Title: The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig
Author: Stefan Zweig (translated by Anthea Bell)
Genre: Literary Fiction
Release Date: 2nd February, 2016
“A casual introduction, a challenge to a simple game of chess, a lovers’ reunion, a meaningless infidelity: from such small seeds Zweig brings forth five startlingly tense tales-meditations on the fragility of love, the limits of obsession, the combustibility of secrets and betrayal.
To read anything by Zweig is to risk addiction; in this collection the power of his writing-which, with its unabashed intensity and narrative drive, made him one of the bestselling and most acclaimed authors in the world-is clear and irresistible. Each of these stories is a bolt of experience, unforgettable and unique.” (Pushkin Press)
The first thing you need to know about this collection is that you have to stick with it. Some of the stories take a little time to warm into but if you take the time to work through them, it’ll be worth it. As a whole, I think the collection is a good showcase of Stefan Zweig’s writing, particularly in terms of his ability to display humans and their emotions at their best and worst. But individually, there are some stories that definitely outshine the others.
My personal favourite was A Chess Story, which starts out as the tale of a world champion chess player and ends up being a war survival story with a difference. I liked this one the most not only because it ended up being something completely different to what I expected, but also because of the psychological aspect of it. It’s hard to tell you about it without giving away any spoilers, but I will say that it showed how psychological torture can be just as bad as physical torture:
“The interrogation, however, wasn’t even the worst of it. The worst was being returned to my nothingness afterwards, to the same room with the same table, the same washbasin, the same wallpaper.”
Another stand out for me, was the very first novella in the collection, A Burning Secret, also starting out as one thing and ending up quite another. In this case, it begins with a well off man seeking out female companionship for fun, and ends up being about a child on the cusp of adulthood, losing that last piece of childish innocence.
The other three stories, Fear, Confusion, and Journey Into the Past were, to me, about love and lust, and the way that the two mix and mingle, causing us to sometime make poor decisions; redeem us; or, upon reflection, not be what we thought it was in the heat of the moment – love can be lost and it can be found, but when we find it, it may not necessarily be what we remembered.
Fear was probably my least favourite of the five novellas and as it’s right in between all the others, it feels like a bit of a struggle to get through in order to make it to the final two novellas. But it’s worth reading because there is definitely something to be taken away from it. I would suggest saving A Chess Story to the end though, as it’s the jewel of the collection and it would be the perfect way to finish reading.
But in any case, each of them adds something of its own to the collection as a whole, and even if you don’t necessarily like a story, it’s worth reading it just for Zweig’s writing. Although it’s dark at times, it’s also humourous, and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. There is so much humanity in his writing as well – to me it was almost like he felt every cut one person inflicted on another, but also felt every moment of tenderness, and then he wrote it all down. I know that sounds a bit weird, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. It’s hard to explain – you just need to read his work and see. Maybe you’ll see it differently.
If you’re looking at reading Zweig but aren’t sure that you want to make a commitment to a book of this length (it’s about 380 pages), all of the novellas are available individually from Pushkin Press and A Chess Story would be the ideal place to start to whet your appetite for Zweig. But I say dive in head first and immerse yourself completely in Zweig – it’s worth it.