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.
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)
Burning Secret is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.