Thursday, 26 November 2015

Confusion by Stefan Zweig Review

Confusion is about a university student who goes from party monster to serious student, becoming obsessed with his charismatic literature teacher – who has a “dark secret”! The two become close as the student helps the teacher write a book on Elizabethan theatre and then… things happen. 

Confusion is it for me and Stefan Zweig. Chess was a fine novella but everything I’ve read since has been mediocre to outright terrible; Confusion is firmly in the latter. It’s a self-consciously “literary” work which, like all similar books, has some finely worded sentences none of which say anything. 

Zweig relies entirely upon his narrator being utterly na├»ve to what his infatuation with the teacher signals and what the teacher’s behaviour towards him means, which is an infuriating conceit because it’s so obvious what’s happening and the reader has to watch the predictable, overwrought melodrama play out exactly so at a tedious pace. 

There are pages and pages of useless blither about the wonders of academia and the life of the mind, none of which convinces as to their merits or entertains in the least. Zweig is not the sort of writer who tells stories heavy on plot, instead focusing on the emotional inner lives of his narrators, particularly Confusion’s; which is odd because his stories are never in the least emotionally affecting, for me anyway, as too often the reader is told to feel a certain way rather than believe or experience it themselves through the prose. 

A hinted-at subtext to the piece seems to indicate that repressed sexual nature can lead to needless misery and suffering, which is certainly seen in the story and I expect is a truism as well; but it doesn’t feel like that is Zweig’s main intent, nor does it seem that he especially empathises with his characters’ emotional turmoil. It’s a passing observation on societal mores and nothing else. Perhaps the reveal at the end, which anyone could have guessed well before long as Zweig’s “hints” are laughably broad, might’ve had more impact in the 1920s/30s but it’s not nearly as explosive today. 

It’s taken me nearly half a dozen novellas (I never claimed to be quick on the uptake!) to realise Stefan Zweig isn’t much of a writer. He can write pretty prose that is as transparent as his subjects and their stories but nothing substantial or memorable. Confusion is a contrivance, quasi-artfully constructed, with zero emotional heft to it. It’s also the last thing I’ll read by Stefan Zweig for a long time, if not ever again.


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