I was home from work earlier than usual today. It was a little odd as I wasn’t quite sure with all that ‘extra’ time. ‘Extra’ because if I were to clock strict, regular hours and get off work at 1730, this would be the ‘usual’ time that I would be home.
Anyway, I did the usual stuff – showered, had dinner, ate chocolate + drank wine – earlier than usual. It was just past 2100 when I started on “Letter from an Unknown Woman“, a collection of four translated novellas by Stefan Zweig that was recently published by the excellent Pushkin Press.
When I finished the first short story, after which the book is titled, I hesitated. I didn’t want to finish the book too soon. But I couldn’t resist.
Letter from an Unknown Woman held me breathless with the unconditional devotion spilling forth from an anonymous young woman for a former neighbour, an unnamed author who melts women with his charms and gaze. The object of her affection, a lady’s man, unfortunately never recognised her and it appears, in her long letter + declaration of love, treated her as just another pretty face that he couldn’t resist bedding. The story was also adapted into a movie directed by Max Ophüls. Maybe I’ll watch it this weekend.
“Allow me, beloved, to tell you the whole story from the beginning. I beg you, do not tire of listening to me for a quarter of an hour, when I have never tired of loving you all my life.”
The story that follows – A Story by Twilight – is a third-person narrative of a teenage boy’s unexpected falling into love with and being loved by two sisters respectively, and his wistful hopes for a great romance that lead to a jaded young man.
“Or are you sad for that boy who rejected love and found himself all at once cast out of the garden of his sweet dream forever? There, I didn’t mean my story to be dark and melancholy… but stories told in the evening all tread the gentle path of melancholy. Twilight falls with its veils, the sorrow that rests in the evening is a starless vault above them, darkness seeps into their blood, and all the bright, colourful words in them have as full and heavy a sound as if they came from our inmost hearts.”
The third novella, The Debt Paid Late, is a feel-good piece about how a middle-aged woman ‘pays back’ an elderly stage actor who is now past his prime and whom she and a best friend idolised in their youthful years.
“The human heart is strange: for years and years I had not given him a single thought, although he had once dominated all my thoughts and filled my whole soul. I could have died and never asked what had become of him; he could have died and I would not have known.”
Forgotten Dreams is the last of the four stories, and also the shortest (just nine pages out of a 153-page book). It packs a punch in spite of its brevity, capturing a brief encounter between former lovers – the woman, now married to a wealthy but ‘ordinary’ man, and the man, who had called upon her when visiting from the Americas. It is also my favourite of the lot.
“Smiling, she watches him go, thinks of the words he said about love, and the past comes up with quiet, inaudible steps to intervene between her and the present. And suddenly she thinks that he could have given her life its direction, and her ideas paint that strange notion in bright colours. And slowly, slowly, imperceptibly, the smile on her dreaming lips die away.”
This has been a good way to spend a few quiet hours on a Thursday evening. Now, after a few glasses of wine, it is time to retire.
6 replies on “Stefan Zweig: Letter from an Unknown Woman”
I must read this. His book Die Welt von Gestern is a brilliant read too.
Thanks for the recommendation Andrew. I know where I’ll be this evening after work! : )