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…
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