Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

Last summer I read Stefan Zweig’s 1938 novel, Beware of Pity. It was a book group choice, one that gave rise to a really interesting debate about the moral dilemma at the centre of the story: should we tell the truth and risk crushing a vulnerable person’s spirit, or is it better to go with the flow in the hope of keeping their dreams alive? (There’s no easy answer to this question, btw – hence the power of the book.) While I loved the author’s prose style, I couldn’t help but wonder if Pity was a little too drawn out, a touch overwrought and melodramatic at times. It left me with the feeling that Zweig might be better suited to the short form, more specifically novellas and stories. First published in German in 1913, Burning Secret is one of his novellas and a terrific one at that. Let me tell you a little about it.

burning-secret

As the book opens, the Baron – one of three key players in the story – is approaching the town of Semmering in Austria where he will be spending a week’s holiday. On his arrival at his hotel, the Baron is disappointed to discover that none of the other guests are known to him. He was hoping for some congenial company, an amusing distraction of some description to help pass the time. It is quite clear from the off that the Baron is something of a lady-killer, the type of dashing young man who enjoys the thrill of the chase. In an extended passage, Zweig presents a portrait of a man always on the alert for the next ‘erotic opportunity’, a seasoned huntsman who takes great pleasure in stalking his prey before going in for the kill.

Luckily for the Baron, he doesn’t have to wait too long before the rustle of a silk gown is audible in the background. Into the hotel dining room comes a tall, voluptuous woman, a type the Baron likes very much. While the lady in question is past her prime, there is a touch of the faded beauty about her, a sort of ‘elegant melancholy’ for want of a better phrase. In spite of the fact that the lady is accompanied by her young son, twelve-year-old Edgar, the Baron’s interest is immediately aroused. In the very subtle scene that follows, the interplay between the Baron and Edgar’s mama starts to unfold. It is abundantly clear that the lady has noticed her admirer even though she pretends otherwise.

The huntsman in him scented prey. Challengingly, his eyes now sought to meet hers, which sometimes briefly returned his gaze with sparkling indecision as she looked past him, but never gave a clear, outright answer. He thought he also detected the trace of a smile beginning to play around her mouth now and then, but none of that was certain, and its very uncertainty aroused him. The one thing that did strike him a promising was her constant refusal to look him in the eye, betraying both resistance and self-consciousness, and then there was the curiously painstaking way she talked to her child, which was clearly meant for an onlooker, Her persistent façade of calm, he felt, meant in itself that she was beginning to feel troubled. He too was excited; the game had begun. (pp. 13-14)

Having set his sights on the mama, the Baron sees young Edgar as a potential route of access to his prey. By making friends with the boy, the Baron hopes to facilitate an introduction to the mama, thereby making it easier to move things along a little more quickly. Zweig has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just two or three sentences (he does this with all three of the main players in this story). Here is his description of Edgar, a passage that perfectly captures the awkwardness of a young boy in his own skin.

He was a shy, awkward, nervous boy of about twelve with fidgety movements and dark, darting eyes. Like many children of that age, he gave the impression of being alarmed, as if he had just been abruptly woken from sleep and suddenly put down in strange surroundings. (p. 17)

At twelve years of age, young Edgar is on the threshold of adolescence, longing to be viewed as a grown-up, someone who is independent of his mother. At this age, every little thing means the world to a boy like Edgar; his emotions are big and deeply felt, with a tendency towards either wild enthusiasm and affection or outright hostility and hatred.

He did not seem to adopt a moderate stance to anything, and spoke of everyone or everything either with enthusiasm or a dislike so violent that it distorted his face, making him look almost vicious and ugly. (p. 23)

When the Baron takes a shine to Edgar, the boy is flattered and entranced. Edgar has been brought to the resort to recover from an illness, and with no other children of his age in sight he is clearly very lonely. Before long, he is following the Baron everywhere, desperate to spend time with his new friend. The Baron for his part finds it ridiculously easy to win the boy’s confidence. He knows full well he is using Edgar as a pawn in the game to seduce his target, but he shows precious little concern for any collateral damage that might occur along the way.

Sure enough the desired introduction takes place, and before long all three visitors are spending quite a bit of time together at the resort. All too quickly though, Edgar notices the blossoming of a different type of relationship between his mama and the Baron, a development he finds both puzzling and frustrating. Why has his mama stolen his new friend away from him? Why are the two grown-ups always trying to sneak off by themselves, sending Edgar off on errands on his own? And what is the burning secret they appear to be concealing from him? In some ways, this secret seems to represent the key to adulthood, something mysterious and forbidden and potentially dangerous.

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot as it might spoil the story. What’s so impressive about this novella is the insight Zweig gives us into the psychological motives behind the actions of each of the main characters. While the book is written in the third person, the point of view moves around at various points in the story to focus on the Baron, young Edgar and the boy’s mama. The dynamics between the three players are constantly shifting, and they are a delight to observe.

In some ways, Burning Secret is the story of the loss of a young boy’s innocence. In that respect in shares something in common with L. P. Hartley’s excellent novel The Go-Between (in fact at one point in the book, the Baron actually refers to Edgar as his go-between, if only in his thoughts). Young Edgar is desperate to understand the seemingly exciting world of adulthood and everything it represents. Only this world comes with significant dangers and uncertainties, the threat of pain alongside the promise of pleasure. By the end of Burning Secret, Edgar is happy to retreat back into the sanctity of childhood for a while, a place where he feels safe and secure.

In another sense, Zweig’s novella has something to say about the dangers of succumbing to the lure of desire. While not unaccustomed to the occasional flirtation, Edgar’s mama finds herself dangerously close to being pulled into an emotional whirlpool, a vertiginous and violent force seems all set to sweep her away. At one point, she realises that Edgar may have picked up a sense of what is happening, a thought that causes her to pause. For Edgar’s mama, time is running out. This might be her last chance of a dalliance before resigning herself to life without passion. (There are clear hints that all is not entirely rosy between Edgar’s mama and her husband.)

Burning Secret is an excellent novella, full of little shifts in the power base and interplay between the three central characters. In that sense, it has something in common with Beware of Pity, but Secret feels like a subtler, more nuanced piece of work.

To finish, a few words about Zweig’s prose. He has a wonderful turn of phrase, a real ability to capture a moment or an emotion in just one line. Here are a few of my favourites.

In his happy dreams, childhood was left behind, like a garment he had outgrown and thrown away. (Edgar, p. 30)

On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box. (The Baron, p. 11)

Everything in the air and on the earth was in movement, seething with impatience. (The mood and setting, p. 10) 

I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month – here are some links to previous reviews by Guy and Max.

Burning Secret is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.

46 thoughts on “Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

  1. bookbii

    Excellent review Jacqui. I’ve been wanting to read Zweig for a while (I blame Wes Anderson) but haven’t yet managed to get around to it. I’d had Beware of Pity on my radar, but this sounds like it might be the better read. Somehow the description of the book reminded me of Rushmore, which I haven’t watched in a while, and I’m wondering how much of Wes Anderson’s work is inspired or influenced by Zweig.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Both books are well worth reading, but if I had to pick one it would be this novella. It’s more tightly controlled (if that makes sense). Interesting point about Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel was definitely inspired by Zweig, but I hadn’t even thought about a possible connection with Rushmore. It’s been ages since I last watched that film so it might be time for another viewing!

      Reply
  2. lizzysiddal

    I agree 100% with your assessment of both works. The emotional register in Zweig’s fiction is so high that reading a full length novel becomes unbearable. His novellas don’t have pack a punch though, and you’ve started with ones of the strongest.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you agree, Yes, that’s exactly how I felt about Beware of Pity. I loved the style, but the story itself turned out to be a bit of a rollercoaster! As you say, his emotional pitch is so high that it begins to take its toll after a while. I thought this was excellent, so I look forward to reading more of his short fiction in the future. Did you review this one, Lizzy? If so, I’ll add a link to your post here.

      Reply
  3. Jonathan

    I’m hoping to get round to his novellas soon; this one sounds really interesting. His short stories are especially good as well. He comes across as a very modern writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Given your fondness for Zweig stories (which I’ve been following with interest), then there’s every chance you’ll take to his novellas too. I’ve also read his Journey into the Past, but as it was pre-blog my memories of it are a little sketchy now. I do remember really enjoying it though.

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    This really is one of the best of Zweig’s novellas – and your excellent review has made me want to read it again. In fact, you might tempt me to do that for German Literature Month, instead of reading my full-length Clemens Setz novel, which I am struggling with at the moment.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great! Yes, do read it again especially if you need a respite from your current novel – and it’s very short so you’d be able to whip through it in a few hours. I’d love to see your take on it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This would be a good one to start with if you’re ever tempted to give Zweig a try. I love the look and feel of these Pushkin Collection books too – they are beautifully produced.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I have read this a long time ago. You didn’t find it as melodramatic then?
    You knwo, I must have mentioned this before, he’s not read that much in Germany and we (although that wss in Switzerland) we’re told not to choose him for our A-levels for example because he’s too sentimental, too melodramatic. It’s true but at the same time, he’s a fine psychologist. In German, btw, he’s much more sentimental. In a way it’s sad that we tend to frown upon such strong emotions. He’s sentimental but never cheap or manipulative.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I didn’t find it as melodramatic as Pity. Don’t get me wrong – I liked that book a lot (especially the style and characterisation), but there were times when it just felt a little overwrought. That’s so interesting to hear how he’s seen in Germany and Switzerland. The psychology behind individuals’ actions is definitely one of his strengths, both books have that aspect in common. This reminds me…I really must get around to reading his Letter from an Unknown Woman as I absolutely love the film.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Oh, I didn’t know it had been turned into a film (although it’s not surprising as the potential is clearly there). I just looked it up – Faye Dunaway and Klaus Maria Brandauer, very interesting casting. I’ll have have to see if I can get hold of the DVD – thanks for mentioning that.

      Reply
  6. Naomi

    I have recently added Zweig’s Chess Story to my tbr. I was trying to remember where I saw it, but it must have been someone’s German Lit post (maybe you’ve seen it?). Now I’ll also be adding this one! The only book by Zweig our library has is Conqueror of the Seas: the Story of Magellan. Hmm…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I don’t recall seeing a review of Chess Story, but it may well have popped somewhere as part of German Lit Month. I’m glad you like the sound of this one as well. He’s well worth discovering. I forgot to mention it in my post, but I’ve also read another of his novellas, Journey into the Past. It was a pre-blog read, so my memories of it are a little sketchy now. I do remember enjoying it though!

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I think Guy wrote something about Chess and did think too highly of it. Journey into the Past is the only Schweig I have read. It is acutely observed and beautifully written. Your excellent review inspires me to read Burning Secret next.

    Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Ah, I have a feeling that Max wasn’t too keen on Chess either. Journey into the Past is wonderful, isn’t it? I forgot to mention that I’d read it a few years ago – definitely one to revisit at some point. It was turned into a film fairly recently with Rebecca Hall and Alan Rickman in the lead roles, but the reviews weren’t great. I hope you enjoy Burning Secret should you get a chance to pick it up. It’s a really interesting one, especially from a psychological perspective.

        Reply
  8. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    Zweig sound like a writer well worth reading.

    The type of moral dilemma as you describe it sounds so interesting. Such is the stuff of great books.

    Reply
  9. whatthelog

    I’ve only read ‘Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ by Zweig, but I have to agree with everything that you’ve said here! His prose is masterful – and you’re right, characters are so deftly summed up that it is almost magical. I’ll definitely have to get my hands on some more Zweig novellas, as this sounds marvellous!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s interesting to hear that you’ve found the same things in his work. He’s so good when it comes to creating these little pen portraits – I had such a clear image of each character in my mind. Funnily enough, I was looking at ‘Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ just the other day. I think I’ll have to make it my next Zweig!

      Reply
  10. Max Cairnduff

    Nice review. I think this is my favourite of the Zweig’s I’ve read. I genuinely liked this one, whereas Chess I hated and I can’t now recall what else I’ve read (though there were others). The novella length helps, all that passion as you say just gets a bit much and it only really makes sense if kept brief and intense.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. Yes, this was excellent, though I think Journey into the Past might actually be my favourite of the three Zweigs I’ve read so far – it’s just so beautifully observed.

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    I think this is one of my favourite Zweig novellas. He’s a master at conveying heightened emotion – such a contrast to English fiction where understatement is the main form of expression! I’ve probably picked up all his novellas from Pushkin but I’m still tempted by the Collected Novellas.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s so true. There’s a difference between this story and L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, for example, where some of the emotions are repressed or buttoned-up. I think there’s a place for both styles, but there are times when Zweig’s level of directness can be very refreshing! Have you reviewed Burning Secret? If so, I’ll add a link here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I really hope you get a chance to read it one day. It’s such an interesting topic for fiction this transition from childhood to adulthood as the possibilities for emotional damage are manifold. Alberto Moravia’s Agostino is another excellent novella in a similar vein.

      Reply
  12. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    I am always skeptical about novellas because they do not have a definitive ending like a short story and often I keep hoping it was expanded into a novel. I have read a few that really stand out (like Sense of an ending by Julian Barnes). But mostly, I have not been lucky with novellas. Great review. I need to read this some day,

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Maybe I’ve just been lucky with my choices, but I’ve read some excellent novellas in recent years: La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, The Widow by Georges Simenon, a couple of books by Jean Rhys and now this Zweig – all were excellent. Burning Secret does have a fairly definite end point, so you’re not left hanging in mid air. It’s definitely worth a try if you like the sound of the story.

      Reply
  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  14. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. Pingback: School for Love by Olivia Manning | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Pingback: Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s