Andre Aciman wrote a great introduction to this book (with spoilers). In it he lauds Zweig’s fluidity in writing:
“He never quarrelled with his tools; his tools were happy to oblige. He didn’t spend nights searching for the mot juste; the mot juste just simply came…Zweig is firm and fluent. Everything in its time, everything just right, never a false move, not one sleight of hand.”
Having just spent hours editing a report I would very much like to have been gifted with even a fraction of Zweig’s literary brilliance, and his writing is sheer genius.
The novella follows a love affair between Ludwig, a poor private secretary, and the lady of the house. On the day his employer tells him he’ll be sent to work in Mexico for 2 years, he discovers that his employer’s wife reciprocates his love. This is a love affair that will be interrupted both by Ludwig being relocated to Mexico, and also the breakout of WW1:
“But love truly becomes love only when, no longer an embryo developing painfully in the darkness of the body, it ventures to confess itself with lips and breath. However hard it tries to remain a chrysalis, a time comes when the intricate tissue of the cocoon tears, and out it falls, dropping from the heights to the farthest depths, falling with redoubled force into the startled heart.”
While the protagonist’s feelings of love were definitely melodramatic and probably difficult for most of us in this day and age to understand (I can’t imagine anyone I know kissing the letter of a loved one, or sewing protective pockets onto their clothing so that they can carry said letters with them everywhere, but who knows? And I’m not poking fun at people who write love letters and so on, simply stating that at least where I live, some romantic gestures have fallen by the wayside and might appear to be melodramatic to some people. Also, I have only included a couple of examples of this apparent “melodrama”, reading the whole book will help illustrate what I mean), I did enjoy this novella. The more poignant and thoughtful passages dealt with the post-war experiences with Ludwig returning to Germany; can things still stay the same when war has interrupted our lives? The concept of memory was also an important one, can we live on our memories and for how long? As Ludwig discovered:
“It is not in human nature to live entirely on memories, and just as the plants and every living structure need nourishment from the soil and new light from the sky, if their colours are not to fade and their petals to drop, even such apparently unearthy things as dreams need a certain amount of nourishment from the senses, some tender pictorial aid, or their blood will run thin and their radiance be dimmed.”
A beautifully written book.