Book Review: Wondrak and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, Translated by Anthea Bell

Pushkin Press issues a set of psychologically intense anti-war stories by a now neglected early 20th century Austrian author.

Some literature — Shakespeare, Dickinson, Faulkner — feels timeless, as if retrofitted with a few new surface details it could have been written yesterday and not decades or centuries ago. Wondrak and Other Stories, by the early 20th century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, is of another sort: though it deals with eternal themes — war and peace, the state vs. the individual — it reads, today, as if blanketed in a layer of naiveté.

By that I don't mean ignorance of the world; quite the opposite. It is an un-modern lack of irony that marks these stories as unlike those of most modern writers. In "In the Snow" ("Im Schnee"), the brief first story in this collection of three, the very youthful Zweig, a non-observant Jew, tells of a group of medieval Jewish families who flee their village ahead of what would centuries later be called a pogrom. But these Jews are not well-rounded characters; rather they are almost symbolically simple avatars of persecution and gloom. Even singing a celebratory Chanukah song, "the singing echoes like a hopeless lament, and is blown away on the wind." Even before we learn their fate, Zweig has let us know that for these Jews there can be no redemption – not even, it seems, in their own hearts.

"In the Snow" is a very early work; the mature Zweig was capable of much more nuance. Even so, "Compulsion" ("Der Zwang"), the long story at the center of the collection, has a discomfiting up-front quality, as if we're being compelled to press our faces against the glass and experience the story literally rather than reclining to watch the show in comfort.

Ferdinand, a peace-loving artist, has fled to Switzerland with his wife Paula to avoid being drafted into the German army during World War I. Nonetheless he receives a summons to service. Though he and Paula have agreed to take a principled, intellectually rigorous stand against any such conscription, in the event he feels compelled to answer the call, much as he wants to resist. It is an almost Jamesian tale of complex psychology, not just ideas.

This was an order that would not be denied. Somehow he felt himself wavering; that unknown sensation was back. His hands began to shake. His strength faded. Cold came from somewhere, like a draught of wind blowing around him, uneasiness returned, inside him the steel clockwork of the alien will began to stir, tensing all his nerves and making its way to his joints. Instinctively he looked at his watch.

Like Hans Castorp at the end of The Magic Mountain, Ferdinand's fate is left uncertain, though we are given room to hope for both his physical and his mental survival. The final tale lacks certainty for another reason: Zweig never finished it. Wondrak is titled after a minor character, a local functionary charged with assisting the authorities in locating young men avoiding the draft. The story recounts the life of a disfigured woman, Ruzena, who is now trying to hide her only son, Karel.

It's a tale of large cruelties and small mercies. Zweig left it off with Ruzena and her son both jailed, awaiting his transport off to war. Knut Beck, an earlier editor of Zweig, suggested that perhaps the author felt the story couldn't have been published because of its subject matter and therefore didn't finish it. I think it's just as likely that he quit because he'd written himself into a corner.  Either way, again there is no irony; though certain characters may have psychological depth, what actually occurs is plainly motivated and sensible, at least within the twisted sensibility of war. We do, however, wish we knew what became of Ruzena, having dwelt with her for some 33 pages.

I suspect Pushkin Press's earlier Zweig release, Amok & Other Stories, might be a better introduction to the author. But this volume has piqued my interest in reading more from a writer who was one of the most successful of his time but is largely unknown today in the English-speaking world. I was a little disappointed to spot several typos, after finding the same publisher's edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets such a model of small-print perfection. But Pushkin's unique and rather artistic small softcover format remains appealing.