Stefan Zweig: Novellas and Short Stories


Some upcoming deadlines means that this may well be my last contribution to German literature month. I have enjoyed it greatly and will continue to read the reviews by other participants (and, of course, I will continue to read German literature throughout the year – in fact, I’ve just ordered two books for Christmas).

Stefan Zweig is an old favourite, but it’s been nearly two decades since I last read any of his work. I reread the ‘Chess’ novella and ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’, but I think it was the first time I read ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ and ‘The Invisible Collection’. It’s these four I want to talk about.

The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from
The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from

Chess‘ is famous for being the only work openly addressing the interrogation methods and political persecution by the Gestapo. It has an interesting structure of a story within a story – or rather two stories within a story, as we also find out more about the background of the reigning world champion in chess, Czentowic – which serves perhaps to create a bit of distance and make the grim tale somewhat more bearable. (It did remind me of the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’.) It was also the last complete work Zweig wrote before committing suicide and perhaps best conveys his feeling of hopelessness, his loss of idealism and how he felt the world of materialism (in the person of Czentowic) was winning over. Zweig commented at some point how he felt ‘so much of human dignity has gone lost during this century’. Most surprising of all, Zweig himself was not a good chess player at all – but clearly a keen observer of other players.

Joan Fontaine in the film version, from
Joan Fontaine in the film version, from

By way of contrast, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ struck me as a bit overblown and sentimental. It throws everything at us: passionate love, undying devotion, a child’s death and self-sacrifice. Yet the end rang true: that the writer to whom this is all addressed (the writer who is supposed to be such a sensitive, empathetic person) still cannot remember the woman whose life he has so dramatically influenced.

Incident on Lake Geneva’ is a very short tale which can be read allegorically. A naked man is fished out of Lake Geneva: he turns out to be a Russian POW who has escaped from camp. He is wild and unkempt, can barely make himself understood, but a hotel-owner who speaks some Russian finally manages to communicate with him. He was trying to swim eastwards towards Russia, which he thought was at the other end of the lake. When he is told that Russia is much farther away, that the country he was fighting for no longer exists, the Tsar is dead, the war not quite over and that he is not free to return home until he completes a lengthy bureaucratic process, he chooses to drown. A heartbreaking story of losing one’s identity and sense of belonging.

unsichbaresammlungThe last one I read was my favourite ‘The Invisible Collection‘: an art dealer visits the home of an old man, his father’s best client, in the hope of getting some valuable sketches and prints from his notable collection. But it turns out that the old man’s wife and daughter have sold the priceless sketches in order to cope with rampant inflation, relying on the fact that the collector is now blind and can no longer tell the real from the fake. A beautiful, moving scene follows, in which the collector leafs through his collection and describes each of his beloved pieces in detail, while the art dealer sees the feeble copies but tries to keep the illusion intact. This is a wonderful story about the power of imagination and passion, the joy that is within us rather than in anything we possess. Ultimately, an uplifting and hopeful story.


33 thoughts on “Stefan Zweig: Novellas and Short Stories”

  1. Letter from an Unknown Woman is my first Zweig… like you I found it very sentimental, uncomfortably pitying the narrator yet strangely compelled to read on. I’m keen to read these others too.

  2. Zweig’s short pieces are wonderful, aren’t they? I’ve read all of these except “Incident on Lake Geneva” and I tend to agree with your thoughts on “Unknown Woman”. It was one of the earliest Zweigs I read and I think it gave me a slightly false impression of him, as his other works seem more powerful and somehow more political. But I do think any Zweig is good Zweig – have you read “Buchmendel”? Heartbreaking.

    1. Assuming “Buchmendel” is translated as “Mendel the Bibliophile” it is a very powerful story, I read it for German literature Month last year and reread it this month. I read it in the Pushkin Press edition of his collected short stories

      1. It is, and it’s the story that convinced me that Zweig could never be considered a lightweight.

  3. I love Max Ophuls’ film of Letter from an Unknown Woman (I’m a huge fan of Joan Fontaine), but I’ve never read the original story. The film is full of emotions, so I can relate to your impressions of the novella. Of the four you’ve reviewed here, The Invisible Collection is the one that interests me the most. I think it’s available from Pushkin as part of a collection of Zweig’s short works, so I’ll make a note of it. Very interesting reviews as ever, Marina – thank you.

    1. I haven’t seen the Joan Fontaine film (or if I have, I can’t remember it), although I have seen a version of Chess. The Invisible Collection was really beautiful – avoiding sentimentality somehow.

    1. You would certainly like it, then. I didn’t know this was your day job! How lovely! I’ll have to come and visit. All the while I was reading this story, I was thinking of Durer’s etching of a hare in the Albertina in Vienna.

  4. I enjoyed The Invisible Collection and found Letter from an Unknown Woman sentimental as well. It’s been a long while since I read Chess. I remember liking the idea behind it more than the actual book. Thank you so much for participating.

  5. Those are powerful stories, Marina Sofia, even if Letter… is a bit overblown. Stories like that can keep you thinking long after you finish them, even if they are short.

    1. I have the feeling that the 1920s and 1930s did like their bit of melodrama – the soap opera equivalents of their day, I suppose. Luckily, that one is not representative of most of his work, I find.

  6. I have this volume in the pipeline, thanks largely to the movie version of Letter from an Unknown Woman; like Jacqui, I’m a huge Joan Fontaine fan. Your thoughts about the other pieces in the book have certainly spurred me towards reading it sooner rather than later!

    1. The volume I have (in German) also contains the super well-known Burning Secret, Amok, Confusion of Feelings and 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, but I wanted to look at some of the less famous ones. I’m not sure if the English translations follow the same collection as the German ones.

      1. Ah! I’d assumed it was the original of what I have as Kaleidoscope 2, because I dimly recalled some of the titles. In fact, they’re overlapping collections. The contents list of Kaleidoscope 2 is: BUCHMENDEL, LEPORELLA, THE INVISIBLE COLLECTION, IMPROMPTU STUDY OF A HANDICRAFT, THE ROYAL GAME, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, RACHEL ARRAIGNS GOD and VIRATA. I could have sworn it had INCIDENT ON LAKE GENEVA as well, but obviously I was misremembering.

  7. This may seem like a side step, but I was listening this morning to a radio programme about Emile Zola and it made me realise how little I know about European authors. I’ve read some of the great Russian novelists but they don’t really count, do they. That and then your post on top suggests that perhaps I should make the time to do something about this. I wonder if any of my local reading friends would be interested in a monthly book group with such literature as a focus? I must ask around.

    1. If you need any suggestions of European authors, I’m sure we’ve got a merry group of bloggers all too happy to share their recommendations. There’s such variety there!

  8. The comments on Letter… are interesting. I’ve always felt Zweig is excellent at writing about heightened emotion – somehow you know it’s overblown and yet are still sucked into the narrative.
    The Invisible Collection is a wonderful story. I also like his novel, The Post Office Girl.

    1. I don’t remember reading Post Office Girl, will have to remedy that at some point. There is also something quintessentially Viennese about Zweig – all the drama and Weltschmerz and sentimentalism of the old Hapsburg capital, all that Balkan/Germanic influence and contradiction.

  9. I also liked a lot his novel, Beware of Pity. Zweig can be a bit smaltzy at times, forgive my Yiddish, but I would gladly read anything he wrote

    1. Smaltzy is the perfect word for him – this is where I think he panders to the taste of the time. But when he manages to rise above it, to distill his emotions somewhat, then he is very good indeed.

  10. I’ve seen a play version of Letter from an Unknown Woman, it was excellent. But you’re right, the feelings are so passionate that it’s hard to think it’s plausible sometimes.
    I have Chess at home, I need to get to it. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. I’ve never read Zweig’s fiction (lack of time, not lack of inclination) but I’ve got Pushkin’s ‘Collected Novellas’ from Netgalley waiting for me on my Kindle. The volume includes ‘Burning Secret’, ‘A Chess Story’, and ‘Journey into the Past’. After reading your post, I can’t wait to get stuck in!

  12. Zweig: author is on my Kindle and I keep putting him on ‘hold’ for no rational reason. 2016 I’ll give him a go. I enjoyed the review. I have so much trouble summing up a book of short stories. Haven’t found a template that works for me. I have quite a few SS on reading list 2016 so I better come to terms with my ‘ manque’ asap!

    1. Best strategy for me is just picking the stories I liked – or else explaining what I found lacking about the ones I didn’t like! But I have to admit I only read those 4 on this occasion, left the rest for later.

      1. Good idea, some I like, why I dislike others ….and I’ll try to find a link that connects the stories if it’s there! Starting Raymond Caver today….

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