Pushkin Press, £10, 236pp. £9 from the Independent Bookshop; Pushkin Press, £11.99, 446pp. £10.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Governess and Other Stories, By Stefan Zweig, trans. Anthea Bell
Mary Stuart, By Stefan Zweig, trans. Eden & Cedar Paul
Friday 20 May 2011
If Selina Hastings's recent biography helped rescue Somerset Maugham from oblivion, Pushkin Press has performed a similar service for Stefan Zweig, another best-selling figure who mysteriously slipped out of fashion. Almost 70 years after this most cosmopolitan of writers committed suicide in exile in Brazil, Pushkin has produced a series of elegant reissues crowned by Anthea Bell's translation of the classic memoir, The World of Yesterday.
In France the revival has flourished without Pushkin's help. Laurent Seksik's studiously unsensational novel about Zweig's death has sold some 80,000 copies. And in Brazil itself, the modest house in Petropolis, near Rio, where the writer and his young wife, Lotte, took their fatal dose of Veronal in February 1942 is being turned into a museum thanks to the efforts of his Brazilian biographer, the feisty journalist Alberto Dines. To walk around the home - which has hardly changed since the 1940s, apart from a gigantic satellite TV dish on the roof - is a distinctly eerie experience. All this attention, though, invites a backlash. Michael Hofmann - translator of Zweig's friend, Joseph Roth - duly obliged with a 4,000-word broadside in the London Review of Books which even managed to find fault with the prose style of Zweig's suicide note.
The latest additions to the Pushkin catalogue do provide a certain amount of ammunition for the Hofmann camp. Of the four stories in The Governess, two have to be classed as bottom-of-the-drawer fare. "Did He Do It?" catches the eye because of its setting in Bath, where Zweig briefly settled in 1939. (He and Lotte were married in the Guildhall days after the outbreak of war.) But after a promising opening, the story of a pampered pet dog's malicious response to a new-born child ends in melodrama. In "The Miracles of Life", Zweig's eye for historical detail serves him well as he guides us through 16th-century Antwerp. Unfortunately, his account of an elderly painter's relationship with the young Jewish girl who serves as the model for an altarpiece painting has a laboured and irritatingly pious air.
The louche atmosphere of hotel lounges provided a recurrent backdrop for the footloose Zweig. In "Downfall of the Heart", a rough-hewn Jewish paterfamilias grapples with the suspicion that his beloved daughter may be sleeping with one of her several admirers. Zweig specialised in respectable figures undercut by obsession, and the father's sudden sense of being de trop among well-heeled Gentiles adds an extra layer of pathos. In "The Governess", the seed of neurosis is planted among two sisters who discover that the young woman who looks after them is having an affair. It is another poignant glimpse of duplicity behind closed doors.
Zweig's admirers will probably find his biography of Mary, Queen of Scots harder going. Readers brought up on Antonia Fraser's acclaimed study may chafe at Zweig's speculative tone, while his paternalistic observations about women in public life sound dated. Still, as the narrative wends its way to the final rendezvous with the executioner, Zweig's urbane style forms a striking contrast with the bloody realpolitik. And it is hard to read his measured account of Mary's final hours without thinking of his chillingly calm preparations for his own death in that little house in the hills above Rio.
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