The Royal Game and Other Stories
John Fowles’s introduction to this collection of the stories of Stefan Zweig begins:
Stefan Zweig has suffered, since his death in 1942, a darker eclipse than any other famous writer of this century. Even “famous writer” understates the prodigious reputation he enjoyed in the last decade or so of his life, when he was arguably the most widely read and translated serious author in the world.
I was in my twenties during the said decade and this seems a considerable exaggeration. Perhaps Mr. Fowles meant to write “famous German writer,” since in his list of famous writers then living which follows he mentions only Germans and Austrians—Mann, Hesse, Rilke, Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal—not Joyce or Yeats or Gide. But in any case surely Thomas Mann was incomparably better known and thought of than Zweig.
Whether Zweig was considered a writer of the first rank even at the height of his fame seems to me a matter for doubt. I asked two women recently—one a former Soviet citizen, the other by origin French—whether they had read Stefan Zweig’s stories. They said yes, they had done so when they were adolescents, and that many other young girls of their acquaintance in both their countries read them.
This certainly lends confirmation to Stefan Zweig’s international fame. It also suggests that stories like “Amok” and “Letter from an Unknown Woman” were peculiarly exciting to adolescents forty or fifty years ago. There is every reason why they should have been particularly so to the children of European middle-class families. The setting of nearly all of them is high-bourgeois (hochbürgerliche) Austrian family life at the beginning of this century, an immense façade of respectability and polite manners. Young people were encouraged to believe that no life of passionate experience and sensuality existed beyond this façade. In fact, that life was the facade. What Zweig’s stories tell the reader—sometimes almost to the exclusion of everything else—is that behind the facade of respectability there are hidden secrets of passion—sex, terror, hysteria, mad infatuation. Naturally the more intelligent and sensitive adolescent children of respectable families were thrilled to be told that the dull respectability was a false front.
One of the best stories in this book is about the situation of a young boy finding out about the secret lives of the adults of his family. “The Burning Secret” is revealing of Zweig’s strength as expounder of a psychological situation of extreme tension, and his failure in being able to imagine a satisfactory or true resolution to it, to end the story with any but the most banal conclusion. It is worth considering here in some detail.
A rich Jewish lady (“slightly voluptuous,” we are told) takes her twelve-year-old son, who is physically weak, sensitive, and an only child, to a luxurious hotel at the resort of Semmering (the almost inevitable setting of a Zweig story is the first-class hotel, the palatial Viennese house, or an ocean liner). One of the guests at the hotel is a baron (“of an obscure Austrian noble line”) who is bored, in the manner of barons, but who hopes to relieve the tedium of the hotel by having, in the manner of barons, an affair with one of his fellow guests.
He soon sets eyes on the “slightly voluptuous” Jewish lady and her little son. He quickly decides that the way to strike up an acquaintance with the mother is by making himself agreeable to the son. He does so with resounding success. The boy (who enjoys the privilege, rarely exercised in this story, of having a name—he is called Edgar) is enchanted by his new friend the baron and the excursions that the baron proposes for them both. He soon realizes, though, that the purpose of the baron in arranging these outings has been to strike up an acquaintance with the mother, of a kind which excludes the son.
Edgar’s first reaction is to be furiously jealous but later on he is seized with a passionate and malignant curiosity to discover the secret of the baron and his mother’s attraction for each other. With fiendish cunning he spies on them wherever they go, and finally discovers them in an embrace which he takes to be a violent assault by the baron on his mother. There in the hotel corridor he strikes out at the baron. The next day he refuses to write, at his mother’s dictation, a letter apologizing to him. Then he runs away to the house of his grandmother in Baden.
Before daring to break in on his grandmother, he spends an hour or so sitting on a bench in the spa garden where through the darkness he hears lovers whispering to each other. Summoning up his courage he then goes to his grandmother’s house, where a maid discovers him on the doorstep and takes him inside. There he is confronted by his father, who asks him why he has run away, and whether anything happened to frighten him that he should do so. At this his mother from the back of the room makes him a covert sign and he realizes that he is being implored not to betray her secret. He remains silent. The story ends with his mother coming into his room and kissing Edgar “good night”:
As she took her hand away her lips brushed his, and the gentle form hurried out leaving behind her something warm, a breath, on his lips. And a pleasurable longing came over him to feel soft lips like that often again, and to be embraced so tenderly. But this portentous intimation of the secret he had sought after so much was soon overcast by the shadows of sleep.
In his introduction John Fowles writes:
It is surely significant that Zweig ends the story with Edgar safely returned to his family. This is well beyond where a Maupassant or a Schnitzler would have laid down the pen. They would have ended with the flight, not the reconciliation. Not for the last time, and despite Zweig’s great gifts as a classic storyteller, an inner need was allowed to prevail—the therapeutic content, not an orthodox neatness of form.
This seems evasive. If Maupassant or Schnitzler had ended the story with the boy seated alone in the darkness of the park, it would have been in the interest not of neatness but of the truth of the imagination as distinct from fact as it might have happened. Zweig shows here his complete failure to incorporate into the reconciliation the truth that Edgar knows himself to have been lied to, cheated, and betrayed by his mother and the baron. Even if he has learned the nature of the “burning secret” which caused the baron to embrace “Mama” in the corridor, he has also perceived the hollowness of their relationship. In making Edgar accept without any kind of revulsion his mother’s conspiratorial good-night kiss, Zweig is really implying that what Edgar has learned about growing up is that he himself will someday become someone like the baron and have an affair with someone like his mother. Growing up means discovering the guilty secret of the high bourgeoisie and becoming part of a conspiracy of silence about goings-on that are not considered respectable.
Of course, it may well be that Zweig means exactly this, and that Edgar will become some latter-day version of the baron with his mother. In that case the lack of irony in the ending is remarkable. But irony about the high bourgeois society to which he himself belongs is exactly what Zweig lacks.
When John Fowles writes about Zweig’s “inner need,” which is allowed to prevail in his description of Edgar’s reconciliation with his family—to which he also applies the word “therapeutic”—perhaps he means that Zweig for reasons of his own psychology wanted Edgar to be “cured” by reconciliation with his family and their bourgeois circumstances, at the price of his imaginative insight, his sense of truth. This would certainly go far to explain Zweig’s limitations as an artist, and the hollowness of the endings of his stories, which often seem totally at odds with the analytic power shown in their beginnings. For this kind of cure has nothing to do with art.
In “Fear” Irene, the wife of a rich and clever lawyer called Fritz Wagner, has an affair with a rather fey pianist—a shadowy character “with interesting features.” One day, as Irene is entering the door of the house where her lover has his apartment, a woman who is leaving the house runs into her. The woman is violently abusive. Irene immediately takes her to be the kept woman of the pianist who is trying to blackmail her. Terrified, she gives her some money. From then on she finds herself being blackmailed by this woman, who is of the so-called “lower orders.”
Zweig, who was a friend of Freud, understands almost as well as the Viennese psychoanalyst the case of this rich woman, the center of her family, surrounded by comforts, living in a great house and waited on by servants, who finds her life unendurable.
There is a flaccidity of atmosphere that affects the senses in a similar way to sultry weather or a storm, a well-regulated level of happiness that is more maddening than misfortune; and it is as disastrous for many women, because of their resignation to it, as a lasting discontent caused by despair. To have an overabundance is no less stimulating than to be hungry, and the secure certainty of her life aroused her curiosity about having an affair.
So Irene has to have her affair, and Zweig describes all the agonies of her imagining she is being blackmailed. He puts his characters through the hoops of the extreme situations in which they find themselves. So much so that they almost cease to be characters. They just become minimal instances produced by the situation, whose names “Irene,” “Fritz,” are perfunctory labels. It turns out that Irene isn’t being blackmailed at all. Her clever lawyer husband, noticing, between briefs, that his wife is unhappy, deduces that she has a lover. So he hires an actress to impersonate a blackmailer, thinking that this strategy will result in his wife confessing to him the cause of her unhappiness and effecting a reconciliation between them. While he is carrying out the experiment she is driven to the verge of suicide. Nevertheless in the nick of time she is redeemed for reconciliation with her husband. Again therapy is a substitute for imagination.
Zweig is preeminently a bourgeois writer who understands perfectly the life he is describing, who has great analytic gifts, and who, if he had any other values than those of that very society, might have written brilliant satires on it. But, like Galsworthy, just when he seems on the point of doing so he withdraws into those very values that he shares with the people whose cases he studies. We are left with someone cured or someone incurable. So what we have is a kind of casebook by a doctor dealing with rich patients who can be cured of everything but their circumstances: if they are troubled about these, they must learn to be reconciled with them. Instead of visions deriving from these extreme situations like the terrible “the horror!” in Heart of Darkness, we get precepts and warnings.
For instance, in “The Burning Secret” and “Fear,” if you are born or married into a millionaire’s family and you are put into a situation where you see the utter hypocrisy of the values of those around you, whatever you do don’t leave the family. Learn the truth that as long as the domestics can be trusted to keep secrets, the most horrifying passions can be wrapped in sables and buried under diamonds.
Or in the nauseating story “Letter from an Unknown Woman”: your case is hopeless if you are a woman who when you were a young girl made the mistake of falling in love with a world-famous novelist, every one of whose works you learned by heart, under the misapprehension that in doing so you were finding your way into his heart. He will scarcely be able to distinguish you from all his other innumerable fans, and having slept with you once when you were a girl, he will fail to recognize you when you inveigle him into sleeping with you again ten years later. After you have conceived his child on this second occasion he will merely use the letter you write from the room where you are sitting by the side of your child’s coffin, another ten years later, for unacknowledged copy in his next novel. However, dear girl, your life has not been lived quite in vain. You have provided flowers in the vase on the desk of the world-famous author.
And in the case of “Amok”: whatever else you do, don’t—having escaped the clutches of a woman in Europe who has forced you to commit, in her interest, a theft—go to the tropics and there become a doctor and do-gooder, though a bit alcoholic. Once there another European woman from the nearest city—wishing to conceal her condition from her absent husband on his return—will hunt you down at your remote outpost and ask you to perform an abortion on her, before the return of her husband. When as a reward you demand that she sleep with you, she will run away terrified, and you—given that this is the tropics—will run amok, confronting her with your scandalous sexual demands at a party given in Government House. And worse to come.
John Fowles quotes Zweig as writing about his own work:
If I had to confess which quality has been predominant to make me a writer, I believe that I would have to name…a great and insatiable curiosity…. A psychological problem is as attractive for me in a living man as a historical person…. In my endeavour to explain character or a problem to myself I write at first for my own pleasure. Then I begin to shorten, to leave out everything which is not strictly necessary.
The result of this method seems to be the paring down of his material to psychological models of behavior in particular given circumstances. The limitation of the method is that by the time he has engineered the material into nothing but the situation, the characters, as persons who have an existence apart from the situation, have almost disappeared: hence his perfunctoriness about the names he gives them. Also, in order to produce a psychological situation much as you set up an experiment in a laboratory, he can improvise a plot that exists only for the purpose of the demonstration—like the plot of “Fear.”
The best story in the collection is that which provides its title: “The Royal Game.” It does communicate something of the horror of the Nazi occupation of Vienna as it affected the particular circles of rich, privileged, aristocratic people whom Zweig—himself the son of a Jewish millionaire from that city—knew. The narration takes place on an ocean liner going from New York to Buenos Aires. One of the passengers is a chess champion (this is one of the few characters in Zweig’s fiction who is in himself interesting and idiosyncratic). Some passengers join together to challenge this surly genius, all of them playing against him as a team. The chess champion, who is avaricious, accepts their challenge, for the money. One day a passenger appears who is able to perceive immediately every mistake the opponents of the chess champion make. Finally he himself is persuaded to play against the champion, and he defeats him.
He divulges to a fellow passenger—the narrator—why he is able to do this. He was a member of a private firm of solicitors in Vienna which handled, with great discretion, the affairs of some prominent families and individuals there. He was able to conceal these commercial operations—which involved getting money out of the country—for a long time from the Nazi occupiers. Then, finally, the Nazis caught up with him and arrested him, sending him to a very special prison, which was a hotel. There, in seemingly privileged circumstances, he was subjected over a long period to the most cruel and exhausting psychological interrogation, certainly a form of torture. In the “vacuum” of his room, deprived of anything to read or write with, he felt himself going mad and about to break. One day he filched from the pocket of one of his Nazi tormentors a book of chess problems. He managed to conceal this in his room. Over the period of his interrogation he preserved his sanity by solving every problem in the book, and when all were solved, by inventing new ones. It was in this way that he was able to see at once the mistakes made by the opponents of the chess champion on the liner.
This story has a quality different from the previous ones. Here the author has succeeded not just in describing symptoms in a given situation. He has achieved the very considerable feat of inventing, in his description of the game of chess, a metaphor for the terribly grim game he is playing with his Nazi tormentors. He does what he so signally fails to do in the other stories, transform the symptomatic behavior of characters in a given psychological situation into something quite other, the game of the imagination. Moreover the case history here is no longer that of individuals; it is the case history of Europe, and as a result, the author is not under pressure to provide some denouement which is either personal despair or else cure, by reconciling the individual to his unalterable circumstances.
A few weeks after writing “The Royal Game,” Stefan Zweig, together with his wife, committed suicide in Buenos Aires, on February 22, 1942.
Where Zweig Died June 10, 1982