Back in February, I read Pushkin Press’s beautiful new edition of ‘The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig‘ and immediately became a Zweig groupie. The past year has only increased my enjoyment of his work; in recent months there have been times when I really felt the need for passionate and melodramatic emotional responses to the 20th century. I’m not being flippant here, Zweig is becoming one of my escapism authors of choice because I completely believe in his characters and their inner turmoil but I also love pretending I’m one of those monied Europeans who suffer said turmoil while staying at luxury holiday resorts.
‘Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ delivers everything ‘The Collected Novellas’ had taught me to expect. The book is a story within a story, told to a single man (check) by an apparently very controlled married woman (check) after a ‘heated discussion‘ between the ‘thoroughly bourgeois company‘ at a hotel on the Riviera (Bingo!)
The heated discussion is about the fact that another hotel guest has just run away with a man she barely knows. There are morals, personal and public, to consider and feelings run high. This is all just preparation though, a warm-up round if you will, because the heart of the story is one told privately by the very controlled woman who has her own reasons for feeling strongly about the issue.
Bingo aside, one reason why Zweig’s novellas are so great is that they contain substance as well as a consistently effective style and structure. While the bourgeois gossips are obsessed with appearances and one half of the story is consumed with passionate love, the other is about a frighteningly dark addiction. The first indication comes with the introduction of a man capable of changing a woman’s life; before seeing his face, we view his soul through his hands:
‘Two hands such as I had never seen before, left and right clutching each other like doggedly determined animals, bracing and extending together and against each other with such heightened tension that the fingers’ joints cracked with a dry sound like a nut cracking open. They were hands of rare beauty, unusually long, unusually slender yet taut and muscular – very white, the nails pale at their tips, gently curving and the colour of mother of pearl. I kept watching them all evening, indeed I kept marvelling at those extraordinary, those positively unique hands – but what surprised and alarmed me so much at first was the passion in them, their crazily impassioned expressiveness, the convulsive way they wrestled with and supported each other. I knew at once that I was seeing a human being overflowing with emotion, forcing his passion into his fingertips lest it tear him apart.’
I don’t want to give away the ultimate obsession in the novel, only that it is as convincing as the language is overblown. I recommend ’24 hours’ to anyone looking for a new Zweig hit – or as a brilliantly by-the-numbers introduction of what he does best to anyone who wants a way in.
I received my copy of ‘Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.