There is inarguably no better hook, line, and sinker for a reader to pick up a novella than one that is written by an author who had lived and died as Stefan Zweig: living in exile like the unrivaled Nabokov, banned by the government (or, in Zweig’s case, Nazi Germany), and who had fulfilled his authorship with a self-proposed sealing of his own fate. Confusion is the account of young college student Roland who has become enamored with the intellectual, bewildering, and isolated world of his greatest idol – his college professor. Roland gravitates to the secluded home of his professor – the seclusion prompted by the fear of being unmasked of his secret. The novella, referencing the Greats (writers and philosophers alike) blurs all three of the greatest distinctions of love of the Ancient Greeks: Philia, Èros, and Agápe (though the novella does not address them explicitly). Roland tells us that he has “…more to thank [his professor] than my mother and father before him or my wife and children after him. I have never loved anyone more.”
I hate to admit that I hadn’t read any of Stefan Zweig’s work nor had any real knowledge of the explosion of fame that followed him during his lifetime – and even worse, of the second boom upon his recent rediscovery (truly, for shame). Stefan Zweig’s momentous, celebrated writing reaped slightly more positive attention during his lifetime (as aforementioned, he committed suicide in 1942) than contemporary critics – but then the first hill on the roller coaster is always the tallest, and you can’t argue with physics. But upon reading several criticisms on Zweig’s oeuvre, I’ve realized that one is either convinced; lamenting the relatable, melancholy life dirge we sing to, or – vehemently depreciates his acclaimed forte as an author (such depreciations are still fewer, but Michael Hoffman, writer for London Review of Books shamelessly assaulted Zweig, saying: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”). My fellow-reviewer Quantum Sarah has said that if we can’t find something favorably note-worthy in a novel, then perhaps we aren’t looking in the right places – and you say, “but if we were to do this with all forms of artistic expression, we would be forced to find genius in, say, incomprehensible modern art and only-comprehensible-when-acid-tripping techno.” I see your point. However Quantum Sarah may be onto something, and as I’ve already said – you can’t argue with physics.
The glaring intellectuality in Confusion is not only a theme, but much more of a setting – everything takes place within profound thought and dense analyses of drama and literature – takes place through Roland’s fever-pitched stream of consciousness. Stefan Zweig emphasizes both Roland’s developed intellect and anxiety (both directly correlated to his professor) through melodramatic diction such as:
I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer. Without knowing that I was moving, hypnotically attracted by a force stronger than curiosity, and with the dragging footsteps of a sleepwalker I made my way as if by magic into that charmed circle – suddenly without being aware of it, I was there, only a few inches from him and among all the others, who themselves were too spellbound to notice me or anything else.
This romantic approach to literature is one that every reader can and should find believable and relatable – I remember my first cherished novel and the first time I became enamored with the eloquent lecture of a professor. When in a classroom, shuffling through articulations of a piece of great literature or philosophy (in Roland’s case, the lecture regarded Goethe and Shakespeare) and so to feel the foreign vertigo of enlightenment.
However, all of that being said, this tone is consistent throughout the novella. In fact, Roland’s fervent ardor for his professor is not behaviorally unbelievable, but his stream of consciousness reveals an overdone, unbelievable anxiety that only contradicts their interaction.
I was at his door at seven o’clock precisely, and with what trepidation did I, a mere boy as I was, cross that threshold for the first time! Nothing is more passionate than a young man’s veneration, nothing more timid, more feminine than its uneasy sense of modesty.
When Roland’s diction and tone plateaus and persists with this steady, anxious tempo, it strips more credible, believable narratives. His paranoia (exceeding a more mild and authentic curiosity) in the stream of consciousness is excessive compared to, say, an equally curious, but more convincing Stephan Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. (Dedalus, too, portraying his creator through his journey, and Joyce, also a well-educated writer fortunate enough to be esteemed in his own lifetime.)
Regarding the debate of Zweig’s credibility with the written word, a very hesitant, judicial part of me found some validity in Hoffman’s review. The plot is structured well – the secret was tastefully revealed, lacking smoke and mirrors but still satiating the reader’s curiosity. The context clues are placed with strategic perspicacity. But that tone, the overdramatic, agonizing whine of a young man (who, let’s be honest, would never lay as many girls as Roland if this were, in fact, his diction) was not passion; it was stale. In fact, his anxiety throughout the book is so magnified upon, that it seems almost hyperbolic; comic. And like Russian works that I have read, tragic dramas are entirely capable of successfully providing a paranoid, manic, first person narrative that the reader is both enthralled by and continues to mourn with. I found Roland so un-relatable that mourning with him, and for his professor, was only achieved once throughout the novella.
In the last dozen pages of the book, I finally believed Roland without considering too much diplomacy. He writes: “…While below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution[.]” It is here that he contemplates not his flighty emotions, but human nature – those three Ancient Greek distinctions of love, and branches into a quasi philosophical inquiry.
And while I remain torn on a final assessment on the piece (I couldn’t help but find Roland’s experiences relatable, even if he didn’t articulate them in a relatable manner) I still encourage others to pick it up due to the controversy revolving around Zweig’s writing. I am only on one side (that being the minority, it seems) of the fence.