Posts Tagged ‘stefan zweig’

Almost Lost in Translation Part 1

June 11, 2020

There have been numerous lockdown lists over the last few weeks, and translated literature has not escaped this need to select and recommend, but I recently noticed that some of the books mentioned were not like the others. Most were fresh-faced English versions of the latest work from writers whose journey into other languages was a well-trodden path; or debuts from new discoveries which sales figures or awards had catapulted across the language barrier. Some were even new translations of well-known texts by authors long accepted into the canon. But what about those who almost didn’t make it? Those books, and authors, miraculously lifted from obscurity to new-found, and usually posthumous, fame? So here is my personal recommendations of writer rescued for oblivion in the last twenty years.

Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, translated by Carol Brown Janeway in 2001)
Sandor Marai was a Hungarian author, born in 1900, who ended his life in exile in America, still writing in Hungarian. The fall of Communism (after his death by suicide in 1989) saw his work made available in his home country again though it was Roberto Calasso who rediscovered him for the rest of Europe and Embers was translated into English (not from the original but from a German translation) by Carol Brown Janeway. The novel, which was already sixty years old, begins with two friends who have not seem each other for forty-one years meeting and looking back, and would have already been imbued with nostalgia on its original publication. That its story is one of discovery makes its inclusion here even more appropriate. A further four novels were translated into English from the Hungarian by George Szirtes between 2004 and 2011, and Embers was adapted for theatre by Christopher Hampton. You can read Szirtes on Marai’s rediscovery here.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szeb (1937, translated by Len Rix in 2001)

Journey by moonlightAnother Hungarian writer, Antal Szerb, was in the process of being discovered in the same year. Journey by Moonlight is Szerb’s second novel and it tells the story of Mihaly, newly married and on honeymoon in Italy, attempting to come to terms with his unusual past. Rix went on to translate Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend, and his last, Oliver VII, which was published in 1942 under a pseudonym as Hungary was occupied by the Nazis and Szerb was Jewish. He would die in a concentration camp in 1945. You can read a review of Journey by Moonlight by Nicholas Lezard, who describes it as “a comedy, but a serious and slyly clever one,” here.


Confusion by Stefan Zweig (1927, translated by Anthea Bell in 2002)

Marai and Szerb are straight forward inclusions in this list as, prior to 2001, neither had Confusionmade much impression in the English-speaking world at all. Not so Stefan Zweig. Yet, it is undeniable that the early years of the twenty-first century saw a Zweig revival, largely thanks to publisher Pushkin Press (which might be said to culminate in the Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although the first translations published by Pushkin were older ones (such as Beware of Pity and The Royal Game), Confusion was newly translated by Anthea Bell, who would go on to translate many more of his novellas and stories, and also offer new translations of Beware of Pity and The Royal Game (Chess) in the years to come. The novella tells the story of a relationship between a student and the teacher who inspires him, though, as is typical for Zweig, it is also an emotional roller-coaster. Although not Zweig’s most famous work, Robert Macfarlane has described it as “…one of his finest and most exemplary works …. a perfect reminder of, or introduction to, Zweig’s economy and subtlety as a writer.” You can read a review of Confusion by Melissa Beck here.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (1932, translated by Kathie von Ankum in 2002)

Irmgard Keun was a German writer who, until her work was made widely available in English, was perhaps best known as Joseph Roth’s girlfriend. The Artificial Silk Girl is her second novel, originally published in 1932, a wonderfully vivid story of a young girl, Dora, trying to find herself in 1930s Germany. Keun is particularly good on the way in which Dora both uses, and is the victim of, her looks in a novel that still seems relevant today. A translation of Child of All Nations by Michael Hofmann appeared in 2008, and Melville House in the US published translations of Gigli and After Midnight (the latter, by Anthea Bell, admittedly originating from 1985). These 1930s novels can now all be found under the Penguin Classics imprint. Keun spent the Second World War living under an alias, and was, in fact, reported to have committed suicide. Though she survived, the war in many ways ended her literary career, however, a translation by Hofmann of one of her few post-war publications, her 1950 novel, The Man with the Kind Heart, is due this year. You can read my review of The Artificial Silk Girl here.

Suite Francois by Irene Nemirovsky (written 1940-41, published in French 2004, and translated by Sandra Smith the same year)

Probably the most famous rediscovery of the last twenty years is that of Irene Suite FrancaiseNemirovsky. Nemirovsky was from the Ukraine originally but her family settled in France after the revolution and she wrote in French. Her first novel was published in 1926 and she published regularly throughout the 20s and 30s. She was arrested as a Jew in 1942 having completed the first two volumes of the planned five volume Suite Francois. The manuscript survived with her two daughters who were hidden in various places until the end of the war. Nemirovsky, meanwhile, was murdered at Auschwitz just two months after her arrest. The novel, which tells of the time it was written after France’s defeat, was not discovered until almost 60 years later. Its publication led to much of Nemirovsky’s work being translated, including another newly discovered novel, Fire in the Blood, in 2007. You can read a review of Suite Francois by Helen Dunmore here.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz (1975, translated by Tim Wilkinson in 2004)

FatelessImre Kertesz is another Hungarian author, but one from a later generation than Marai and Szerb. This does not mean he was unaffected by the Second World War, however, as he was deported to Auschwitz aged fourteen and only survived by claiming to be older and therefore eligible to work. His first novel, Fatelessness (or Fateless) describes the experiences of a character of similar age, Gyorgy, in a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, though Kertesz denied it was autobiographical. It was originally translated into English in 1992, but was translated again by Tim Wilkinson in 2004, perhaps spurred on by Kertesz’s Nobel Prize win in 2002. Wilkinson went on to translate a number of Ketesz’s novels including Liquidation and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, bringing ten of his novels into English within ten years. You can read a review of Fatelessness by Dorian Stuber here.

Journey into the Past

November 9, 2009

journey into the past

“There you are!” So begins the latest Zweig novella to be made available in English by translator Anthea Bell and Pushkin Press. Zweig’s fiction has provoked a similar response from many readers, seeing something in his work that is perhaps lacking in much modern literature. Certainly, the form is appealing – easily consumed in one sitting, and benefiting from that intensity of experience. At the heart of the appeal, however, is probably raw and unembarrassed emotion, not always expressed openly, but felt deeply.

In Journey into the Past the emotion, as so often, is love. The novella begins by reuniting Ludwig with the woman he has loved for nine years while they have been separated, first by the necessity of him travelling to work in Mexico, and then by the First World War. All the old emotions seem to be in place:

“…he felt that she was the only person really present, removed from time and space in a strange trance of passionate bemusement.”

When Ludwig first met her, she was the wife of his employer, a man much older than her, confined to bed, who hires Ludwig to work as his private secretary. Their relationship is only friendly until Ludwig learns he is to be sent to Mexico and given the responsibility of building a new branch of the company in that part of the world and harnessing the available raw materials. At the thought of leaving, he realises how much he has come to love her:

“My God, he said to himself, leaving her. Like a knife, the thought cut through the proudly swelling sail of his delight.”

The image of travel sabotaged is not misplaced: most of the story is presented to us in the form of memories occurring as the pair travel together to Heidelberg on the train. This is the literal journey into the past, as they return to a place they remember with fondness. When he reaches Mexico one of the ways he attempts to put her from his mind is “by exhausting himself physically with long rides and expeditions into the country.” Time itself becomes a journey for him:

“And like a man chopping trees down in the jungle, he chopped into the wild and still impenetrably menacing time ahead of him with berserk strength and frenzy.”

His love is not unrequited. When she hears the news of his imminent departure, she, too, cannot hide her feelings. Their love, however, is never consummated – only on the last day does this almost happen, but:

“…when in that moment of surrender, the gift of her body was almost his, then in her passion, she stammered out a last plea, ‘Not now! Not here! I beg you!’”

Instead she promises that she will be his when he returns to Germany. It is perhaps this moment, as much as anything, that he seeks to recapture. However, when they find themselves in the same room nine years later, she again resists him:

“And so irresistibly did her own strength dominate his will that, just as in the past, he obeyed her without a word.”

And so, in a sense, the past is recreated – not the passion, but the ‘almost’ moment, and the journey that follows, down the stairs “to the reception rooms, through the front hall and to the door.” In response to this, Ludwig suggests the journey to Heidelberg, a place where they were happy together before they admitted their love to each other. They are greeted there by marching crowds – “a patriotic demonstration of veterans’ associations and students in support of the Fatherland” – a reminder that Germany itself at this time has an uncomfortable relationship with its past. To the couple, this echo of the war only serves to remind them of their separation. His earlier thoughts – “Time is helpless…in the face of our feelings” are replaced with a sense that:

“The past always comes between us, the time that has gone by.”

The novella finishes with a beautiful image. Watching their shadows he at first sees:

“…the shadows ahead merged as if embracing, stretching, longing for one another…”

But this is only an illusion:

“Neither she nor he was the same any more, yet they were searching for each other in a vain effort, fleeing one another, persisting in disembodied, powerless efforts like these black spectres at their feet.”

The final lines are ambiguous, but, once again, Zweig has given us a beautifully rendered relationship, in this instance defeated by time.