Review published on May 18, 2016.
This collection of stories demonstrates Stefan Zweig’s mastery of the art of short story-telling, a skill which, in my experience, few authors possess. It starts with The Invisible Collection, a very short tale about an old man, a life-long collector of extremely valuable copper engravings. Although now blind, he loves nothing more than frequently to “inspect” his collection, apparently unconcerned that hyper-inflation in Germany has plunged his family into desperate poverty. When an art dealer visits, the old man insists on showing off his engravings and a shocking secret is uncovered.
I found this a very moving story about obsession, denial, deception, caring and kindness. Each of the characters was so well portrayed that I felt I could see them all clearly. It is a story in which the author captured pathos but avoided sentimentality, thus increasing its powerful impact.
24 Hours in a Woman’s Life is set in the 1930s, at a guesthouse on the Riviera. When an apparently respectable woman abandons her husband and children to run off with a young man she has only just met, fellow-guests are scandalised. The narrator of the story defends her actions and finds himself shunned by most of the other guests until he is sought out by Mrs C, a white-haired, widowed English lady in her 60s. She makes a decision to confide in him, sharing, for the first time ever, her memories of a day forty five years ago, a day which contained such intense feelings and experiences that not one day in the intervening years has passed without her thinking about it, and the other person involved.
This is a longer story, and one which is equally touching and engaging. It deals with two characters, each in their own way in despair, who meet and share a brief but very intense relationship. With empathy and understanding it captures what it is to be human, to act out of character, to be subject to compulsive passions, to struggle with issues of morality. The author’s tendency to tell “tale within a tale” is used to very good effect in this story.
Incident on Lake Geneva begins with a fisherman coming across a drifting raft on which there is a naked man. Once an interpreter is found it transpires that the man is a Russian soldier who was drafted into the Russian Army from his home in Siberia and sent to France to fight. Having been wounded he asked where Russia was and, having been pointed in the direction of Lake Geneva, became determined to return to his wife and children. Having been rescued from the lake his determination to continue his journey remains, even though he is told that he will have to wait until the war has ended.
This is such a compassionate and powerfully moving story about the despair of anyone who feels displaced. It explores the misery which is caused when individual needs and feelings are subsumed by external events.
A Game of Chess is more a novella than a short story but once I had started it I just had to finish it in one sitting!
On board a steamship bound for Buenos Aries from New York, the reigning world chess champion is challenged to a game of chess by a fellow passenger. The challenger is very quickly beaten but demands a return match and it is during this encounter that a mysterious passenger, Dr B. intervenes and starts to direct the challenger’s moves, leading to the match ending in a draw. Dr B., who claims not to have sat in front of a chess board for twenty five years, later recounts to a fellow passenger his disturbing back-story, outlining how he became so proficient in his knowledge of the game. His revelations are deeply disturbing and shocking and add powerful extra tension to a final match between him and the champion.
I am not a chess player – a reflection about strategy, described by the narrator as being …all double Dutch to us…. certainly rang bells for me! However, this didn’t prevent me from feeling totally caught up in the excitement, the tension, the battle to overcome and to survive in the face of determined opposition. Stefan Zweig captured the nature of stress, obsessional behaviour and mental breakdown in a powerful and disturbing way. The spare, simple, yet elegant writing really captured both the tension of the game and the interactions of the various characters. Throughout my reading I was aware of all the parallels in the author’s own life at the time he was writing this story and this certainly added an extra poignancy.
Although these four stories are in many ways very different, they all share a theme of single-minded behaviour, are underpinned by social and political commentary, full of symbolism and are rich in metaphor and allegory. This ensures that they really do feel timeless – true modern-day parables.
A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Alma Classics 978-1-84749-581-5 pbk Mar 2016