Friday, 27 November 2015

The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig Review

This book collects five of Stefan Zweig’s novellas: Chess, Fear, Confusion, Journey Into The Past and Burning Secret. 

I became a Zweig fan after first reading Chess a few years ago – little did I realise that that was his only good book and the rest of his output is very poor! I am a Zweig fan no longer. 

Fear and Confusion are tied as the worst novellas here. Fear is about an upper-middle class woman called Irene who has an affair with a young piano teacher and is blackmailed by her lover’s ex to keep quiet about it. The guilt drives Irene mad, the point of the story being how suffering in silence rather than being caught and punished is worse, but the reveal at the end of what it was all about is plain ridiculous. Melodramatic piffle. 

Confusion is about a university student who doesn’t realise he’s gay for his teacher. They write a book about Elizabethan theatre and then the teacher disappears. What does it mean?! Anyone with a brain will know but our narrator is, for all his supposed education, a dumbass. This was the longest novella in the book and it was insufferable. Hardly anything happens and the ending isn’t just obvious, it’s underwhelming and boring too. Like Fear, Confusion is contrived horseshit through and through. 

Burning Secret is only slightly better than the previous two with a similar approach of having a naive narrator but at least this one is 12 years old and not some unconvincingly innocent twenty-something! The kid and his single mother go to a holiday resort where a raffish fellow called the Baron decides to score with his hot mama. The kid at first thinks the Baron’s his buddy but slowly realises he’s using him to get into his mommy’s pants so he decides to get his own back by being the ultimate cockblock! It’s such a dreary story full of the kind of observations you wonder who they’re there for – too simple for grown-up readers and there aren’t going to be kids reading this! 

I didn’t dislike Journey Into the Past much but I didn’t like it either. It’s about a man and woman reunited years after having an affair who try to rekindle that passion. It’s a well-observed psychological romance with overtones of the impending war as the Nazis rise to power though on the whole it still feels slight, unremarkable, and, like all things Zweig, strangely unmoving despite the emphasis on emotion. 

Chess remains the best thing of Zweig’s I’ve read. I’ve read it twice since 2010 and still really like it. It’s about the world chess champion being challenged – and beaten – by a mysterious opponent nobody has ever heard of. Zweig’s story returns back to the horrors of fascist Germany, taking the reader into a Gestapo holding cell where the mystery man is interrogated for months. Chilling and compelling, Chess is a brilliant novella and the only one in the collection I’d say is worth checking out. 

Zweig is a fine prose stylist who wrote beautiful sentences but his penchant for melodrama and literary posturing leads too many times to overwrought silliness in his often quite bare narratives. The effect of which leads to some surprisingly empty stories lacking the emotional impact he describes his characters going through that the reader can’t feel. This isn’t a worthwhile collection to get – I’d recommend interested readers pick up Chess instead. It’s not only better but far shorter than wading through the other four novellas of sludge.

The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig

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