weeks off from work and decided to read the Pushkin Press Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. I’d been meaning to read some stories by Zweig for ages, Zweig-Collected-Storieshaving only previously read A Chess Story and his book on Casanova, and I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them. I was surprised with the range of the story settings as I was expecting them to be mostly set in contemporary Austria; instead a couple are set during the Middle Ages, one is in suburban England, others in South America etc. But I shouldn’t have been too surprised as I was well aware that Zweig had travelled around the world, especially when he fled Nazi Germany. After reading each story I had intended to post a review but instead I felt compelled to read the next story until I’d finished and I realised that I hadn’t posted on any, and now as time slips away it’s increasingly unlikely I will; although I may have a re-read of one or two stories.

At times Zweig was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, Amok for example, started well but by the end of it I was a little bored; it felt too forced and a bit like a 1940s B-movie script. Did He Do It? was a bit too much like a whodunnit for me, but it was perfectly readable; the others were great. Some, like Mendel the Bibliophile were basically just character studies and others, such as In the Snow and Incident on Lake Geneva are short, compelling, tales of extreme incidents. Although the stories span four decades and the subject matter varies widely, Zweig’s style remained consistent across the stories; it’s clean, modern, no-nonsense and Zweig wastes no time before getting on with telling the story. There are so many brilliant stories in this collection that I shall now look forward to reading the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig and others.

I have continued my reading of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time; I have just finished the eighth volume, The Soldier’s Art which is the second volume set during WWII. It’s difficult to blog on this series as the books follow the same set of main characters as we progress through the Powell_Dance-03twentieth century. Any comments on the characters would potentially spoil the book for anyone intending to read it and would require a lot of background explanation to comprehend. Apart from a slight dip here and there, I have found Powell’s stories of the characters compelling. There’s very little plot, as such, instead we get a lot of dinner parties, chats in the street or work, where we find out more about the characters. We discover the events in the characters’ lives as they are revealed to Nick Jenkins and as such we only get to find out bits and pieces of what’s happened since we last met them. I can’t wait for the next volume, The Military Philosophers.

One of my intentions this year was to read more non-fiction and with summer upon us I decided to read another book on the Black Death, called The Great Mortality by John Kelly—why should summer reading be light? Last year I read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler and wondered whether this book would add much to my knowledge of this event. Kelly took a Kelly Great Mortalitymore European-wide view than Ziegler, who concentrated mostly on Britain, and Kelly went into more detail at the beginning on the ways that the plague bacillus, Y. pestis, is spread and the differences between bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic plague. What seems apparent from reading these books is that it is still unknown why the Black Death of the 1340s was as virulent as it was and how it spread so quickly. Mortality rates during the Black Death were between 30 and 60 per cent, whereas during the Third Pandemic of the 1890s there was only a mortality rate of 3 per cent. Some researchers believe that the Black Death was not due to Y.pestis but a different disease; Kelly tries to refute that claim in the last chapter.

The Russian Revolution is another topic I have been meaning to read up on for quite a while, having read nothing on the topic since my schooldays. I was looking for something a bit substantial, but readable, and came across Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. It’s a huge book and as the title suggests Figes goesFiges A People's Tragedy back to 1891 to begin the story. I am only part way through the second part (of four) so far but I’m finding it a fascinating read. Tsarist Russia was an astonishingly brutal place for the vast majority of the population. The peasants were at times brutalised by the gentry as well as by each other and other times their lives were romanticised by city dwellers. As Nicholas II’s reign progressed an increasing number of people moved to the cities as rural life became more unbearable; but there was still this sense of ‘Two Russias’ as explained by Figes:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

I’m currently reading about the period following the 1905 revolution and we really get the feeling that positions are hardening on both sides and that another revolution is inevitable. It does make one wonder how different the world may have been if Nicholas had made sensible reforms at the beginning of his reign. I’ll read on…

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