Despite considering myself a fan of Stefan Zweig’s emotionally turbulent stories since I read his novella Chess Story back in 2008 (my thoughts here, in one of my first posts on this blog), until recently I had no idea he wrote Letter from an Unknown Woman (Brief einer Unbekannten, 1922; tr. from the German by Anthea Bell, 2013). I knew this story pretty well already because it was made into an excellent film in 1948 by Max Ophüls . The film starred Joan Fontaine, who died last month at the age of 96. When she died, I resolved to pull out Zweig’s story and become familiar with the basis for that film.

I happen to have two copies of the story. Last fall, Pushkin Press published it twice, once in the beautiful, large The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig (pictured below and which I highly recommend) and once in a standalone volume. I’m giving away my standalone copy, so pay attention to how you can enter to win it *.

Review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press.

Review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press.

The story has a beginning that, I think, would pull anyone in. It is the forty-first birthday or R., the famous novelist. He sits down to go through the mail and find there a letter — “more of a manuscript than a letter” — and he doesn’t recognize the sender. The remainder of the story, other than a brief coda, is that letter. Here’s how it begins:

My child died yesterday — for three days and three nights I wrestled with death for that tender little life, I sat for forty hours at his bedside while the influenza racked his poor, hot body with fever. I put cool compresses on his forehead, I held his restless little hands day and night. On the third evening I collapsed. My eyes would not stay open any longer; I was unaware of it when they closed. I slept, sitting on my hard chair, for three or four hours, and in that time death took him. Now the sweet boy lies there in his narrow child’s bed, just as he died; only his eyes have been closed, his clever, dark eyes, and his hands are folded over his white shirt, while four candles burn at the four corners of his bed. I dare not look, I dare not stir from my chair, for when the candles flicker shadows flit over his face and his closed mouth, and then it seems as if his features were moving, so that I might think he was not dead after all, and will wake up and say something loving and childish to me in his clear voice. But I know that he is dead, I will arm myself against hope and further disappointment, I will not look at him again. I know it is true, I know my child died yesterday — so now all I have in the world is you, you who know nothing about me, you who are now amusing yourself without a care in the world, dallying with things and with people. I have only you, who never knew me, and whom I have always loved.

This is signature Zweig: highly emotional, almost ridiculously dramatic, yet it works. It works marvelously. This unknown woman proceeds to tell R. about the years she’s been in love with him, years that took down to the absolute depths of poverty and then to heights — such as they are — of high society. A big part of R.’s life is revealed to him and forever changes his future and past. It’s completely believable — and the more devastating for that.

I’m not going to go in-detail here. It’s best if you stumble on this book as incidentally as the man stumbles on this letter. I refuse to suggest an answer for these questions: Why is she writing to R.? Why has she always loved him? Hos is it he never knew her?

I do want to say, though, that while the answers to these tantalizing questions make the story surprising and, in a way, fun, the story’s strengths lie in Zweig’s ability to convey repressed emotion. Anthea Bell is to be thanked — again — for helping that come off wonderfully in English.

* If you’d like a chance to win Pushkin Press’s standalone edition of Letter from an Unknown Woman (I say standalone, but it also includes three additional stories: “A Story Told in Twilight,” “The Debt Paid Late,” and “Forgotten Dreams”), then please leave a comment below stating this desire and telling me just why you’d like to read Zweig. In a week, on Thursday, January 16, I will draw a name at random and get in touch with the winner via the email address that person used to leave the comment. I will give the winner a reasonable amount of time to get in touch with me with shipping details; if those details do not arrive, I will draw another winner . . . and so on until I finally have someone to whom I can ship the book.

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By |2014-01-09T17:24:07-04:00January 9th, 2014|Categories: Stefan Zweig|16 Comments


  1. Stujallen January 9, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    I read standalone pushkin copy with the other two stories , I felt year again he captures the female voice so well in his prose

  2. The Ramblings of a Demented Mind January 9, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    I read Chess (That’s the Penguin version of Chess Story!) last year and was mesmerized by the way Stefan Zweig wrote his prose. So… It makes me want to read this book. :-)

    Thanks for the giveaway. :-)

  3. JD January 10, 2014 at 1:01 am

    I’ve never read any of his work. Why I want to read this is because I am in desperate need of some real good literature, especially ones rarely heard of. I have nothing against bestsellers, but these rare finds have a certain charm that the former still haven’t achieved.

  4. arirang January 10, 2014 at 3:56 am

    Chess is indeed a wonderful story – and the Post Office Girl an impressive novel as well, so intrigued to read this one. One of the delights of translated fiction is the ability to discover authors like Zweig when translated by someone as talented as Andrea Bell (whereas “Stoner” moments are relatively rare in English literature) So please count me in for the competition. Thanks

  5. Jacqui (@jacquiwine) January 10, 2014 at 4:12 am

    I read Zweig’s ‘Journey into the Past’ last year and loved the way he captures thoughts and feelings through his prose.,,so I’d relish the opportunity to read more of his work. Thank for the chance to enter your giveaway.

  6. avataram January 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Thanks for the giveaway! I have never read any Stefan Zweig, and hope to start here. Max Ophuls has made a film on the book, and I have seen some Ophuls films – Lola Montes, La Ronde – but not the “Letter from an unknown woman”. I hope that I can read the book and see the film in the near future.

  7. Robin Dawson January 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    I’m glad of the chance to win this book . Your review makes it sound very intriguing. Why has this distressed woman written to a total stranger?
    The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity have long been on on my TBR list, but unfortunately Zweig is seldom found in the second hand bookstores I haunt. Indeed, any literature in translation is hard to find in such places, but I’m always on the lookout, searching for discarded treasure.

  8. Amanda January 10, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    I have been looking to introduce myself to Stefan Zweig’s work, and the opportunity to win this book would give me just such an introduction. I am now particularly interested in this title!

  9. Emma January 12, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I enjoyed this one when I read it. It’s been made into a play and I’ve seen it, it was marvellous.
    I still prefer Journey into the past to this one, though.

  10. Jan Wilkens January 12, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    I would live to read the collection and then share it with my friends who are excellent readers of literature. Thanks for the gesture.

  11. KD Alter January 13, 2014 at 6:19 am

    I reviewed the NYRB reissue of Beware of Pity. Would be delighted to have this book!

  12. Lisa Hill January 16, 2014 at 2:00 am

    I’d like a copy so that I can join in Stu’s Pushkin Press week at Winston’s Dad!

  13. angelinahue January 16, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Letter from an Unknown Woman, which I have in two Stefan Zweig short story collections, is a beautifully written, bittersweet novella.

    Just would like to share one of my favourite quotes from it:
    “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.”

  14. Paul January 16, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    I’ve been circling Zweig for years. After countless recommendations and glowing reviews, it’s time high time I go for it. Plus, I need to start adding more Pushking Press to my shelves.

  15. Trevor January 16, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Okay, everyone who entered (and thanks! I have always wanted to do one of these without “giveaway” in the title, just to see how many would enter — not nearly as many as usual!).

    I’ve tallied the entrants and given each a number. I’m about to draw a number from the virtual hat.

    Number 7.

    By my assigned numbers, that’s Amanda! Amanda, an email is on its way to you now. Please respond to it by sending me your mailing address. Please get in touch with me!

  16. Maurice Schiff November 19, 2015 at 3:22 am

    I have read many of Stefan Zweig’s books, including some of his great biographies (Marie Antoinette, Magellan, Fouché) and other books (24 hours in the life of a woman, Amok, The Chess Player). I even visited the last house where he lived, in Petropolis, Brazil. The reason I’d like a copy of “Letter from an Unknown Woman” is that I joined a book club yesterday and suggested that book for next month. None of the other members knew of Stefan Zweig and they responded enthusiastically to my suggestion (some after having googled him as well as the story). In any case, your gesture (if that’s the right word) made me feel good so I’m already ahead, no matter what.

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