Posts Tagged ‘Austria’

Zweig Lovers Night

February 18, 2013

Valentine’s Day is a day that all sensible people dread. Being sensible, you know that it is ridiculous to get het up about whether or not you will receive a card, flowers, or candlelit dinner, and yet it’s almost impossible not to find yourself desperately wanting all of the above and feeling disproportionately let-down when they don’t quite materialise.

Keen to come up with a plan to avoid this perennial disappointment, I hastened to book tickets to Pushkin Press‘s ‘Zweig Lovers Night’ at the Austrian Cultural Centre. Here was a rare opportunity to do something enjoyable, thought-provoking and un-naf on Valentine’s Day. Surely I wouldn’t care about the lack of candlelit dinner or bunch of flowers with a feast of Stefan Zweig on the horizon.

The evening came around. The husband gave me a very thoughtful writerly card and together we hurried into a grand Knightsbridge house, excited to listen to Amanda Hopkinson, Ali Smith and Antony Beevor talk about why they love Stefan Zweig.

It was fascinating to hear a little of these different writers’ personal connections with his writing. Amanda Hopkinson talked about the editions she’d inherited from her mother, who had met the man himself. These very special books were autographed in Zweig’s signature violet ink, but she had been forced to sell them in order to pay the gas bill during a particularly tough time. Ali Smith talked about the magnetism of Zweig’s prose and read a passage from Fantastic Night, brilliantly capturing the rhythm of Anthea Bell’s translation. (Anthea Bell was there too, quietly approving of the proceedings.) Antony Beevor talked about Zweig as a writer of tremendous empathy and – of course – placed his writing in the context of historical events.

These writers were here as readers, and as they read aloud bits of Zweig’s writing, it was easy to remember why the rest of us readers were Zweig lovers too.

When I read Beware of Pity it felt like being put under a spell. The writing is incredibly intense, unbelievably gripping, forcing you to feel the narrator’s every thought. I felt transplanted inside Hofmiller’s head, into a world of elastic time, where a moment can stretch out into an eternity of pain – such as when he asks Edith to dance – or when a whole lifetime can be condensed into what feels like minutes – like when the Doctor tells him Kekesfalva’s story.

In Beware of Pity Zweig tells the story of Hofmiller – a young army officer who is posted to a small town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Soon he is invited to dinner at Kekesfalva Castle, the home of the richest man in the district, where Hofmiller is enchanted by the grandeur:

It does me good to eat at such an elegantly laid table in so bright and sparkling a room, with liveried servants behind me and the finest dishes in front of me … I have never eaten so well, or even dreamt that anyone could eat so well, so lavishly, could taste such delicacies.

After dinner, there is dancing, by which time Hofmiller is utterly intoxicated:

I hardly know what I am doing, I would like to embrace everyone, say something heartfelt, grateful to them all, I feel so light, so elated, so blissfully young. I whirl from partner to partner, I talk and laugh and dance, and never notice the time, carried away by the torrent of my pleasure.

Then he realises ‘to my alarm’ that he has been so caught up in the evening that he has rudely forgotten to ask the host’s daughter to dance. He searches her out and asks her, but:

Something terrible happens next. She had been leaning slightly forward, but now she flinches abruptly back as if avoiding a blow. At the same time the blood rushes into her pale cheeks, the lips that were half open just now are pressed hard together, and only her eyes keep staring at me with an expression of horror such as I have never seen in my life before … Suddenly she bursts into sobs, a wild, elemental sound like a stifled scream.

Hofmiller discovers that she is lame. He meant to be polite, but instead he has insulted and upset her.

This is his first encounter with the Kekesfalvas, but certainly not the last. Hofmiller’s feeling of pity towards the girl and her father embroils him in their lives … The drama plays out and he becomes more and more of a coward until eventually the First World War breaks out, in which he fights with seeming heroism. As Antony Beevor said on the night, it is a tremendous exploration of the gulf between moral cowardice and physical courage.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been completely gripped by Beware of Pity, sucked into Hofmiller’s head and bewitched by Zweig’s spell of a novel. So I was surprised to find this scathing article from an old London Review of Books about Stefan Zweig by Michael Hofman, best known as a translator of Joseph Roth, another celebrated writer of Vienna. Hofman says Zweig is a ‘uniquely dreary and clothy sprog of the electric 1880s’, the ‘Pepsi of Austrian writing’.

I can’t bear reading vitriolic reviews, and find it hard to understand how one writer can find such sadistic pleasure in ripping another to shreds. It would seem, in this plethora of insults, that Hofman finds Zweig to be a name-dropping fake. Admittedly, The World of Yesterday – his memoir about Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century – is full of names, and many of them famous ones. But I don’t see why he shouldn’t mention them if he knew them – isn’t that sort of the point of a memoir? Indeed Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian that:

There are cameo appearances from almost all the major writers of the era (and quite a few musicians too): Gorky, Rilke, Hoffmansthal, Joyce and countless others appear, but, with typical generosity, Zweig prefers to dwell on those whom he fears posterity will overlook.

It is uncanny reading Nicholas Lezard’s review next to Michael Hofman’s – it is as though they are written about completely different books.

Perhaps we can concede that Zweig was a bit of a name-dropper, but Hofman is completely wrong to say that, like Pepsi, he ‘tastes fake’. There is nothing fake about Beware of Pity – it has the drunken reality of a nightmare, reality distorted into something particularly horrific, especially affecting. (Incidentally, Zweig wrote Beware of Pity when he was seeing rather a lot of Freud.) It is hyper-real – every detail has been coloured pixel by pixel.

I came away from Zweig Lover’s Night on Valentine’s Day with a rekindled passion. I’ve spent the days since rereading bits of The World of Yesterday and Beware of Pity and trying to decide which of Zweig’s novellas to read first.

The husband, also a Zweig lover, left the talk feeling hungry. ‘Oh no,’ he said, looking distraught and a bit guilty. ‘Sorry, I should have booked somewhere for dinner.’ The familiar Valentine’s Day disappointment flashed through me as that candlelit dinner once again faded from sight. I managed to shake it off as we walked through an eerie dark Hyde Park and then feasted on Lebanese food on Edgware Road. As we gobbled baba ghanoush, I couldn’t believe that we’d managed to have a fun evening on Valentine’s Day without being at all cheesy.

Just then, the restaurant switched on a spectacular soundtrack of 80s power ballads. It was as though they’d read my thoughts just as easily as Zweig lets us read Hofmiller’s.

The Constant Nymph

September 24, 2012

I’m back from a very fun holiday in New York during which I had planned to read Patti Smith’s quintessentially New York memoir Just Kids.

But for one reason or another I set off having just begun Margaret Kennedy’s 1920s classic The Constant Nymph and so read this rather eccentric, incongruous book while I was away, only beginning Patti Smith’s on the plane home. A rather out-of-sync reading experience, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. There will be more on New York and Patti Smith next week, but for now I shall write about The Constant Nymph.

I better begin by saying that I think it impossible to read a book with such a daft title without expecting it to be quite silly. But the wonderful and surprising thing about this novel is that it is not at all as silly as it sounds. It is also not nearly as girly as it sounds. In fact, the main character is not the nymph of the misleading title but a man – troubled young composer Lewis Dodd.

The Constant Nymph begins as Lewis Dodd arrives at ‘Sanger’s Circus’, a hut in the Austrian Tyrol where Sanger – another composer – goes every summer with his ‘circus’ of musician friends and children begot from several wives. It is a very Bohemian setup, with various skinny young teenagers running around doing things like looking at badger holes and performing operas and not having enough to eat. It is a wild place and a wild way of living, unfettered by social mores, where everyone is doused with creativity and wanders across mountains in the moonlight.

But then – and we know this from the very first line, so this isn’t a spoiler – Sanger dies, and his children are left penniless. English relations are written to in the hope that they might take responsibility for them, and so we meet cousin Florence, nearly twenty-eight, the daughter of a Cambridge don, who determines to go to the Tyrol and sort everything out.

While Florence is the perfect prim, proper, respectable young English lady, Margaret Kennedy has drawn her with sufficient independence of spirit to make her rather a sympathetic character:

Florence, having finished her breakfast, went about her household duties with the methodical but unenthusiastic efficiency of a woman who is too intelligent to neglect such things. Then she put on her hat and went out to practise string quartets with some friends. Unlike the rest of her circle, she had no profession, but she was a busy young creature. Since she left College there had been so many attractive things to do, books, music, exciting vacations abroad, eventful terms full of political meetings and Greek plays, charming friends and, above all, so much to discuss that she scarcely noticed the flight of time. But it had gone on quite long enough. Sometime, quite soon, she meant to put an end to it. She would settle down to some serious work, or, if she could find a man to her taste, she would marry. At present, her most favoured cavaliers were in their sixties, and for a husband she wanted someone younger than that.

Yes she sounds a little silly with her string quartets and Greek plays, but she is also evidently intelligent. Perhaps occupying herself with these ‘attractive things’ is an attempt to put off the constraints of society for as long as she can.

So Florence and an uncle set off to the Tyrol, where their encounter with the wild life of the Sanger children reminds me very much of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. Again, two prim English people journey to a foreign place of freedom, where they struggle to impose order on a wildness that they can’t understand. In both novels the men are utterly at sea, whereas the women are seduced by this exotic new way of life:

Florence woke every morning, rapturously, to the tune of cow bells … She was so much aware of the impermanence of her pleasure that she was no sooner awake than a longing would seize her to jump up and run out into the mild warmth of the early sun.

Like Caroline Abbott in Where Angels Fear to Tread, Florence has fallen under the spell of an exotic, un-English life. She also falls for Lewis Dodd. And Lewis Dodd falls for her.

So far so silly, I hear you think. Yes, here is a perfect love story and, indeed, it transpires that Lewis is even from the right class:

“I’d have married him,” she thought, “if his father had been the hangman; but this does make a difference…”

But the Sanger children are dismayed at the news of their engagement and Tessa – one of the children and the nymph of the title – suffers actual physical pain from it. For we know already that Tessa, although only fourteen, is utterly in love with Lewis.

The plot thickens when they go to England. Florence and Lewis are married and Florence sets up a home and determines to make Lewis a success. The Sanger children are sent off to boarding school. But whereas Florence, having found her man, is quite happy to slip back into English life, the others rail against its constraints.  Lewis receives this letter from the Sanger girls:

Dear Lewis,

Will you please come and take us away from here? It is a disgusting school and we have endured it for as long as we are able … We would never have come if we knew what it would be like. We shall kill ourselves if we are not soon taken away; we cannot exist here, it is insufferable. The Girls are hateful, they say we don’t wash and are liars. The governesses are a Queer Lot and not fitted to be teachers, I’m sure. They think of nothing but games …

Silly and childish as the letter it is, the girls are obviously desperately unhappy. And amidst the histrionics, Paulina has pinpointed the problem: they simply ‘cannot exist here’.

Lewis soon comes to realise he can’t exist there either. This wildness cannot be allowed to exist in England. And so the rest of the novel has an alarming, entropic feeling as Florence struggles to keep control while the wildness of ‘Sanger’s circus’ spins more and more recklessly out of it.

It must be because of this feeling of chaos, genius and creativity struggling to break out of the confines of English society that Anita Brookner, in her introduction to this Virago classic, calls Margaret Kennedy ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’. This spirit of anarchy transforms the novel from a delightful little story into something troubling, disturbing and very powerful, and all the more so for erupting from its disguise of such a silly title.

Florence has got herself into an impossible situation. She has tried to bring genius to English society when neither genius nor society wants to accept each other. Yes, this is a fascinating depiction of the struggle of creative genius, but it is also a vital questioning of the value of society. Lewis, Tessa and the other members of ‘Sanger’s circus’ are wonderful, fun, talented, fascinating characters. What is our society worth if it can’t accommodate them? Why is there no place for genius in England? Why can it only flourish abroad?

I wonder if Margaret Kennedy felt something of this disjuncture within herself. She was creative and yet also took her place in society as the wife of a Q.C., living in Kensington. Perhaps, not unlike Florence, she spent a little while dallying with string quartets and talking about politics and Greek plays before settling down to marry, and perhaps writing was her way of endeavouring to continue with her independence of spirit. Or perhaps she felt rather ambivalent towards her boarding school, where they concentrated so resolutely on hockey, and fantasised about a free-spirited Sanger-like upbringing.

In any case, in The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy certainly highlights the shortfalls and prescriptive narrowness of her society. Ninety years on and things have changed somewhat, but the essential idea of how we confront and deal with difference remains relevant and utterly compelling.