One of the first books I reviewed for this blog was Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story, also published by NYRB Classics (my review here). It’s one of those books I remember so well that I can recall the lighting in the room and just how pleasant that July afternoon was nearly four years ago. Zweig’s writing is filled with a unique combination of urgency and enthusiasm, and it was with great pleasure that I recalled the early days of this blog and reconnected with Zweig through Confusion (Verwirrung der Gefühle, 1927; tr. from the German by Anthea Bell, 2009).
As I begin this review, I find myself perplexed about how much to write about the plot. The narrator of the book suffers from confusion as he attempts to establish a relationship with his brilliant teacher, but I feel the development of the plot gives the game away for the contemporary reader — we are not nearly so confused, so familiar are we with the book’s methods of revealing the central mystery. In fact, I’m betting that a brief introduction to the characters is all most of us need in order to understand what’s going on here, but in no way does this lessen the book’s impact. Zweig’s precise yet animated style recreates the confusion (as well as so many other emotions) so wonderfully that the book’s central mystery turns out to be just one of many things to explore.
Nevertheless, I promise to be as discreet as possible here, though best for you to just go get the book and read it.
When the book begins, the narrator, Roland, is an admired professor of English literature. He’s turning sixty, and everyone has chipped in to produce an expensively bound book containing all of his work. So there it is all combined and sitting on the table: early, brilliant pieces developing into mature, brilliant pieces. Those who’ve known him longest profess Roland has always been passionate about the humanities, and his gifts were always apparent.
This is far from the truth. In fact, Roland was a terrible high-school student and nearly a terrible college student. He despised the humanities and chased after more temporal delights. A brilliant moment (one of many) is when Roland has wasted away his first term of college in the intoxicating city of Berlin (which, like Walser (here), he calls a “giantess”); while Roland is in the middle of some activity with a girl, his father drops by his cramped living space. The two of them share silent embarrassment as the father pretends to ignore what has been going on and the son shuffles the girl out of the apartment, the wind of her passage making the drawn curtain billow a bit. But his father hasn’t come to berate his son; it’s simply time to move on, and he actually manages to inspire his son to have another go at college, but this time in a provincial town.
When Roland arrives, he goes to visit one of his professor’s class while it is in progress. The professor is lecturing on Shakespeare, and it is indeed an inspirational speech, filled with the elderly man’s convincing passion. It turns out the older man’s boarding house has an extra room, and he invites Roland to take his meager belongings there. For Roland, this is where it all begins. When, later in life, he looks at that expensive book collecting all of his work, he thinks:
The book covers everything else, but not the man who gave me the gift of language and with whose tongue I speak: and suddenly I feel to blame for this craven silence.
So Roland, determined once and for all to tell this tale, becomes poetics:
As in Homeric days, then, I will give that beloved shade my own blood to drink, so that he may speak to me again, and although he grew old and died long ago, be with me now that I too am growing old.
So intensely does Roland feel his professor’s passion that he dives headlong into his studies, giving up every other pleasure he’s ever known. He’s voracious, trying to ingest everything at once, reading one book after another, “intoxicated by each of them, never sated by any.” All of this is a pleasantly told coming-of-age story, and then Roland decides to take one day off from his studies to go swimming. His passion for physical sport slightly reawakened, he chases after a young woman with a boyish figure. It turns out, this is his professor’s wife, a figure who is always just on his periphery at the boarding house, not that he’s taken much time to focus on anything other than his studies.
But this changes the household dynamic significantly. Suddenly, his professor has a life beyond Shakespeare, and Roland “imagines, against his will, their private life, more mystery.” And Roland finds himself getting ever closer to the center of it all.
Confusion is a great book about the development of passion, both physical and for the life of the mind. I felt that in the end Zweig over-explained things a bit too much (again, this could be because it’s easy to guess what is going on from early in the brief book), but it’s a sad story, well told and very much worth reading.