There was a time when Stefan Zweig’s books were international bestsellers, translated into many languages, and adored by a general readership and the literati alike (even Mussolini is said to have been an avid fan). Unlike most bestselling authors, however, Zweig’s most popular books were largely stand-alone novellas or collections of short fiction—the main exception being his famous memoir, The World of Yesterday.
Born in 1881, Zweig began publishing stories in literary magazines in 1900, and in 1901 he published a collection of poetry. He then spent several years translating works of the French masters as a sort of apprenticeship in the literary arts. During this time, he also received his PhD in philosophy. Taking what he had learned from his self-imposed apprenticeship and his philosophical studies, he began writing some of the most beloved fiction in twentieth-century European literature.
Zweig’s star diminished greatly in the post-WWII years, however, and it was not until this past decade that publishers have released new translations of many of his works. The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig includes some of his most acclaimed novellas—“Amok,” “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” and “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman.” It also includes excellent short stories such as “Forgotten Dreams” (a lyric narrative on wilted love and the unexpected nature of dreams), as well as “The Invisible Collection” (a 1925 story about an art collector trying to practice his trade during astronomic German inflation).
The narrator in “Amok” is traveling in Asia on a cruise ship, though the real story is that of a stranger who has been living and traveling in the region for seven years. The novella is reminiscent, without being derivative, of Joseph Conrad; the plotting is suspenseful and the prose beautiful; and it is also one of many pieces inspired by Zweig’s extensive travels throughout the world.
“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is the story of a famous writer who receives a letter from a forgotten lover from his youth. As with “Amok,” there is a framing device, and the narrator is the recipient of another’s story. This novella has been twice adapted for film: once in 1948 by German director Max Ophüls and again in 2004 by Chinese director Xu Jinglei.
And those are not the only instances of Zweig’s work finding its way to the silver screen: “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” has been adapted three times. This novella opens with an international group of vacationers on the Riviera arguing about a woman who has abandoned her husband and children to abscond with a charming stranger. Among the vacationers is an elderly British woman who strikes up a friendship with the narrator. The elderly woman tells him a story about twenty-four passionate hours in her youth that still haunt her. The novella’s tone is philosophical and its structure complex, yet neither of these attributes undermines the narrative tension. It is also remarkable for its portrayal of depression, the trials of addiction, and the strictures on female sexuality, especially given that it was published in 1927.
Zweig has frequently benefitted from filmmakers’ fascination with his work and owes part of his current resurgence to recent film adaptations, particularly Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, though without the efforts of translator Anthea Bell, Anderson would likely not have encountered Zweig’s work. This is why Paul Auster has said that “translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another.”
A comparison of Bell’s English rendering and the original German reveals that she rarely deviates from Zweig’s language—and when she does, it is in pursuit of the aesthetic and psychological spirit of the original over artless mechanical accuracy. I suspect these translations will rightly become the standard English versions.
Zweig is at once the literary heir of Chekhov, Conrad, and Maupassant, with something of Schopenhauer’s observational meditations on psychology thrown in. The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig is a major book of cultural and historical importance, and Pushkin Press has done the literary world a service by releasing it in such an attractive volume.