When Elias Canetti was named the Nobel laureate in literature not long ago, it was a reminder of a period between the wars when a kind of pan-European spirit dominated writing in France, Germany and Austria; when writers such as Jules Romains, Romain Rolland, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Stefan Zweig promoted in their works a sense of the oneness of the experience shared by Western Europeans. They managed to put nationalism aside, and, for a time, politics as well.
Yet because theirs was so much writing of a particular time, it seems now to be passing into oblivion: Rolland, Romains and Heinrich Mann are today virtually forgotten; Hesse enjoyed a revival in the psychedelic '60s for all the wrong reasons but now seems to be sinking fast; even as great a reputation as Thomas Mann's has clearly gone into a decline. Yet until the appearance of this collection of five novellas by Stefan Zweig, none seemed as totally, irretrievably lost to us as Zweig.
The peculiar thing is that during the period between the wars Zweig was perhaps the most famous of them all. As novelist John Fowles says quite accurately in his generally good introduction to the volume, "Even 'famous writer' understates the prodigious reputation he enjoyed in the last decade or so of his life, when he was arguably the most widely read and translated serious author in the world." The irony here is that this vast international reputation rested not on his single novel and several novellas but on a number of biographies that he wrote -- of, among others, Erasmus, Mary Stuart and Marie Antoinette. If his reputation is revived, however, the beginning of that revival will come with these stories.
The best known of them, "Letter From an Unknown Woman," is the weakest of all. Max Ophuls made it into a film just after the war, and it was a glorious period piece -- but a period piece nonetheless. The story itself is far less satisfying than the movie. Why should that be? Perhaps because it is so much a told story and the voice of its female narrator seems to be nagging at the novelist, who is the object of her more or less unrequited passion, for his lack of responsiveness. According to Fowles, the story has considerable biographical significance, having been written at the time of the breakup of Zweig's first marriage. Writing it was no doubt of considerable therapeutic value to him, helping him deal with his guilt in the affair and so on; and yet reading it is considerably less an experience than reading the rest of the stories here.
He favors the told story in this collection -- the long letter and the narrative, confided a la Conrad's Marlowe, on long ocean voyages. Of the latter type, there are two -- "Amok," and the title story, "The Royal Game," both of them beautifully done. "Amok," which was also made into a movie, back in the '30s, is another study in eroticism -- in this case exploring the effect of jungle isolation on a European doctor: He becomes obsessed by an Englishwoman who visits him and asks for an abortion. The total effect is a little like having Somerset Maugham rewritten by Freud.
In his day, Zweig was considered quite a sexual psychologist. Both "Fear" and "The Burning Secret" must have done a good deal to extend that reputation. "Fear," the lesser of the two, is a kind of variation on the film "Gaslight" in which a husband psychologically terrorizes his wife to teach her a lesson in fidelity; the peculiarly Germanic assumptions that provide the foundation for the story would drive a feminist crazy. "The Burning Secret" is as fine and subtle a sexual coming-of-age piece as I have read. Yet it is not only that, for all the featured players in this little drama -- the boy, his mother, and the Austrian nobleman who pursues her -- receive the kind of understanding and attention that would do them justice in a full-length novel.
"The Royal Game" stands quite separate from the rest. It is the only one of them that does not deal even indirectly with sexuality, and it is the only one that exists in history, in time. It deals with the intensive interrogation of an Austrian banker by the Gestapo, detailing his tactics for survival. He plays games of imaginary chess with the help of a book he has filched. At last released, he finds himself thrust into a chess match that is not imaginary. Yet dealing with the reality of chess brings back the reality of those months of interrogation -- and he collapses under the strain.
"The Royal Game" is a beautiful piece, and it was the last Zweig ever wrote. After traveling during the war as a refugee to Petropolis in Brazil, he became discouraged and fearful at Hitler's progress, and in February 1942, he himself collapsed under the strain. There in Brazil, with the Nazis in command in Europe, it looked as though his world was gone forever. And so he committed suicide, a distant casualty of the war.