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 *.
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.