Extremes of Passion in Small Packages: The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig (2015)


I’ve been feeling increasingly guilty about the lack of Stefan Zweig in my life, especially as Pushkin Press are currently going to all the effort of publishing every single work the Austrian man of letters ever wrote.  Fortunately, this latest addition to the collection felt like the perfect way to get to know Zweig’s fiction.  Containing five novellas, it depicts such extremes of passion that it’s easy to see where Pushkin’s obsession with this under-known writer comes from.

I was first drawn to the book because I saw that it contained ‘A Chess Story,’ a novella that’s been on my to-be-read pile for simply ages.  Translated beautifully by Anthea Bell, it centres around a partly tense and partly flippant friendly game of chess between the passengers on a ship.  First we learn of Mirko Czentovic, a world champion, whose brilliance at the game is matched by his incredibly slow dullness in every other field of human interest.  The narrator is determined to get to know him because:
‘Throughout my life, every type of monomaniac infatuated with a single idea has exerted a certain draw on me, because the more a person restricts himself, the closer, conversely, he approaches to the infinite.’
This could be a manifesto for the whole collection.  As ‘A Chess Story’ develops, we meet Czentovic’s antagonist, a man whose circumstances have been so restricted as to force him into a ‘monomaniacal’ interest in chess that is both redemptive and destructive.  Czentovic’s ‘dogged‘ method of play is contrasted with the intellectual and emotional fervour of the traumatised Dr B.  The claustrophobic setting of the boat is important because everything in this story, indeed in every story, is about restriction and tortured passions.

I enjoyed ‘A Chess Story’ so much that I was almost afraid to try out the other titles in the collection.  None of them are as famous and there was the concern that they were only there to bulk out the volume.  I was wrong to worry.  Whether the story contains the over-wrought emotions of a young boy, who learns emotional manipulation from the adults around him (‘The Burning Secret’) or the self-hatred and searing passions of a closet homosexual in nineteenth-century Austria (‘Confusion’) every novella included is a masterpiece of both power and restraint.  Although all of the key characters belong to the intellectual middle-class, they are as distinct and varied as their differing ages, genders and experiences demand.  My current favourite is ‘The Burning Secret,’ a story that shows a fierce love turning to consuming hatred and somehow manages to make the most exaggerated of emotions believable and compelling.  I suspect however, that as I return to the collection over the years, new favourites will periodically emerge; there is so much to admire that my preference is much more about my current mood than any variation in quality from one novella to another.

A final point, often tales of the inner-turmoil of the moneyed class can be hard to engage with.  This collection is grounded by the non-emotional suffering that hovers around the edges.  Dr B. was captured by the Gestapo before he ever takes up chess, while in ‘Journey into the Past’ a Turgenevian meeting with a romantic ideal is interrupted by a Nazi rally.  In other stories, emotional truth can only be reached once a character is able to see beyond their own protected world into the mundane hardships suffered by the majority of the population.  In their balancing of the inner and the outer world, Pushkin’s novellas are more than period pieces and fully retain their power and relevance for twenty-first century readers.

I highly recommend getting to know Zweig.  I know that I won’t stop here – nor will I have to, Pushkin press are on a mission to bring him back to the English-reading world and ‘The Collected Novellas’ will provide new readers with a clear justification for this ambition.

I received my copy of ‘The Collected Novels of Stefan Zweig’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Click here for other Zweig titles by Pushkin Press.

This entry was posted in Reading in translation, Stefan Zweig and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Extremes of Passion in Small Packages: The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig (2015)

  1. Sarah says:

    You’ve just sorted out a valentine’s day present for my husband. He’s been nagging me to play chess since New Year but I’m always too busy reading! This is perfect. 😉

  2. Melissa Beck says:

    I really loved Zweig. I have this book on my TBR pile. I have read Confusion, which is also in the collection and they it was a fantastic novella. Probably my favorite of his so far.

  3. JacquiWine says:

    I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed this collection. Journey into the Past is the only one I’ve read, but I do have a copy of Burning Secret on my shelves at home. (It’s a standalone edition, beautifully produced as one would expect from Pushkin.) I’m looking forward to it even more now!

    • I think that Pushkin have published most of these stories individually already, but ‘The Collected’ was great for me because it took me away from the novellas I’d already heard of an into strange new territory (like ‘Journey into the Past’ which I’d never heard of, but which is compelling reading).

  4. MarinaSofia says:

    Ah, welcome to the Zweig groupies! He’s certainly a passionate writer, although some think his style hopelessly sentimental (especially some of his contemporaries, who were I think jealous of his success).

  5. I read two of his short story collections a few years ago and loved them (including Journey in the Past – wow!). I need to read some of his novels. Pushkin do lovely translation and editions too.

  6. Stefanie says:

    Ooh, a collected, very cool! I read Post Office Girl several years ago and really liked it. Have been meaning to read A Chess Story but haven’t gotten to it yet.

    • I’ve never read ‘Post Office Girl’, but it’s on the list now! I think Zweig may now be my go-to author for when I want a bit of nineteenth-century European angst and passion…

  7. roughghosts says:

    I also have this collection in galley form. I have read his biography of Montaigne which I loved so this will be my taste of his fiction. Thanks to German lit month I won an individual copy of Chess Story which is just gorgeous (also Pushkin of course).

    • I’ve read some of his non-fiction (‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Shooting Stars’), which I liked but didn’t love. Personally I’ll take his fiction any day – I look forward to hearing what you make of ‘Chess Story’!

  8. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Lovely review! Yes, Zweig is amazing and there’s more to his work than meets the eye. I get cross with those who just dismiss him as a sentamentalist – I’ve read a wonderful variety of things so far and I’ve only scratched the surface.

    • Based on these novellas, I think he’s highly emotional rather than sentimental. This collection really shows how much passion can be evoked in short novellas, now I’m excited to read the short stories to see if they’re as powerful and concentrated.

      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        Yes, that’s a good distinction – he does express intense emotions but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’ve read a number of his short stories and they’re really powerful – Buchmendel is one I’d recommend.

      • Thank you for the tip – I’ll be looking out for Buchmendel as my next Zweig indulgence.

  9. We read ‘Beware of Pity’ for the book group a couple of years ago – not a short story but kept us chewing the fat all evening over the vino collapso. Really enjoyed the chess story, really enjoyed your review…

  10. cocoaugustina says:

    Oh Shoshi, we share(d) a similar guilt. I’ve been fascinated by Zweig for quite some time now, but I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy his work. When The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, the guilt just burned. Perhaps I just needed a push. Thank you!

    • Any time! And please let me know which you read and what you think of them. It was this copy of ‘The Collected’ that got me started – I know exactly what you mean about needing the right push!

  11. Ste J says:

    After Chess, I always hankered for more Zweig, this will do for me, his ability to write simple yet deep tales is wonderful and make rereading always a pleasure.

    • ‘Chess’ stands out in the collection for its lack of any romantic element. The other novellas take the intellectual passion of the story and show Zweig exploring it in different middle-class life settings … I really look forward to hearing what you think of them.

  12. Pingback: Another top Zweig read: ‘Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ | Shoshi's Book Blog

  13. Pingback: A real-life Zweig novella: ‘The Tongue Set Free’ by Elias Canetti | Shoshi's Book Blog

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