Posts Tagged ‘Stefan Zweig’

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.

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.