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A master of the short story
on 16 February 2014
What a joy to have all of Zweig's short stories in one book. This contains 22 stories written between 1900-1940, spanning most of his writing life. It gives us an overview of his great contribution to the form - which was not easy to grasp when reading the brief and separate collections of his work the Pushkin Press had issued previously. All are translated from the German by that doyen of translators, Anthea Bell, who has done so much for Zweig in the English speaking world - she must surely be today's equivalent of Constance Garnett, who was writing at the same time as Zweig and who brought Turgenev and other great Russian novelists into English for the first time.
From the very first we encounter Zweig's impassioned, heightened, romantic style (it makes the plain, paired-down style favoured in so many novels today seem insipid by comparison). We are plunged into highly dramatic situations (some, perhaps, not wholly plausible) in which the effects on the characters involved, rather than the events, are what counts. Characters are always vividly realised, full of individuality, brilliantly described; invariably, they have reached a crisis point in their lives, are on the brink either of radical change or annihilation; their interior lives are what interests him most, events creating revelations and re-evaluations. Many of his characters are, in a Dostoevskian sense, under extremes of internal pressure.
Love, death, humanity - these are the great themes that irradiate his work; he draws you into human dramas with effortless ease and great narrative art. He believes strongly in telling a story rather than relying on atmospheric scenes and telling conversations, and this is not only satisfying at a deep level but gives many of the stories the feeling that they might have been novellas (some are called just that by others) in terms of their richness, scope and impact. What shines through is Zweig's acute sense of psychology, his great compassion for his characters, his extraordinary wisdom; and his literary skill puts him with the best European writers of the century.