The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

The picture does not do these books justice, the light is wonky. They are much prettier. I got a great deal from a book sale on campus (for those to whom its relevant, hosted by Best Book Centre, Hyderabad – ‘a unique shop for old and out of print books.’)
I have been reading the first of the two collections by Stefan Zweig, Kaleidoscope One, for the past couple of days. It has some excellent stories. My favourite so far has been The Burning Secret. On the face of it, the plot is rather straightforward: it is a coming-of-age story of a young boy grappling with the drama of his mother’s love affair.

Baron Otto von Sternfeldt, Zweig describes, is popular and sociable; in the absence of company, he is lifeless, like a match unlighted in a box. The impression he gives is that of a narcissistic young ladies’ man. On his vacation in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, the Baron comes upon a Jewish woman. She is on holiday with her son, Edgar, who has been ill and needs the time away to recover. The Baron is immediately struck by her beauty and ready for the hunt. Upon observing the woman fawn over her awkward little boy, the Baron devises a plan to befriend young Edgar and use him to woo his mother.
Over the coming days, the flustered boy gets caught up in the game spun by the adults who seem wholly oblivious to his plight. As the Baron’s attention shifts from the boy to his real target, the mother, Edgar begins to wonder what he did to deserve being cast aside by his new friend. He wonders what secret the Baron and his mother are concocting and resolves to get to the bottom of it.
Zweig takes a simple story and spins so much intrigue into it. He exposes the innermost secrets of the mind, fleshes his characters in such a manner that each is a complex interweaving of different shades. And he wisely refuses to pick sides, such that you feel empathy for everyone involved, even the cunning fox of a Baron. Frau Blumenthal, for instance, is first a strong mother, then a lady basking in the rare attention of a gentleman; for a flickering second she enjoys her newfound seductive charm and at the next moment, resumes the role of an old woman caught in an unhappy marriage. But it is the apt portrayal of the perspective of the puzzled twelve year old that takes the win in this lurid psychological mystery.
He, too, had his secret. His secret was hate, a great hate for the two of them. 

The tumult of Edgar’s conflicting emotions subsided into one smooth, clear feeling of hate and open hostility, concentrated and unadulterated. Now that he was certain of being in their way, the imposition of his presence upon them gave him a voluptuous satisfaction. Always accompanying them with the compressed strength of his enmity, he would goad them into madness. He gloated over the thought.

Apparently there is a film adaptation of this story. I cannot imagine what a screenplay would do to Zweig’s commanding voice and turns of phrase but I doubt the story will stay as powerful on screen. Zweig has masterfully controlled the play of emotions in a drastic tale that with any other writer could turn mawkish. This may not be Zweig’s most famous or best work, but the collection is worth your time.
Read The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig online here.
P.S. Notice the new url of the blog, I have finally changed the extremely complex Gilderoy Lockhart spell to a simple I still haven’t quite figured out how to get the site to work without the ‘www’, so any help will be greatly appreciated. 

The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig – German Literature Month 2012

This is my slightly late post about The Royal Game / Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig that I read for the first week of the German Literature Month 2012.

About the book (from here)Chess Story, also known as The Royal Game,
is the Austrian master Stefan Zweig’s final achievement, completed in Brazilian
exile and sent off to his American publisher only days before his suicide in
1942. It is the only story in which Zweig looks at Nazism, and he does so with
characteristic emphasis on the psychological.

On the ship from New York to Buenos Aires, our narrator spots Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion. Czentovic started out as a poor boy and is still illiterate. He prefers to keep to himself and never having learnt about any other greatness than his own, he is arrogant. When a few passengers, along with the narrator, approach him to play a game of chess with them, he agrees to play for a price. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger, Dr. B, steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. The passengers try to persuade Dr. B to play with Czentovic one on one, but he promptly refuses. When the narrator asks Dr. B, how he became such a skilled chess player, Dr. B narrates his story.

As a monarchist hiding valuable assets of the nobility, Dr. B had been tortured by the Nazis, who kept him in total isolation. He had come across a book of chess games, which he had then read and memorized; it had been his only way to keep himself from going insane. After memorizing and absorbing every move mentioned in the game and being left with nothing to do, Dr. B had begun to play against himself, splitting himself into the two players: White and Black. He had reached an emotional breakdown because of the psychological conflict, and had only returned back to his sanity, after being rescued. Chess is more a game of the mind than anything else and the crux of the story lies in the final game between Mirko Czentovic and Dr. B., a showdown between an illiterate stoic and a learned neurotic.

The way the book deals with its themes of torture, incarceration, defeat, war, politics and in extreme detail Nazism is at once horrific, depressing and amazingly true to life. The way Zweig writes about what goes on in someone’s head, the way he can translate the hopelessness and helplessness into words is fabulous. I like Zweig’s austere writing style and the pace of the book. It’s a short but impactful novella, and one that I think everyone ought to read.

(The picture is a woodcut by Elke Rehder, a German artist who has done a series of artworks on Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle.)