4 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell and published by Pushkin Press.

In case you’ve forgotten, Chris is a writer, copy editor, and proofreader from Methuen, MA; he’s also a regular reviewer for Three Percent and runs the Good Coffee Book Blog, and Twitter-publicly apologized for ruining Murakami for me. He’s a good guy.

Have we mentioned how much we LOVE Pushkin Press’s covers I mean good hot damn.

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.

In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”

She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.

For the rest of the review, go here.

4 September 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope: her love is submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be.” This theme of a child’s submissive love runs throughout Stefan Zweig’s story collection Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories.

In the title story, which kicks off this collection, a woman sends a letter to “R” for his birthday, announcing that her son has died and that his receipt of her letter means that she has died as well. After this announcement, she tells him that she began to love him before he even moved into the apartment building in Vienna where she also lived: She was fascinated by his imported objects and expensive books in different languages. After the first time she saw him, this love grew even more intense. Then, one day, after a chance encounter where he simply smiled at her, she became his “slave.”

She remained his slave, even after her mother and stepfather moved out of the apartment building and into a villa in Innsbruck. In fact, she made trips back to Vienna just to see him. Despite the fact he was usually seen with other women, she still saved herself for him, even rejecting marriage offers from men who were willing to take care of her and her son.

Perhaps it was folly, for then I would be living somewhere safe and quiet now, and my beloved child with me, but—why should I not tell you?—I did not want to tie myself down; I wanted to be free for you at any time. In my inmost heart, the depths of my unconscious nature, my old childhood dream that one day you might yet summon me to you, if only for any hour lived on. And for the possibility of that one hour I rejected all else, so that I would be free to answer your first call. What else had my whole life been since I grew past childhood but waiting, waiting to know your will?

On a couple of occasions, he does summon her, and she submits, but things do not turn out the way she always dreamed they would be.

“A Story Told in Twilight” is another story about submissive love that goes unnoticed in the dark—figuratively and literally. A young man, who is staying with some friends in Scotland, is visited one evening by a vision in white, a mysterious girl whose identity is obscured by the twilight. The girl kisses him, and he falls in love. After she visits him again the next night, he is determined to discover her identity. Based on a single clue, he believes that she is Margot, the oldest of his three cousins. Even though Margot never shows any affection toward him, he wants her to reveal herself as the mysterious girl. When she doesn’t, he begins to feel tormented and causes harm to himself and the one who truly loves him.

No harm is caused in the third story, “The Debt Paid Late”; in fact, that story can be seen as the perfect counterpoint to “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” Like the first story, “The Debt Paid Late” is narrated by a woman writing a letter; however, this time, she is married to a doctor and telling her story to a longtime friend. This story begins at the end of a stressful year of taking care of her daughter’s children, who all had scarlet fever, and arranging her mother-in-law’s funeral. Feeling that she’s worn out, her husband recommends that she spend a few weeks in a sanitarium. Instead, she decides to stay at an inn in an isolated village in the mountains. On her first night there, however, she encounters a former stage actor from her past. This encounter triggers memories from her days as a naïve girl who believed that she was in love with him; as a result, she made herself vulnerable to danger. These memories make her realize that she is obligated to help the actor now that he is in a low point in his life.

Memories of the past are also evoked in the last story, “Forgotten Dreams,” which is the shortest story in the collection. During his visit to a seaside villa, a man reunites with a woman he once loved and reproaches her for marrying “that indolent financier with his mind always bent on making money.” He tries to remind her of the “independent idealist” she once was. However, she tries to convince him—and herself—that no one really understood her as a girl, and her husband has really made her dreams come true.

What makes these stories great is Zweig’s brilliance in capturing the complicated feelings of the characters as they dwell on the lost loves of the past. As they look back, they realize that they didn’t understand the risks that came with submitting themselves to love. While describing these risks, their thoughts and words are sometimes imbued with joy, sometimes with sadness. It’s tricky to keep these emotions balanced, especially within the confines of a short story, yet Zweig manages to do just that. As a result, he is able to shed light on what the unknown woman called the “love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark.”

24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

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.

24 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachel Crawford-Fisher on Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, which is translated from the German by Anthea Bell and is available from New York Review Books.

Rachel is a student at the University of Rochester majoring in English Literature, minoring in Philosophy and Russian Studies. She has freelanced for hardcore punk zine Define the Meaning and for local literary organizations. She is an aspiring prose fiction writer. She prefers Russian literature and German philosophy.

Here is part of her review:

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.

Click here to read the entire review.

16 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Running a bit behind with the news here, but the Fall 2010 issue of the Quarterly Conversation is now available online. As always, there’s a lot of great content here, including an essay on Nicholson Baker as the missing link between Updike and DFW, a piece on Helene Cixous’s So Close, and tons of interesting book reviews. Here are a few additional highlights:

Mexican writer Roberto Ransom is nicely featured in this issue. First up is the translation of ‘Lizard à la Heart,’ which is part of Desparecidos, animales y artistas, a collection that Daniel Shapiro received grants from the PEN Translation Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts to translate. It’s an odd, fantastical story about a woman talking talking to her pet—a lonely crocodile locked in the bathroom.

In addition, there’s an interview with Ransom conducted by John Pluecker, which includes some interesting bits about the origins of “Lizard à la Heart” (he cites V, and the experience of buying a house only to have the ex-owner show up at all hours of the night drunk and demanding his house back), and this story about Borges and Bioy Casares:

“Just last night I heard an unforgettable quip by Borges that goes more or less as follows. As an old man, master Borges turns to his lifelong friend, Bioy Casares, and says, ‘Do you remember that towards the end of that terrible year of ’45 we considered committing suicide?’ ‘Yes, in fact, I do,’ responds Bioy. ‘What I don’t remember,’ continues Borges, ‘is if we did so or not.’”

One of the big essays in this issue is a long piece by George Prochnik on Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday: An Autobiography. It’s a very interesting piece that mostly focuses on Zweig’s exile and eventual suicide. Some very interesting bits in here that make it definitely worth reading:

Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Over time, his justifications for being in Petropolis come to sound like dutiful recitations of holistic prescriptions. “Montaigne speaks with infinite sorrow of people who live the sorrows of others in imagination, and advises them to withdraw and isolate themselves,” he told Friderike. The contrast between the sight of Rio’s Carnival revelries (“_Très érotique, très érotique!_” he exclaimed to friends) and the latest news of wartime abominations gave the final prod to suicide. Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved. [. . .]

Rather than staking a claim on the “real” beauties of the past, Zweig poses the question that haunts the experience of many a nostalgic émigré to this day: what do present circumstances offer by way of compensation for loss of the invariably exaggerated fantasy of sweet home? Although “it was a delusion our fathers served, it was a wonderful and noble delusion,” Zweig wrote, “more humane and more fruitful than our watchwords of today; and in spite of my later knowledge and disillusionment, there is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely.” Zweig’s paean to the aesthetic intoxication that characterized the Vienna of yesterday recalls Nietzsche’s dictum, “We have art in order that we may not perish of truth.”

Unfortunately, the only Zweig I’ve read is The Post-Office Girl, which I really enjoyed, and which made me want to read more—a desire that’s been stoked by this piece.

*

Quarterly Conversation‘s review sections is one of the highlights of each issue, and the new one doesn’t disappoint. Especially pleased to see a piece by Matt Rowe on Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life in Paper, which was translated by Edward Gauvin. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I completely agree with Matt on the Cortazar connection:

Although the stories in A Life on Paper have many precedents and parallels in American writing, from Irving to Poe to Twain, the fantastic mode has been in eclipse for a century. In recent years Ray Bradbury’s freaks and dreamers, unfairly relegated to the genre shelves, are perhaps a better match than the biting humor and socio-cultural satire of a Vonnegut, despite their surface similarities. The success of writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Mann may be sign of a renaissance, or merely the exception that proves the rule.

Other literatures don’t relegate the modern fantastic to a lesser tier. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s closest Latin American kin is not any practitioner in the overstretched category of magical realism but the inimitable Julio Cortázar; Italian readers know not only Calvino’s post-modern play but the works of his contemporaries Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi and many others. And beyond the many works of Châteaureynaud not yet in English, translator Gauvin says there is a whole school of the fantastic in French and especially Belgian letters.

This kind of tale is foreign not in its language (thanks to Edward Gauvin) but in its mere unfamiliarity. A Life on Paper is itself a talisman for preserving an endangered world.

*

Linda Lê is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while, especially The Three Fates, which is translated by Mark Polizetti and published by New Directions. Here’s a bit from Promita Chatterji’s review:

From its first lines depicting an old man, “tired, broken . . . sitting in his small blue house like King Lear in his hovel,” the novel aligns its main characters with the most canonical of literary figures. “King Lear’s” daughters turn out to be the “Three Fates” of the title: two sisters and their cousin; three women who have left their father behind while emigrating to France from Vietnam during the early 1970’s. Living a life of relative wealth and comfort, the novel’s main thread revolves around their discussions as they plan to bring him out for a visit.

But it’s Lê‘s style that sounds most intriguing to me:

While the majority of these stories are inherently fascinating and excruciatingly detailed, The Three Fates is by no means an easy read. Although it is relatively short, the novel’s overriding feature is its forceful, difficult narration. Written without chapter or paragraph breaks—and with only a few, intermittent “section” breaks—and without any dialogue or direct discourse, the novel creates a fractured, dream-like surface that glides from one perspective to another. [. . .]

The translation, by Mark Polizetti, is impressive in its ability to render the perspectival shifts and general pacing of the language. At times, the tone of sarcasm and cruelty feels a bit over the top and the nicknames can seem clunky, but overall works quite successfully to render the fragmentation and tension that characterize the novel.

*

Finally, there’s also a piece by Anne Posten on Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park:

In some ways, Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park is exactly what one might expect from a debut novel whose narrator and heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl. The book is fast-paced, engaging, and not exactly challenging in terms of form or style. What makes the book worth reading, however, is the fact that the story is a unique one, and one which is told with great simplicity, straightforwardness, and ease. Sascha Naimann is a flawed yet very lovable heroine, and it is very difficult not to be drawn in by her voice and story.

The story takes place in Frankfurt, where Sascha lives with her younger half-brother and half-sister in a housing project filled mostly with Russian immigrants like themselves. The fact that many of the characters are meant to be speaking Russian and the interactions between newly-learned German and the mother tongue provide an interesting challenge for a translator, and one that Tim Mohr dealt with smoothly. His pop-culture background is also very well suited to the diction of a teenager, and the switches between colloquialism and precocious articulateness are navigated with ease.

Yep—another book for the “to read” pile . . .

22 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. (Austria, New York Review Books)

The Post-Office Girl is the second NYRB title on the fiction longlist (the other being Unforgiving Years) and the third Zweig title that they’ve published. The other two are Beware of Pity, which was the only novel Zweig published during his lifetime, and a new translation of Chess Story, which was sent to his publisher just before Zweig committed suicide.

Before the rise of Nazism, Zweig was an incredibly popular writer well known both for his novels and for his biographies. But as a Austrian Jew, he fled Austria for London, then lived in the United States and Brazil. It was in Petropolis that he and his wife committed joint suicide, stating “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

Edwin Frank’s monthly erudite letter about a recent NYRB book is by far my favorite publisher newsletter, and the month he wrote about The Post-Office Girl was no exception. (If you’re interested in receiving the NYRB newsletter, you can sign up here.)

Thanks to translator Joel Rotenberg, The Post-Office Girl is at last available in English. It’s no less striking than Beware of Pity and Chess Story, the two other Zweigs we’ve published, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s a book that should change how people think about Stefan Zweig.

The Post-Office Girl is fastpaced and hardboiled—as if Zweig, normally the most mannerly of writers, had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett. It’s the story of Christine, a nice girl from a poor provincial family who gets a taste of the good life only to have it snatched away; and of Ferdinand, an unemployed World War I veteran and ex-POW with whom she then links up. It’s a story, you could say, of two essentially respectable middle-class souls who wake up to find themselves miscast as outcasts, but what it’s really about, beyond economic and psychological collapse, is social death. Set during the period of devastating hyper-inflation that followed Austria’s defeat in 1918, Zweig’s novel depicts a country grotesquely divided between the rich and poor, so much so that it has effectively reverted to a state of nature. Christine and Ferdinand and Austria have been hollowed out (even if the country is still decked out in the pomp, circumstance, and pointless bureaucratic regulations of its bygone imperial heyday). They exist in a Hobbesian state of terminal desperation from which—the discovery arrives with mounting horror and excitement—the only hope of escape or redemption lies in violence.

What’s especially interesting about this publication is that the book never came out during Zweig’s life. It was written during the 30s, appeared to be finished, but was left untitled and wasn’t published until 1982. There’s no clear reason why he didn’t publish this during his lifetime. (although Edwin has a hunch)

The first part of the book really does read like a fairy tale, as poor, diligent Christine is whisked away to spend some time with her very wealthy aunt and uncle. A sort of Cinderella story in which Christine gets to see a side of life she wasn’t even aware of, as when she first arrives to her room at the hotel:

The boy opens a door in the middle of the corrido, flourishes his cap, and steps aside. This must be her room. Christine goes in. But on the threshold she stops short, as though she were in the wrong place. Because with all the will in the world, the postal official from Klein-Reifling, accustomed to shabby surroundings, can’t just flick a switch are really believe that this room is for her, this extravagantly scaled, exquisitely bright, colorfully wallpapered room, with open French doors like crystalline floodgates, the light cascading through.

But like all fairy tales, the clock strikes midnight and she has to go back home. As Jeff Waxman explains in his review, this is when the book changes dramatically:

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

Posthumous publishing decisions are always open to criticism (see The Nation review, or any of the comments about the decision to publish 2666 in one volume instead of five separate books), but nevertheless, this is a great book, quite different from his other works, and definitely worth reading.

27 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our latest review is of Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl, one of this year’s Reading the World titles. Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago provides the review.

27 May 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In their usual classy-as-hell manner, New York Review Books delivered a real gem last month in the 2008 Reading the World selection THE POST-OFFICE GIRL, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Joel Rotenberg. Zweig’s posthumously published book is bitter, brutal, and everything I love about post-war literature while still retaining some of the sweet softness of, say, A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book is aptly billed as one which “lays bare the private life of capitalism”—it also exposes the meaninglessness and triviality of life and class while remaining firmly realistic.

The title character is Christine Hoeflehner, a mere shade of postal official in a province outside Vienna who, in her miserable innocence, knows neither pleasure nor joy. Until, of course, she does. Ms. Hoeflehner is a survivor of the first World War, but only in the sense that she is still living. The Great War took the family business and, in fact, much of the family. She is old before her time and her mother an invalid and her charge. As for many, misery became the constant. Zweig writes:

The war has in fact ended. But poverty has not. It has only ducked beneath the barrage of ordinances, crawled foxily behind the paper ramparts of war loans and banknotes with their ink still wet. Now it’s creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry, and bold, and eating what’s left in the gutters of the war. An entire winter of denominations and zeroes snows down from the sky…every thousand melts in your hand.

Imagine taking a young woman from that bleak picture, a woman who has always worked and never known luxury or rest and whisking her away to a palace—The Palace Hotel—it’s like something from a fairy tale. For Christine Hoeflehner, the fairy tale came true. Her wealthy aunt and uncle lavish her with all kinds of lovely foods and clothes. There and then, her name changes. She becomes Fräulein Christiane von Boolen, a glamorous doppelganger to her former self, a sort of gaudy butterfly entranced by the life of society and by the attentions of young men unscarred by the great tragedies of life. Zweig writes:

But how could she think, when would she think? She has no time to herself. No sooner does she appear in the lounge than someone from the merry band is there to drag her along somewhere—on a drive or a photo excursion, to play games, chat, dance; there’s always a shout of welcome, and then it’s bedlam. The pageant of idle busyness goes on all day. There’s no end of games played, things to smoke, nibble on, laugh at, and she falls into the whirl without resistance when any of the young fellows shouts for Fräulein von Boolen…

Perhaps it is odd that I mentioned that children’s classic, A LITTLE PRINCESS. No, it’s not odd—in Ms. Hoeflehner there is such a simple appreciation of luxury goods, an intimate affection for all the pleasures of wealth. She is childlike in the way she takes in pleasure, perhaps selfish, but blamelessly so. For all his criticism of the wealthy, it must be noted that Zweig doesn’t condemn wealth or luxury. His characters love comfort as we all love comfort and who, honestly, can deny its charms? As before, this “lays bare the private life of capitalism,” it doesn’t attack it, but reveal it. The novel doesn’t make moral claims; Zweig doesn’t judge the way people live their lives, merely contrasts them, makes glaringly obvious the inequalities—without assigning blame.

The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.

When one reads a book of this range, it is impossible not to stare hard at the author who crafted these words, who built—or rebuilt—this world of extremes, of pleasure and deprivation. There’s a disturbing autobiographical element. Even for someone only vaguely aware of Zweig’s life, his personal history seems obscenely connected to his characters, as though he had already lived out several possible lives through his books. Toward the end of World War II, having achieved safety in Brazil, Zweig and his wife killed themselves— out of despair for European civilization. His suicide was the suicide of Europe, his death was the death of humanism. Zweig was a well-known pacifist and an adored writer. His forfeit was a recognition of his failed hope and we can mourn him, but not too long or too strong. Such a man as Zweig was too sincere to invent anything as improbable as a happy ending. His characters chose life, almost arbitrarily, and after all, there isn’t that much difference.

THE POST-OFFICE GIRL
by Stefan Zweig
Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
New York Review Books
257 pgs, $14.00

27 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The “Spring Books” issue of The Nation is now out, with a lot of the content available online including pieces on Stefan Zweig and Imre Kertesz.

The Kertesz is a really positive review of both The Pathseeker (out from Melville House) and Detective Story (out from Knopf) by Ruth Scurr.

This year Tim Wilkinson has produced translations of the two short novels Kertész published in a single volume in 1977: The Pathseeker and Detective Story. Taken together, these translations are a wonderful opportunity to deepen our understanding of Kertész. While neither book is explicitly about the Holocaust, both assert the autonomy of fiction in its shadow.

Scurr has good things to say about Wilkinson’s translation as well:

In explaining something of the weight and importance of Kertész’s subjects and creative achievements, it is hard to convey simultaneously the deftness and vivacity of his writing: his sheer joy in making something new with words. Tim Wilkinson must be deeply responsive to Kertész’s delight in language to convey it so pervasively in his translations.

William Deresiewicz’s piece on Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl is also quite interesting, even if it does raise some questions about the book itself.

Zweig nibbled at The Post-Office Girl for years. The NYRB press material claims that the novel was found completed after its author’s death, “awaiting only minor revisions,” but the afterword to the German edition describes a manuscript in considerable disarray. Given that Zweig chose his own time of death, and given that he had just finalized two other works and dispatched them to his publishers, it seems clear that he never managed to hammer the novel into a shape that satisfied him.

Nevertheless, the book sounds fantastic—a sentiment echoed in an upcoming review of it that we’ll be posting over the next few days.

By renouncing the pleasures of vicarious feeling, The Post-Office Girl achieves an immediacy otherwise unequaled in Zweig’s fiction. No frame narrator screens us from the title character, 28-year-old Christine Hoflehner, postal clerk in the sleepy Austrian village of Klein-Reifling. The year is 1926. Christine shares a dank attic with her rheumatic mother. Her youth has been stolen by the war, along with her father, her brother and her laugh. But into the gloom of her days a sudden light breaks—a telegram from her aunt Claire, gone to America years before and now come back a rich lady. Claire invites her niece to join her on holiday in Switzerland. [. . .]

All of this represents an immeasurable advance over Zweig’s other fiction. Instead of a single emotion intensively examined within a narrow social frame—a fair description even, as its title suggests, of Beware of Pity, though that work is considerably longer than The Post-Office Girl—Zweig gives us fully rounded lives rooted in a broad historical context. This, he is telling us, is what the war has done to people. This is what history has made of their bodies. This is the fate of a whole generation. The question of historical luck, and thus of the possibility of alternative lives or selves, is everywhere at issue.

15 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following on yesterday’s post, here’s the second round-up of this year’s twenty-five Reading the World titles.

Since The Post-Office Girl was reviewed in today’s NY Sun by Eric Ormsby it seems like the perfect book to feature next.

Stefan Zweig was born in 1881 into a wealthy and privileged Viennese Jewish family. He went to the best universities; he traveled widely. A member of that fabulous generation of Viennese intellectuals and artists, which included Sigmund Freud, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Arthur Schnitzler, Zweig became a best-selling author, producing biographies (of Erasmus, Dickens, Casanova, and others), plays and poems, essays, short stories, and a dozen novels (his “Beware of Pity” and the brilliant novella “Chess Story,” also translated by Mr. Rotenberg, have already appeared from NYRB Classics). He settled in Salzburg but was forced to emigrate in 1934 after the Nazi rise to power. He went first to London, then to New York, finally taking refuge in Petrópolis, just outside of Rio de Janeiro. It was as though he could not run far enough or fast enough. Thomas Mann declared proudly from exile, “Where I am, there is Germany.” As a Jew driven from his homeland, Zweig could never assume so grandiose a stance: The Austria he had so brilliantly personified no longer existed except in memory, and from that there was no escape.

This particular novel was published posthumously and centers around Christine, a young woman working at a post-office who is suddenly swept up into the world of wealth and glamor . . . at least for a short period of time.

We’re going to be posting a long review of this in the near future, but I’ll leave off here with one of my favorite “X meets Y” comparisons from the all-time master of master of this construction:

Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde in Zweig’s haunting and hard-as-nails novel [. . .]

....
Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

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The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

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Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

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The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

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Fear: A Novel of World War I
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .

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