I 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.
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.
But nope, in this story, he’s like: EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED, COLORS ARE BRIGHTER, I CAN SEE THE SUN, I LOVE ERRRRRRRRRBODY.
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.
Guys, 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.
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.