Short stories by Stefan Zweig

November 16, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Die Hochzeit von Lyon by Stefan Zweig. (1881-1942)

My French edition entitled Die Hochzeit von Lyon includes seven short stories by Stefan Zweig. I picked up this book because of the title as I live near Lyon, irrational reason but who said we had to be rational? The stories are very different from one another and as they aren’t too numerous, I decided to give you a quick summary of each.

Geschichte eines Untergangs (1910), aka Histoire d’une déchéance aka Twilight

A bit of historical context. This story takes place in France, in 1727. Louis XV was enthroned in 1715 but he was only five at the time. As a consequence, Philippe, Duke of Orléans was in charge of the country as a Regent until 1723. The economic situation was disastrous, people were hungry and angry. The Law scandal didn’t help the regime. Madame de Prie, the main character of Zweig’s story had been the Regent’s lover and had been most influential at Versailles during two years. It is even said she arranged Louis XV’s marriage with Marie Leszczyńska. When the story starts, Madame de Prie is exiled from Versailles to her castle in Normandy. Alone. How can she handle the loneliness, the quiet? She misses the noise, the parties, the intrigues and the fun. She needs to be adored and feared. She needs to show off, to put her life on stage. She needs to orchestrate her death.

For a more detailed review of Twilight, read Guy’s post here.

Die Hochzeit von Lyon (1927) aka Un mariage à Lyon, aka A Wedding in Lyon (*)

Another time in French history, another place. We’re in 1793, during the French Revolution. There had been a major Royalist uprising in Lyon in 1793. After a long fight, the Republicans took the city. During the Terror, the local administrator didn’t enforce the Parisian orders to destroy the rebellious city. When he was replaced, the newcomer put it into motion, killing people without trials. They were killing so many people at the same time that the guillotine wasn’t fast enough, they just shot them and threw the corpses into the Rhône. The story takes place in a prison, before an execution and relates the wedding of two condamned people.

Im Schnee (1901) aka Dans la neige aka In the Snow (*)

This one is about Jewish people who live in a small German town near Poland. It’s Hanoucka and they’re celebrating when they hear that the “flagellants” (i.e. Gangs of men who persecuted Jewish people. I have no idea of the English word for that) are coming. To fight or to flee?

Die Legende der dritten Taube (1916), aka La légende de la troisième colombe, aka The Legend of the third Dove (*)

This is supposed to be the story of the third dove mentioned in the Bible, the last one Noah sent to the Earth and that never came back. It’s obviously an allegory about peace as Zweig wrote this short piece (about five pages) during WWI.

Das Kreuz (1906), aka La Croix, aka The Cross (*)

This one takes place in Spain, in 1810 at the the time of Napoleonic wars. The Spanish fight the French. A French batallion is walking on a road, when the Spanish “rebels” attack them. The French colonel bumps into a tree, faints and when he wakes up, he’s all alone. He decides to follow the road, hoping to find other soldiers when he realizes that all the French soldiers are dead and hung at the trees along the road. What shall he do? How can he survive?

Episode am Genfer See (1919) aka Au bord du lac Léman, aka By Lake Léman (*)

This one relates the story of a Russian peasant who runs aground on the Swiss side of Lake Léman in 1918. He’s a deserter and wants to go home.

Der Zwang (1916), aka La Contrainte, aka Constraint (*)

Der Zwang is the most political story of the book. It’s WWI. Ferdinand and his wife live in Switzerland but they are from a country currently at war. It’s not mentioned but I guess they are either German or Austrian. Ferdinand receives an official letter telling him he’s mobilized and must join the army. He’s in Switzerland, he can hide there and not go. He feels the paper pushes the right buttons in him and he feels compelled to go even if he hates war, doesn’t want to kill and doesn’t agree with the idea of patriotism. Shortly said, he’s a pacifist. Where’s his duty? To be faithful to his ideas and stay with his wife or to go against his will?

There is no foreword, so I can’t tell why the publisher chose to gather these stories into a book but I suppose that war, power and the vanity of mankind is the common point of these tales. They all talk about war (except the first one, unless you consider politics as a battle field too) and the consequences of war on everyday life and on human behaviours. Zweig wonders at our ability to kill for ideas, to accept butchery. He questions our lack of reaction: why do people go at war like sheep? Why don’t the Jewish rebel? Why do people accept to endanger their lives for ideas they don’t share and fear to resist and die for their ideal of peace? What does power do to a humanbeing, creating an unquenchable thirst for honors and attentions?

So far, I’d only read non-historical fiction by Zweig and this was my first visit into this side of his work. (I have his Marie-Antoinnette at home too). As always, Zweig excells at describing landscapes and their interaction with people and at depicting the characters’ innerminds. If Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane is a symbol of the German literature of the period, I understand why Caroline says the Germans consider Zweig as “corny”. Compared to Effi Briest, Jane Eyre is pornography; so of course, Zweig is more effusive, openly sensitive and romanesque. He has a pessimistic vision of humanity though.

I enjoyed reading these stories but to someone who wants to discover Zweig, I’d rather recommend Journey Into the Past or Letter From an Unknown Woman.

(*) I have no idea of the English title used by publishers, so I added the literal translation of the German title. I’ll never thank enough French publishers for sticking to literal translations of book titles most of the time.

  1. November 16, 2011 at 8:44 am

    I’d love to try more Zweig after finishing ‘Schachnovelle’, and these stories sound interesting. is it just me though, or is he one writer who doesn’t seem to have any other ‘obvious’ books to read?

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  2. November 16, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I have read a lot of his short stories but none of these ring a bell. Those I have read had no historical context, they were explorations of emotions and feelings.
    I’m not sure what Tony means with “obvious” books. Must reads? He certainly has a lot. Die Welt von Gestern. Brief einer Unbekannten and many other novellas, Ungeduld des Herzens…. It’s endless. And all his biographies.
    Schachnovelle is rather a sober piece as far as I remember.
    Zweig is Austrian, and I find his writing Austrian, like – less emotional – Roth and Fontane is very German. I know, I simplfiy a bit but still there are some distinct features that will tell you whether an author is German, Austrian, Czech writing in German, Swiss or – your favourite – Romanian writing in German.

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    • November 16, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      What I mean is that for many famous writers, there are several books which spring to mind immediately (e.g. Dickens – ‘Great Expectations’, ‘David Copperfield’, Thomas Mann – ‘Der Tod in Venedig’, ‘Buddenbrooks’ etc.). Although I know of Zweig, and have heard his name mentioned by many bloggers, with the exception of ‘Schachnovelle’, there doesn’t seem to be anything that everyone says you must read…

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      • November 16, 2011 at 2:55 pm

        When I think “Zweig”, the first books that come to mind are Chess Story (Schachnovelle), Amok, The Confusion of Feelings and Twenty-Four Hours in The Life of a Woman. For me, these are the “obvious”, the ones I knew before reading Zweig. I’ve only read The Confusion of Feelings, so there is much to enjoy in the future.

        I was really moved by Journey Into the Past. I think Guy has read Adepts in Self-Portraiture: Casanova, Stendhal, Tolstoy

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    • November 16, 2011 at 3:00 pm

      So far I prefer Austrian and Czech writers. I haven’t tried Swiss ones, but I have Widmer on the shelf and Stamm in head. Don’t misunderstand me, Fontane is brilliant but he didn’t reach me emotionally. And there are too many authors out there that I’d love to spend time again with Herta Müller.

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  3. November 16, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    I thought Twilight was a marvellous story. I have enough Zweig titles on my shelf to have a Zweig month. I’ve only read the Casanova Portraiture, it’s available as a stand-alone volume from Pushkin Press.

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    • November 16, 2011 at 9:50 pm

      What an ending for Madame de Prie! And to think it’s true, it’s incredible.

      I remembered the discussion about Casanova. This makes me think you might be interested in this article. Sorry it’s in French.

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  4. November 22, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Who said we had to be rational indeed? I absolutely agree.

    I remember Guy’s review of Twilight, which is definitely on my radar. I have unread Zweig though at home which is why I’ve not checked it out yet (actually, that may be one of my unread Zweig, this was before I introduced my new rule about not having more than one title unread by an author at a time, broken since only for Banffy).

    It sounds an excellent collection. Like you when I think Zweig I think Chess (which is among my unread Zweigs). He seems to have been a prolific chap though.

    On another note, I found Caroline’s comment about the different styles of Germans, Austrians, Czechs and Swiss writing in German absolutely fascinating.

    Oh, finally, flagellants in English is generally used in relation to people who whip themselves. It’s most often used either in relation to fetishists (though that not much) or to medieval groups of extremist penitents who would whip themselves in the hope that their suffering would redeem them in the eyes of god; If god exists, and I grant I’m not a believer, I suspect that kind of despair and self-hatred would not be the best way to win favour. We can, at times, be a very odd species.

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    • November 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      Which one is your unread Zweig on the shelf? Not Letter from an Unknown Woman, not these short stories and not Journey Into the Past.

      Thanks for the explanation of “flagellants”. In French, “se flageller” means “to whip oneself”. I guess they were an army of fanatics almost certain to go right to paradise with that. I agree with you, if you believe in god, given what’s in the Bible, I doubt it would lead to paradise.
      I also agree, we really are an odd species. In The Road, Jack London says we are worse than animal as we are the only species whose males sometimes beat their females.

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  5. December 4, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    I have several it turns out. Chess, Confusion, and Twilight/Moonbeam Alley.

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    • December 4, 2011 at 7:10 pm

      According to Tony’s review, Chess is really good. That will be my next one.

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  1. November 21, 2011 at 7:39 am
  2. November 30, 2011 at 10:13 am
  3. December 1, 2011 at 7:07 am

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