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ONE WEEK WITH A CIVILIZED MAN

One of the reasons I love Dan Simmons’ work is that the man doesn’t limit himself to one genre. You want science fiction? Here is the whole HYPERION CANTOS, one of the best cycles of the past century. Is horror your cup of tea? Take some CARRION COMFORT. You’re fond of quiet, meditative works about the human condition? Get into PHASES OF GRAVITY. And for those who like slick thrillers, DARWIN’S BLADE cuts deep. As a reader and as a translator, most of my time is devoted to SF, but I sometime long for other stuff. And there are times when I’ve had my fill of SF, or fantasy, or horror: I must refresh myself and plunge in the sea of literature.

This time, the clincher was a wonderful French movie you’ve probably never heard of, 24 HEURES DE LA VIE D’UNE FEMME, directed by Laurent Bouhnik and starring Agnès Jaoui and Michel Serrault. The screenplay is adapted from Stefan Zweig’s short novel 24 HOURS IN THE LIFE OF A WOMAN, and the first thing I thought as the end credits rolled was, “I must read this book.” The name Zweig was not unknown to me, of course, but the story told by the movie was so breathtakingly moving I had to go deeper into the man’s work.

Well, my girlfriend and I had planned a one-week vacation in Croatia, and I decided to buy a few Zweig books and to take them there instead of another SF tome. Since this is not a “What I Did in My Summer Vacation” school report, I won’t tell you about Croatia, Dubrovnik and Cavtat – well, I’ll only write two words: “ailing paradise”, and urge you to go see for yourselves – but I’ll most definitely tell you about Zweig.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most famous European writers of his time. Born in Vienna, in an affluent Jewish family, he was a well-traveled man (Asia, North and South America, and of course Europe), a devotee of literature and a student of psychology. He was mainly known for his biographies of historical figures –Fouché, Mary Stuart, Queen Marie-Antoinette – and of contemporaries – Romain Rolland, Émile Verhaeren, French-speaking writers he also translated into German – but he was above all a master of the short form. No three-deckers in his bibliography, but brief, incisive, elegant novelettes or novellas like CONFUSION, FEAR, THE INVISIBLE COLLECTION, BUCHMENDEL and THE ROYAL GAME – to mention only some I’ve read this past week and which are available in English.

Yeah, you say, but what made him so great?

Simply put, his big theme was passion, and he was a passionate writer. Also, as some critics have noted, a man who, even when he was quite young, had a deep knowledge of Woman. Take FEAR, for instance. The main character is a well-to-do woman who cheats on her husband – a hackneyed premise if I ever saw one – and is suddenly confronted by her lover’s former mistress who tries to blackmail her. She thinks herself trapped, for she becomes so agitated her husband cannot help but notice something; but the trap she fell into is even more devilish than she thinks, for… naah, no spoilers.

I hasten to add that this story is brilliant not because of its final, chilling twist, but because of what it tells us about desire and jealousy. It deserves to be read a second time.

The same goes for CONFUSION, a story from 1927 whose final twist will surprise nobody in these more enlightened times. What it has to say about passion is still valid, though. Ditto for THE INVISIBLE COLLECTION, a study of obsession that will wrench your heart. As for THE ROYAL GAME, it’s quite simply one of the best stories I’ve ever read, a story about chess, survival, human dignity and the nature of intelligence. With as many layers as an onion, to boot.

Stefan Zweig was a deeply civilized man, whose motto might have been Terence’s famous quote: “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.” When the Nazis came into power, his books were among the first to be burned, and he fled first to Britain, then to the States, and finally to Brazil, where he died by his own hand, despairing over the course of the war. (As readers of THE CROOK FACTORY know, the future looked quite bleak in 1942.)

It seems we French readers are lucky, for a lot of Zweig’s stories are still in print today, mostly in inexpensive paperback editions. A quick look at amazon.com is more sobering, as only a few English translations seem available. My knowledge of German, Spanish and other languages is too bad for me to do a valid search. But whatever your language of choice, I urge you to try and read Stefan Zweig. As other have noted, the man is more than a good writer: most of the people who discover his work feel they’ve found a new friend.

I’ll leave you with the final words of his story BUCHMENDEL (and I apologize for my poor English translation of the French translation of the original German!): “Still I know that books were created to bind men beyond death and to protect us against life’s most ruthless foe: oblivion.”

Best,

PS 1: There is at least one website devoted to Stefan Zweig, mostly for French readers, but with links to sites in other languages: www.stefanzweig.org

PS 2: Also of note, Stefan Zweig’s memoir, THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, which I’m just starting to read as I write this. A moving book, well worth reading in these troubled times.

 

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