I'm sure there are plenty of writers who can turn out a good story in less than seventy pages but to mind nobody did it better than Stefan Zweig this weekend.
John Self over on Asylum had done a great review of Chess by Stefan Zweig, not only reminding me of the version I have of this, The Royal Game published by Pushkin Press, but also that I had plenty of unread Stefan Zweig on the shelves to catch up on.The Royal Game is one of those unsettling reads that stays in your mind for years.You spot oblique references to it all over the place, others have read and carry it with them too.
One Stefan Zweig title has been beckoning me for ages. In fact so alluring was the title that I had conjured up all manner of plots and content to the point where I had actually put off reading it for fear of disappointment.
Twilight Moonbeam Alley is actually two separate stories but don't the two together conjure up magic therein?
Since I first discovered him I have been fascinated by Stefan Zweig in a Joseph Roth sort of way. Mittel-European, that melancholy wistful feel to the writing, something just out of reach,the unexplainable atmosphere of literature in translation.
Born in 1881 in Vienna into a wealthy Austrian-Jewish family, living in Salzburg between the wars and becoming a rising literary star, Stefan Zweig moved to London during the ascent of Nazism. He took out British citizenship before he finally settled in Brazil where he and his wife were found dead in an apparent double suicide in 1942. By this time he was a banned writer in Hitler's Germany and his books were in ashes.
Twilight is one of the best short stories I've read in ages.First published in 1910 it is set in France and is a strange mixture of the real and the invented.The main characters did exist, Madame de Prie was the mistress of the Duke of Bourbon, Louis XV's prime minister and did broker the king's marriage.She was indeed exiled to the country.
Stefan Zweig then adds in all the imagined and fictional detail and you have a perfect delineation of a woman so full of her own importance that the disintegration is like sitting watching a road accident about to happen.
Moonbeam Alley likewise a compact offering on the agonies of private passions cleverly told to an onlooker who becomes the recipient of probably far more information than he ever wanted to know.His own illusions about the magical nature of this alley of moonbeams as shattered as mine in the end. Once the light has shone on life behind the closed doors it is not quite the dreamy place you had imagined.
The reading was timely because Susan Sontag has more interesting things to say on the subject of translation and I'd just read her lecture on literary translation, The World as India , published in the newest posthumus collection At the Same Time. It has all given me some real gems for thought about a genre I relish.
"It is often taken for granted that the aim of translation is to make the work "sound" as if it were written in the language in which it is being translated...to efface as much as possible the evidence of foreignness"
Susan Sontag cleverly weighs that against the other side of the argument
"The translator's primary duty is to stay as close as possible to the original text with the understanding that the result will, precisely, read as a translation.To naturalise a foreign book is to lose what is most valuable about it: the spirit of the language, the mental ethos out of which the text emerges"
I've simplistically condensed twenty four pages into two quotes, the rest is worth seeking out because perhaps I now understand why some translations seem to fail with me and it is almost certainly because I'm not really aware I'm reading a translation, somehow I need to sense that difference.
I certainly do with anything by Joseph Roth that Michael Hofmann gets his hands on, definitely did with my reading of Colette and Andrew Brown last week and likewise with Stefan Zweig and Anthea Bell at the moment.
Little wonder that I now feel I've been very remiss and must start to credit the translators too.