Reviewed by Paul Kane
Amok and Other Stories
by Stefan Zweig
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
February 2007, Paperback: 118 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1901285666
Suicide was, it will be recalled, Stefan Zweig’s fate. In 1942, after escaping from Europe, he and his wife committed suicide at a time when it seemed the Nazis were winning the Second World War. Knowing this, it is a strange experience to read these four stories, which all have suicide as either a theme or a happening. How is suicide viewed in the different stories? Does Zweig’s view of the act change or evolve? And are there prescient intimations of the author’s own life, shadows before the darkness that was to later fall?
The earliest story included here is “The Star above the Forest”, which was originally published in 1904. A waiter becomes passionately infatuated with a Countess and because she is (or so he feels) too good for him, and because also his life without her seems now devoid of meaning, he decides to kill himself. It is a curious story, written entirely without dialogue, but Zweig’s richly lyrical prose effectively conveys the inner life of a man in the grip of a not entirely healthy (‘twas ever so) erotic obsession:
He carefully carried the glasses that her lips had touched up to his own small, musty attic bedroom, and watched them sparkle like precious jewellery by night when the moonlight streamed in. (82-83)
One gets from this story the notion (which Zweig may have held at the time he wrote it; or not) that the world is the proper theatre in which to play out our emotions. Suicide may have an audience – though usually an audience of only one or a few – but the audience’s response cannot reach the one now dead. Here, two consciousnesses remain unconscious of each other (except for a small premonitory glimpse of dread on the part of the Countess), as in unrequited love. To kill oneself is a futile, wasted act and it impoverishes the living; we who remain.
The title story, “Amok” (1922) is again concerned with concupiscence and its consequences. A doctor is approached to perform an abortion, but he sets a condition that the lady is unable to meet. Later, he relents on this condition, but his offer to help (which to him is a duty) is turned down. The story is set in the Dutch East Indies, in a colonial world that we know from Maugham, but it has something also of the flavour of Sacher-Masoch: the doctor has a penchant for cruel, proud women, or “vicious cats” as he calls them. This story, the most substantial in the book, illustrates to perfection Zweig’s predilection for placing his characters in extreme predicaments (“boundary situations” in Karl Jaspers’ phrase) and exploring how they cope. There is a long, finely wrought description here, not of death exactly, but of what it means to watch someone lose (or decide to end) their life. There is a lot of death in our culture – consider the bloody carnage depicted in the film 300 – but very little attention paid to the protracted process of dying. Perhaps because it does not make for quite as gorily entertaining a spectacle.
“Incident on Lake Geneva” (1936) is the slightest and the shortest story. Set toward the end of the First World War, it is about a common man, a Russian soldier (one of the “grunts” of this world), who is at the mercy of vast, and still familiar, historical forces. The soldier yearns to get home, but is stranded in Switzerland. And when he asks for help, he is told that “there’s no way anyone can help anyone else nowadays”.
One of Patricia Highsmith’s favourite motifs was the folie á deux (“madness of two”) and “Leporella” (published posthumously in 1954; there is no clue in the book as to when it was actually written) makes use of it too: a maid becomes devoted to her employer, a Baron, to the extent that she will commit murder for him. There are some lovely moments of pity and dread in this tale, and it is worthy of Highsmith herself.
In the end, we can draw few conclusions regarding Zweig’s own end. Suicide occurs, in the assembled stories, for many reasons. Some kill themselves because they have a longing their present circumstances cannot meet, while others have a zero tolerance toward their own fallibility and a misplaced perfectionism: half-measures, makeshift solutions simply will not suffice. Often, these people value something (their country, the esteem of a loved person) more than life itself and when they cannot achieve or get what they want, they strike out impulsively at themselves: like the Russian soldier in “Incident on Lake Geneva”, who is trapped by war and immigration controls and cannot reach his homeland.
Death has its lovely aspects (touched upon e.g. in A.R. Ammon’s poem “Play”): it can show you that many of the importances and imperatives of the world are sham, just so many false gods, and it can encourage you to forge your own life. But such thoughts are, one has to say, largely absent in Zweig’s stories here.
Anthea Bell’s translation reads extremely well. She has given us an elaborate, sophisticated English prose that brings out all of Zweig’s literary art and emotional subtlety. Overall, Amok and Other Stories represents a splendid selection of Stefan Zweig’s short fiction, with the added frisson that these stories share a correspondence with the writer’s own tragic fate.
Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org