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.