ONE WEEK WITH A CIVILIZED
One of the reasons I love Dan Simmons’ work is that
the man doesn’t limit himself to one genre. You want
science fiction? Here is the whole HYPERION CANTOS, one of
the best cycles of the past century. Is horror your cup of
tea? Take some CARRION COMFORT. You’re fond of quiet,
meditative works about the human condition? Get into PHASES
OF GRAVITY. And for those who like slick thrillers, DARWIN’S
BLADE cuts deep. As a reader and as a translator, most of
my time is devoted to SF, but I sometime long for other stuff.
And there are times when I’ve had my fill of SF, or
fantasy, or horror: I must refresh myself and plunge in the
sea of literature.
This time, the clincher was a wonderful French movie you’ve
probably never heard of, 24 HEURES DE LA VIE D’UNE FEMME,
directed by Laurent Bouhnik and starring
Agnès Jaoui and Michel Serrault.
The screenplay is adapted from Stefan Zweig’s
short novel 24 HOURS IN THE LIFE OF A WOMAN, and the first
thing I thought as the end credits rolled was, “I must
read this book.” The name Zweig was not unknown to me,
of course, but the story told by the movie was so breathtakingly
moving I had to go deeper into the man’s work.
Well, my girlfriend and I had planned a one-week vacation
in Croatia, and I decided to buy a few Zweig books and to
take them there instead of another SF tome. Since this is
not a “What I Did in My Summer Vacation” school
report, I won’t tell you about Croatia, Dubrovnik and
Cavtat – well, I’ll only write two words: “ailing
paradise”, and urge you to go see for yourselves –
but I’ll most definitely tell you about Zweig.
Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most famous European
writers of his time. Born in Vienna, in an affluent Jewish
family, he was a well-traveled man (Asia, North and South
America, and of course Europe), a devotee of literature and
a student of psychology. He was mainly known for his biographies
of historical figures –Fouché, Mary Stuart, Queen
Marie-Antoinette – and of contemporaries – Romain
Rolland, Émile Verhaeren, French-speaking writers he
also translated into German – but he was above all a
master of the short form. No three-deckers in his bibliography,
but brief, incisive, elegant novelettes or novellas like CONFUSION,
FEAR, THE INVISIBLE COLLECTION, BUCHMENDEL and THE ROYAL GAME
– to mention only some I’ve read this past week
and which are available in English.
Yeah, you say, but what made him so great?
Simply put, his big theme was passion, and he was a passionate
writer. Also, as some critics have noted, a man who, even
when he was quite young, had a deep knowledge of Woman. Take
FEAR, for instance. The main character is a well-to-do woman
who cheats on her husband – a hackneyed premise if I
ever saw one – and is suddenly confronted by her lover’s
former mistress who tries to blackmail her. She thinks herself
trapped, for she becomes so agitated her husband cannot help
but notice something; but the trap she fell into is even more
devilish than she thinks, for… naah, no spoilers.
I hasten to add that this story is brilliant not because
of its final, chilling twist, but because of what it tells
us about desire and jealousy. It deserves to be read a second
The same goes for CONFUSION, a story from 1927 whose final
twist will surprise nobody in these more enlightened times.
What it has to say about passion is still valid, though. Ditto
for THE INVISIBLE COLLECTION, a study of obsession that will
wrench your heart. As for THE ROYAL GAME, it’s quite
simply one of the best stories I’ve ever read, a story
about chess, survival, human dignity and the nature of intelligence.
With as many layers as an onion, to boot.
Stefan Zweig was a deeply civilized man, whose motto might
have been Terence’s famous quote: “Homo
sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.” When the Nazis
came into power, his books were among the first to be burned,
and he fled first to Britain, then to the States, and finally
to Brazil, where he died by his own hand, despairing over
the course of the war. (As readers of THE CROOK FACTORY know,
the future looked quite bleak in 1942.)
It seems we French readers are lucky, for a lot of Zweig’s
stories are still in print today, mostly in inexpensive paperback
editions. A quick look at amazon.com is more sobering, as
only a few English translations seem available. My knowledge
of German, Spanish and other languages is too bad for me to
do a valid search. But whatever your language of choice, I
urge you to try and read Stefan Zweig. As other have noted,
the man is more than a good writer: most of the people who
discover his work feel they’ve found a new friend.
I’ll leave you with the final words of his story BUCHMENDEL
(and I apologize for my poor English translation of the French
translation of the original German!): “Still I know
that books were created to bind men beyond death and to protect
us against life’s most ruthless foe: oblivion.”
PS 1: There is at least one website devoted to Stefan Zweig,
mostly for French readers, but with links to sites in other
PS 2: Also of note, Stefan Zweig’s memoir, THE WORLD
OF YESTERDAY, which I’m just starting to read as I write
this. A moving book, well worth reading in these troubled
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