5 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - Amok and other stories

Stefan Zweig was obsessed by suicide throughout his life, as these stories prove. Each of them, written from when he was 23 until 30 or so years later, deal with an obsession ended by the death of the protagonist.

All of the stories, as with most of his works, have a secondary narrator. The first is told by a man, discovered by the narrator hiding on a ship from Calcutta to England, who became obsessed with a woman in the Dutch East Indies (presumably Indonesia) who asks him, in his capacity as a doctor, to perform an abortion. He refuses, not out of any scruple, but because his price is to sleep with her. She has a back street operation, which kills her, eventually, while he attends her. After desperately telling his tale, he kills himself.

Amok is the most considered and successful of the stories, in which the near insanity of the protagonist is quite believable. The second story, The Star above the Forest, is the poorest of his that I've read. A waiter falls in love with a Baroness he serves, and kills himself by lying on the track in front of her train. It's a very naive story of a coup de foudre, and the progression of the waiter's passion is unexplained. In his more mature works, Zweig dealt closely with the intellectual rationale for emotional states, but this was written before he'd developed that skill.

The third story, Leporella, is Gothic in subject - an ugly, simple cook is retained by a Baron who has an unpleasant wife, who is perpetually frustrated as he refuses to consummate the marriage. The cook develops an attraction for the Baron, and encourages his affairs when his wife is away. She kills the wife, believing it to be his wish, then kills herself when he dismisses her in horror.

Leporella isn't quite as disturbing as it's intended to be, and the ending is rather pat and predictable. It wasn't published in his lifetime, perhaps Zweig wasn't happy with it.

The last story, Incident on Lake Geneva, is much tighter than the rest, almost Maupassant-like in its concision. A simple Russian soldier finds himself in Switzerland in 1918, stranded after troop movements in World War I, and is bewildered that he can't get home, can't understand the language, and is told that the Tsar has been deposed, which he doesn't understand. He can't comprehend the distance home - he's been forcibly transported by train and ship around the world to Europe - and is in despair that he can't see his family again. He, naturally, kills himself. This story has deeper resonances, though, about the dislocation and upheaval of ordinary people after the events of 1914-18, the inability of people to come to terms with the devastation and huge social changes.

Inevitably, given his obsession, Zweig killed himself, along with his wife, in 1942, presumably in despair at the future of the world at the height of the Axis powers' fortunes.


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