Alone among human beings

Dear Stefan,

I just finished reading three books of yours. I’ll give a brief account of each book, and then write about my general view of them.

First, Letter from an Unknown Woman (Brief einer Unbekannten), translated by Paul Eden and Paul Cedar.Upon returning to his home in Vienna, after a ride of three days in the mountains, the famous writer R., who just turned 41, found, among the correspondence accumulated in his home during the trip, a long letter, sent by a unknown woman. He immediately begins to read the letter, which resembles a manuscript. The rest of the story consists precisely in the account revealed in that letter, which we read as R. does.The mysterious sender writes R. about the years in which she was secretly (and deeply) in love with him. Thanks to her overwhelming passion, this unknown woman inhabited both the depths of misery and the pinnacle of high society. Much of the life of R. is revealed to the reader and to the character himself, in a devastating account.The novella was adapted for film in 1948 by Howard Koch and directed by Max Ophüls. It was also adapted as a film produced for French TV and directed by Jacques Deray in 2001.

Then, I read Fear (Angst), translated by Anthea Bell. After a regular escape to a lover’s home, and anxious to return to her placid bourgeois universe, Irene, a woman married to a wealthy young Viennese lawyer, is suddenly approached by a woman, who harshly accuses our protagonist of “stealing her man.” This unknown woman begins to chase our protagonist and to blackmail her in an increasingly aggressive manner. She requires large sums of money in exchange for her silence about the protagonist’s adultery. Irene’s desires collide with her conscience: the protagonist starts, from the first page, her descent to the tormented hell of guilt, fear, anger and shame. The false layer of respectability under which she tries to hide herself is placed under the permanent risk of a fatal shattering.

Angst (Fear) is the story of a woman haunted by the consequences of her adultery. The plot conveys, albeit timidly and with some moralizing tone, the transmutation of female desire into madness. In order to represent Irene’s affair as something born of mere self-indulgence and boredom, the novella ends up endorsing bourgeois values the author wanted, at first, to dispute. Nevertheless, the novella is an excellent psychological thriller, and manages to make the reader feel empathy for Irene – she is a kind of Viennese Madame Bovary. The reader is touched by the irrational fear that takes hold of the character.The novella was adapted for film in 1928 (Angst, directed by Hans Steinhoff), and in 1954 (La paura, directed by Roberto Rossellini).

Finally, I read Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman (Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau), translated by Anthea Bell. As a wool ball whose strings are slowly untangled, this novella is a story within another story. At an inn on the Riviera during the narrator’s summer vacation, a small group of tourists is confronted with a scandal: the apparently respectable wife of one of the guests suddenly abandons the family, and escapes in the company of a young man, after having talked to him for only three hours. Alarmed by the seemingly inexplicable behavior of the allegedly frivolous young woman, the other guests discuss furiously with each other about the event. Should such a woman be treated like an outcast by society? Or was her sudden and passionate conduct legitimate?

The narrator, a liberal man, defends the young fugitive, and argues that in certain moments of life, a woman can be victim of mysterious forces beyond her will power. Deny this reality would mean, to the narrator, to assume a sadistic pleasure in feeling morally better than other people, as well as to hide the fear against one’s own instincts. One of the participants of the discussion is Mrs C., a respectable English lady of about 60 years old, who feels intrigued by the narrator’s line of reasoning. This discussion leads her to tell him, privately, her personal history: 24 hours of a day she will never forget. Mrs. C. assumes then the narration of the plot, and describes the details of a sudden passion she had lived when she was 42 years old The novella was adapted for film in 1944 by the Argentine director Carlos F. Borcosque; in 1968, by French director Dominique Delouche; and in 2002 by Laurent Bouhnik.

In all three novellas, through female characters faced with extreme situations, your focus are the obsessions that take place in narrow social environments: the bourgeoisie in the first half of the XX century, in the golden years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both in the case of the terror caused by blackmail, as in exposing the delusion of a compulsive gambler or in the description of a dangerous sexual grooming, the driving forces of the three narratives lies not so much in the characters or in the use of language (which is sometimes overly flowery and somewhat melodramatic), but in the captivating storyline.

Despite the conventionality of the structure and of the tone adopted in the novellas (or perhaps through them), you manage to snatch the reader with the help of good insights into the nature of obsessions. You are relatively successful in portraying the inner turmoil of characters caught by the amour fou, when desire, sexual tension, vice or folly break the fragile surface of bourgeois high society. Although not as daring and controversial as your contemporary Arthur Schnitzler, you, in your own way and with relative success, try to incorporate elements of psychoanalysis to the profiles of the characters. Your stories resemble, in part, some of the Freudian cases. Not coincidentally, you were Freud’s friend, and, not infrequently, used the artifice of creating a narrator who, as an analyst, hands over his ears to a protagonist who confesses to him her secrets, her sins and obsessions.

Although sometimes harshly criticized by authors such as Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti and even Bertolt Brecht, and considered a popular author with a somewhat pedestrian style, you were the most translated German-speaking author of the period before the Second World War. You were a true bestseller at the time. In a period of severe sexual repression, readers were attracted by the cathartic effect of your narratives, which were full of passionate conflicts and outcomes characterized by repentance and moral redemption.

Yours truly,

J.


Egon Schiele. "Girl in black"
Egon Schiele. “Girl in black”

“All I know is that I shall be alone again. There is nothing more terrible than to be alone among human beings.”

— Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman

About the books

Letter from an Unknown Woman:

  • Pushkin Press, 2013, translated by Paul Eden and Paul Cedar, 153 p.
  • First published in 1922
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 3 stars
  • In German:
    • Brief einer Unbekannten. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1996. 96 p. Goodreads.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman:

  • Pushkin Press, 2016, translated by Anthea Bell, 92 p.
  • First published in 1927
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 3 stars
  • In German:
    • Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1995. 125 p. Goodreads.

Fear:

  • Pushkin Press, 2013, translated by Anthea Bell, 106 p.
  • First published in 1920
  •  Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • In German:
    • Angst. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991. 121 p. Goodreads.
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