Saturday, March 14, 2009


I would venture to bet that you have never heard of Stefan Zweig. I hadn't heard of him either until the 1,001 Books list. So you might be surprised that in his heyday ('20s and '30s), he was "arguably the most widely read and translated author in the in the world."

Amok is a 1922 short novella that apparently follows the same pattern or narrative structure as most of Zweig's other works - a frame narrative, in which the narrator encounters the protagonist in a luxurious, cosmopolitan setting, and the protagonist tells the narrator his secrets. Zweig's typical story focuses on intensively examining a single emotion within the context of Austrian bourgeois life. In Amok, we met the narrator, who informs us of a strange incident which occured on a sea passage between the Orient and Europe. The narrator (unnamed) one night cannot sleep and goes on deck, where me meets another passenger, who asks him not to tell anyone that they had met. The next night, the narrator again visits the deck late at night (or early in the morning as the case may be) and finds the protagonist again, who insists on telling the narrator why he is hiding. He had been a doctor in a remote part of a Dutch-occupied Asian country or province. After years surrounded almost exclusively by natives, a white woman comes to visit him, and over the course of her visit it is revealed that she has gotten pregnant (obviously by a man other than her husband) and wants an abortion. In a strange fit, the narrator suddenly in love with the woman, he tells her that he'll perform the abortion if she'll sleep with him. He wants her to beg and plead, or be ashamed of what she is asking for, but she isn't. She laughs in his face and leaves.

Obsessed immediately with the woman, the doctor follows her to town, where he begs to see her, gets himself admitted to a ball she is attending, desparetly trying to reach her. He sends her a letter saying if he doesn't hear from her by the next day, he'll kill himself. Eventually, the woman's servant summons the doctor to the shady part of town, where the woman acquired an abortion by a native woman, and the lady is now dying from the botched operation. The doctor and servant carry the woman home, where she eventually dies. The doctor calls the medical examiner, whom he threatens in order to have him lie on the death certificate claiming she had a heart attack. The woman's husband, who had been away, returns and doesn't believe the story of her death. The doctor had already booked passage on a ship back to Europe, when he discovers that the coffin of the woman, accompained by the husband, are being taken home - probably to be examined. That is why the doctor is hiding - he doesn't want the husband to know he is on board.

Eventually, the ship reaches an Italian port, where most of the passengers go on shore for the day. Upon returning, the narrator learns that a coffin had been being unloaded, when something fell from above and knocked the coffin into the water. The coffin, being made of lead, was unable to be retrieved from the water. A few days later, the body of a man (obviously the doctor) washes ashore. The man had jumped onto the coffin in his final and successful attempt to keep the woman's secret from being discovered.

Everybody who was anybody in the 1920s and 1930s European culture knew Stefan Zweig. Born into a wealthy Austrian-Jewish family, Zweig fled the Nazis in 1934, moving to England, then the U.S., and finally Brazil. He was a novelist and prolific biographer. He wrote librettos, including one for a Richard Strauss opera that was banned after three performances, partly because Strauss refused to remove Zweig's name from it. He was the incarnation of humanism and the bourgeois lifestyle, and I don't mean that in a bad way. He delivered an oratory at Freud's funeral. In the end, Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942 by overdosing on Veronal. While by that time the tide had begun to turn for Nazi Germany - there was no longer the assumption that they would win - Zweig knew that the life he had loved in Vienna and the things that he loved about it was over: internationalism, intellectualism, humanism would fall prey to the increasingly politicized world. Artists killing themselves is typically a sure-fire way to get yourself remembered. Not in Zweig's case. In the years that followed, he was quickly forgotten. While he to some extent continued to be read in Europe, his works are virtually unknown - and until recently untranslated - in the English world.

In the last few years Zweig has been making a come back from the land of the lost. His works are increasingly being translated into English, increasingly being read. Amok was short, face paced, and interesting. Everything a good story should be. There wasn't anything particularly novel about it, anything spectacular, but not everything needs to be spectaguclar in order to be enjoyed, and I did enjoy it.


Robby Virus said...

I have heard of Stefan Zweig! In fact, while I've never read any of his fiction, I read his wonderful autobiography called "The World of Yesterday". I can't recommend this book highly enough. It paints a wonderful portrait of life in Europe at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Detailed, nostalgic, poignant, erudite...if you're at all interested in European history, and in European arts and letters, you should check it out. He was indeed a fascinating man, who seemingly knew everyone worth knowing in pre-WWII Europe. I'll have to read some of his fiction to see how it compares

timmy said...

i read a number of zweig's books some years ago. i think i read all the fiction then available in english. i would particularly recommend his short story "buchmendel" and what i thought was his only full length novel "beware of pity". recently new york review reissued another novel "the post office girl" which it billed as a "noir" novel. i thought it pretty slow going. maybe i will try it again.
i also liked the biographies of marie antoinette and joseph fouche.

Kristin said...

Glad to hear the Zweig isn't as forgotten as I thought he was!