Carefulness and obscurity in fiction

I've been reading Stefan Zweig's memoir The World of Yesterday. Zweig is a writer from the inter-war period whose literary reputation has really gone up in the last ten years. I remember 5-10 years ago reading this article that was like, "Hey, there's this dude out there, Stefan Zweig. He wrote this story, 'The Royal Game,' that's a metaphor for the conflict between nations that led to World War II." And that was it. His reputation was confined largely to that one story. He was a curio piece.

Now, thanks to the translation and reissuing of his novels and, lately, of this memoir, he's roared back to life. Thanks must be given here, as with many literary resuscitations, to the NYRB classics imprint. I read two of Zweig's novels, Beware of Pity and the Post-Office Girl in NYRB editions. His memoir, however, was put out by the University of Nebraska Press! It's almost unbelievable, considering that it has hundreds of Amazon reviews and has attracted quite a bit of critical acclaim.

Like Nabokov's Speak, Memory (which I've never read), Zweig's novel is an evocation of a lost world: the Vienna of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a particularly fertile period for fiction. Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth's Radetzky March were also written during this time, as well as a host of lesser books that may or may not also be making a comeback (of the authors Zweig mentions in his book, I've read works by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Arthur Schnitzler as well, and Schnitzler at least deserves to be more widely known).

As with all memoirs of bygone times, it's hard to know what is real and what isn't. Zweig describes a time of literary ferment, when everybody cared deeply for culture and art, when theater actors were mobbed on the street, when the conductor of the Opera or the Symphony was a superstar, and when 18 year old kids looked upon poets and authors almost as divine beings, completely separate from you and me.

I don't entirely disbelieve this account. I've only been to Vienna once, but it struck me that even today, it's a city that prides itself on being cultured. Even the commercials that showed on television had a very dreamy, artistic quality, and I have a vivid recollection of wandering through a public park as an aria from the Marriage of Figaro was pumped through the square by loudspeakers.

But even within this ferment, Zweig sought out a somewhat niche area. He avoided the popular press, he avoided the big imprints that sometimes published lighter fiction, and he exclusively sought out only the most renowned presses, theaters, and publications. As a result, his work, those of his fellows, and those of his idols, was often very unknown during the time in which he worked. He in particular recalls during his time in Paris that the writers in whom he was interested were the exact opposite of the super-star writer. They were humble people, who often worked minor civil service jobs, lived simple and bourgeois lives, and wrote without expectation of reward. He also comments that the three people in Paris who would later make the biggest impression on the literary world, Paul Valery, Marcel Proust, and Romain Rolland, were all entirely unknown even in the literary world at this time.

I've several times now read literary memoirs about small groups of highly intellectual people who wrote in periodicals with poor circulations or for small presses or in tiny editions, and who later had an outsized influence on the world (also coming to mind is Norman Podhoretz's memoir Making It), and I can't deny that there is something very attractive about this image.

It's all farce and image, of course. Plenty of authors seek out immediate notoriety. Plenty of great authors write for money, or write for the commercial press. But I am attracted to the monastic quality that Zweig describes, the sense that the work itself has its own purity that will someday shine through. He tells, for instance, of going to visit Rodin in his workshop, and seeing Rodin start to work on a sculpture. The artist works for a few minutes, making corrections to a clay model, and when he's done he's surprised to find a strange young man in his studio: he'd entirely forgotten that Zweig was in the room.

This vision of artistic greatness has seeped into our culture and congealed. Books nowadays come with their own creation myths that are released in tandem, or even before, publication. The story of how The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took ten years to write, for instance, or the idea of the immense periods of time that elapse between books by Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides. Yet oftentimes that labor is more of a reaction to celebrity culture than it is an inherent demand of the work. I think oftentimes authors take a long period to follow up on books simply because the pressure of delivering another success is so immense. In some ways this is the opposite of the careful, painstaking work of a Proust or of a Romain Rolland.

In my own revisions, I've really been enjoying the gentle suturing I've done on the book. Most of the changes I'm making aren't going to matter to the reader, but they matter a lot to me. I do feel slightly resentful that the work needs to come to an end. Part of me thinks a few more rounds of revision would really be useful.

Everything about this book has been hurried. I wrote it to fulfill my contract with Disney, then after losing my agent and publisher, I rewrote it, feeling hurried and oppressed, because I wanted it to sell but I also didn't quite have the same faith in the book. Then since it's sold I've been working on my publisher's (albeit very generous) deadlines. I've worked quite a bit on the book, but every word in it is also new since August of this year, and I feel that newness in the pages. Even now, I'm writing new scenes, and I think, well, these scenes are more or less going straight to press, they won't ever get that time to sit and be mulled over.

The structure of the book is excellent. It's as perfect a thing as I've ever put out, but I still somehow want more from it. And yet I also feel that the market won't really reward that care. Whether the book succeeds or fails will depend entirely upon only the broadest possible reactions: whether people identify with the protagonist whether librarians and teachers think it's 'important'; whether it arouses in kids a sense of hope and longing. By the time they get to the third chapter, they'll either be sold on the book or they won't, and the rest won't particularly matter.

I think all writers ultimately know this. Zweig had books and plays accepted by the most prestigious venues in Austria at an early age, and yet he pooh-poohs these works, saying he's never allowed them to be reprinted. He knew instinctively that he hadn't yet created anything truly great.

In the same way, I think writers need to hold themselves to higher (and different) standards than the market does, and yet that's not an easy thing to do, because the mere fact that these standards are different means they are unrenumerated. Nor will you even have the satisfaction of seeing readers or critics grasp what you're doing--they might like it, but they're unlikely to like it because of those things you put into it. A really intelligent and sympathetic reading is something that most authors don't get until they're well into their careers.

This book is done (or almost so). I honestly don't think I could handle another round of revision. But with my next book I hope to be able to take more care throughout.

“Buchmendel” by Stefan Zweig

coverI finished reading Fantastic Night And Other Stories, by Stefan Zweig. It was very interesting. At first I wasn't sure how much I liked it. All the stories are very overwrought and very meandering. They often take place in weird frames. Sometimes they're stories being told to a person who then tells them to the narrator. Sometimes the frame is totally superfluous, like in the title story, where we're told that the following is a diaristic account found in the possession of a dead soldier.

However, in the end I found the collection very charming. And one story, the final one, really blew me away. "Buchmendel" is about a second-hand book dealer, a Russian-born Austrian Jew named Mendel, who has a prodigious memory: he remembers every page of every book he's ever read. If a scholar comes up against any roadblock in his inquiries, it's far quicker to consult Mendel than to go to a library. And although his lack of education and social status means he can never become a scholar himself, Mendel achieves a place in the world. He's a very well-drawn character.

But then the war comes. It's one of the subtler accounts of the effects of war. Mostly because it elides the war itself. It shows you how before-the-war differed from after-the-war (at least in peoples' minds). And in this one the frame really works. The story begins with the narrator (a scholar, or perhaps a stand-in for Zweig himself) walking into a tavern and realizing that he's been here before--that this is the place that Mendel used to operate out of...but Mendel is gone. He looks through the tavern trying to find someone who remembers Mendel, but the old owner and all the waiters are either retired or dead. The only person who remembers the man is the bathroom attendant.

Most of the story is an account of Mendel's final years, as witnessed by this completely uneducated, very simple woman who cleans and takes care of the bathroom. I can't even describe it. This is a fantastically complex story. And when you have a story that operates on so many different levels, there needs to be a mini-story and a mini-payoff on each level. And there is! It is amazing.

Been reading more Stefan Zweig

Started his novella collection Fantastic Night and other stories. He pretty much only wrote novellas. Oftentimes they started out novel-length, but he tended to cut them down a lot in the revision process. However, I still like them a lot. Zweig gets right to the heart of things. For instance, the title story is about a gentleman who's kind of bored with life and over everything. And then he goes to the racetrack and lots of random things happen to him (he steals some money, almost sleeps with a prostitute, gets mugged, etc) and realizes that life is worth living! The story is extremely overwritten, but I wonder if that's not part of its charm. In the hands of a minimalist, this change in his life would be very understated--at the end of the story, you'd think...hmm...maybe this guy's life will be fractionally different.


The story is about a crazy, intuitive mystical experience, such as happens to many people, but because there are so many words of internal musing, it doesn't displace the experience onto the events. It's very clear that these things aren't causing the change in him so much as they're just triggering it: most of the change is happening inside him. It is hard to explain. But worth reading.

Confusion, by Stefan Zweig

coverGuys, guys, I'm really liking Zweig. Beware of Pity was no fluke! This novella is about a young man who goes and lives in the house of his professor, who alternatively inspires him and disdains him. And the young man can't really figure out what's up with him...and, well, I'm just gonna spoil it for you....



The professor is a homosexual.

Longtimes readers of this blog might remember that I am very interested in homosexual subtext in novels, and with this novel we start to see the beginning of the end for subtext. Because for most of the novel, it has the form of a traditional, subtext-heavy work. For instance, I recently read Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, where the narrator was a similar tormented genius fellow who had some kind of mysterious problem with society.

But then, bam, in the last ten pages, the professor is all like, "I am in love with you." And he describes how for his whole life he's been having sex with guys in back alleys and at little clubs and under bridges and it's always been awful and sordid, and he's always longed to experience a love that was pure and fine. And it doesn't help that his profession continually puts him into contact with young men who are handsome and intelligent and completely under his sway. And he has to continually hold himself back from them. It's a really interesting portrayal. First of all, because it's not a portrait of unfulfilled desire--this guy actually does have sex with men. Secondly, because it's explicit--there is no doubt about what he's talking about. And thirdly, because it has a mostly modern viewpoint. This is not a guy who's destroyed by perverted desire; this is a guy who's destroyed by an inability to fulfill that desire in a free and open manner.

Finished reading Beware of Pity

It was pretty much perfect. No story could've been simpler. It really is just about a young Austrian lancer (in pre-war Austro-Hungary) who becomes friendly with a disabled girl and eventually becomes the object of her affections. For various weird reasons (which are not really to his credit), he can't imagine ever being with her. However, she's very emotionally fragile, so he has to tiptoe around her.

Nothing more than that. But the tension was unbearable. Very great novel. Worth reading.

I mean, there is a bunch of stuff about the life of a lancer before the Great War. And all that stuff is very fun too. It's another illustration of how sometimes the best way to get details like this into a novel is to put them in the background. Alot of this military life stuff is similar to what was in Joseph Roth's Radetzky March. But in that novel, it was all very much in the foreground, and it felt, sometimes, like not enough was happening. Whereas in Beware of Pity, you get both the scenery and the action.

Weirdly, just like Radetzky March, this novel ends with the announcement of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the declaration of war. That was obviously a very traumatic moment in the Austrian national consciousness, but it still seems weird to end two iconic Austrian novels in exactly the same way.