Stefan Zweig is an author I have seen many people rave about and yet have always felt that, for some unknown reason, his work might be a little too high brow for me and I wouldn’t enjoy it. It was with trepidation that I started Letter From An Unknown Woman, a collection of four of his works, when it was chosen for Hear Read This. Well if all of Zweig’s writing is like this I have been a fool to have not read him for so long, I discovered his writing is wonderful and was somewhat spellbound by this collection.
Pushkin Press, paperback, 2013 (originally 1922, 1911, 1982 & 1900) , short stories, translated by Anthea Bell, 208 pages, bought by myself for myself
I have called Letter From An Unknown Woman a collection of Zweig’s works rather than a short story collection as the title story really verges on the length of a novella, and at the opposite end of the spectrum (and indeed the book) Forgotten Dreams is barely ten pages long, both A Story Told in Twilight and The Debt Paid Late are roughly the same length. Yet one thing can be said for Zweig, that no matter how long or short his works are the prose is simply gorgeous, the stories take you in directions you don’t expect and each one has an emotional intelligence and range that will have you feeling like you have read a novel rather than something much shorter. In this collection they all also tend to look at lost loves from a state of hindsight, which can make them all the more mysterious, powerful, romanticised or bittersweet.
My child died yesterday — for three days and three nights I wrestled with death for that tender little life, I sat for forty hours at his bedside while the influenza racked his poor, hot body with fever. I put cool compresses on his forehead, I held his restless little hands day and night. On the third evening I collapsed. My eyes would not stay open any longer; I was unaware of it when they closed. I slept, sitting on my hard chair, for three or four hours, and in that time death took him. Now the sweet boy lies there in his narrow child’s bed, just as he died; only his eyes have been closed, his clever, dark eyes, and his hands are folded over his white shirt, while four candles burn at the four corners of his bed. I dare not look, I dare not stir from my chair, for when the candles flicker shadows flit over his face and his closed mouth, and then it seems as if his features were moving, so that I might think he was not dead after all, and will wake up and say something loving and childish to me in his clear voice. But I know that he is dead, I will arm myself against hope and further disappointment, I will not look at him again. I know it is true, I know my child died yesterday — so now all I have in the world is you, you who know nothing about me, you who are now amusing yourself without a care in the world, dallying with things and with people. I have only you, who never knew me, and whom I have always loved.
The whole opening paragraph of Letter From an Unknown Woman, and indeed the first paragraph in the collection, could in itself be flash fiction. Zweig instantly pulls us into the mind, through the pen, of a woman who is writing to a famous author, only known as ‘R’, which happens to arrive on his birthday. As R reads on we are given the vivid account of a woman who not only knew him and loved him yet who he has no memories of at all. You might think you know where this is going, you would be wrong.
This is one of the things that I loved most about his writing throughout, you never get what you think you are even when you try and second guess it with that knowledge. For example in the case of the mysterious letter writer we start learning about her love of his words as a young woman and then how she became infatuated and indeed believed they were destined to be together. Naturally we think ‘okay, crazy obsessive fan’ yet as the letter carries on we start to have our opinion completely altered and a very different story emerges. It’s beautiful, melancholic and also incredibly poignant in the very last paragraph, I defy you not be moved by it.
As I mentioned earlier this happens in all the tales in this collection. In Forgotten Dreams a man meets a woman he was in love with once again, you think you know what is coming and you don’t. The Debt Paid Late tells of a woman who taking some mountain air, after looking after her grandchildren for quite some time who had scarlet fever, where in a cafe she spots an actor she was infatuated with as a young girl, a time when she allowed herself to be led astray. The actor is now a withered old man and a town joke, how this affects the woman may not be how you think. I am teasing you terribly, but I really want you to go and read this collection.
I have left A Story Told in Twilight last simply because it was my favourite. Here a man recalls a time in his not so distant past when he was holidaying at a castle in Scotland staying with a well to do family, friends of his family. One night, just at twilight, a woman comes out of nowhere taking him by surprise and kissing him, this happens yet again and again each time so fast and so suddenly he never realises which of the ladies in the house it might be. He naturally becomes besotted and so must find his true love, you can of course expect twists and turns. I loved this one because it is the most gothic and the most fairy tale of the whole collection and those are two of my very favourite things. There is of course the mystery and the comical errors that our narrator makes to find out who this mystery mistress is.
I don’t remember just how I came to know this story. All I do know is that I was sitting here for a long time early this afternoon, reading a book, then putting it down again, drowsing in my dreams, perhaps sleeping lightly. And suddenly I saw figures stealing past the walls, and I could hear what they were saying and look into their lives.
The other things I loved about this collection were how much about writing they all are. We have people reaching back and telling stories to themselves and those they know. Two of the stories are told through letters, one of the main characters is an author, it seems the power of words resides behind each tale embedded in Zweig’s own prose, which I must say is stunningly translated by Anthea Bell. I also loved how it looks at hindsight and how we can romanticise things from the past or suddenly see how foolish we were.
If I was being super critical I would say that I would probably have put the short stories in reverse order as I think this would build the collections themes and power as you read a long. I also think it would mean you read the weaker of the tales first (which is still very good but seems slightly flimsy, though it was his first, at the end after the others) then enjoy The Debt Paid Late before being completely blown away by A Story Told in Twilight and then Letter From an Unknown Woman which I think are now two of my favourite short stories that I’ve read had the pleasure of reading so far. If I was ever in a position to have curate a collection of short stories published they would both be housed in it. If this is just a taste of the power and beauty of Zweig’s prose then I think we have a fabulous journey of stories ahead of us. If you have yet to read him then do.
If you would like to hear more opinions on Letters From an Unknown Woman then do listen to myself, Gav of Cwtch Books and Rob and Kate from Adventures With Words on Hear Read This here. Have you read this collection and if so what did you think? Have you seen the film of Letter From an Unknown Woman, it has Joan Fontaine who played the second Mrs De Winter in Hitchcock’s brilliant adaptation of Rebecca so I now really want to see it. Which other Stefan Zweig stories, collections or novels have you read as I think I am going to have to get my mitts on many more of them?