Stefan Zweig and the peccadillo
By REBEKAH CALHOUN
Special to the OBSERVER
Our favorite stories often involve heralding adventure stories about thrilling adventures, where a main character is forced into a fight for survival. The most popular television shows, movies and books are frequently similar in that they will be about a main character discovering a world of conquest, discovery and perseverance. This character becomes a hero and ultimately finds love on his way after proving himself and reaching some summit of existence when everything comes together, and he is at peace with the world.
But these are not always the most relatable stories, or the most frightening or exciting stories, although they translate well into a good movie. Sometimes, this type of story is just not what we need to shake away the tedious repetitions of the day. If you have been waiting for something that melts away some of the ice that grows in the hearts of the secretly distressed, you may want to read a little something by Stefan Zweig.
Zweig is an Austrian writer who at one time was the most translated in the entire world, read in multiple languages all over. Though somewhat of a memory for us now, not as well known to the same demographics, his vivid stories still have something in them that is hardly ever delicately captured in books or even the most raw, intrepid films or dramas that are coming out nowadays. His characters are anything but tough. His characters are anything but perfect – but because their failures and vanities drag them into the most quirky, inept and embarrassing moments of self-sabotage, they remind me of myself.
A peccadillo is a small sin, a relatively excusable offense or crime that to the rest of the world may even be imperceptible.
Zweig’s characters are full of these, and at first, we think, inexcusably so. His beautiful short stories, such as “Buchmendel,” “Fantastic Night,” and “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” are all stories within stories. They all begin with people crossing paths with a stranger, who immediately and inexplicably become interested in one another. They begin to realize they are not alone, that there is another soul there in the eyes of another, and they become excited that someone in the world might share a feeling they’ve had. Then one will relate to the other a story about an encounter they have that changed them – often an experience that involves a mistake on their part. The short stories are about people’s moral shortcomings in a small moment of decision that lead to realizations about themselves that shatter the idea they originally had.
In the bustle of existence that we become immersed in, certain memories slip away from us and never are seen again. All the very small oscillations of feeling that happen inside of us all day long would be exhausting for one person to remember. Somehow, though, Zweig remembers these things for us and brings them into the light again. A man receives a heartbroken letter from a suicidal lover he doesn’t even remember, a widow’s sympathy for a gambling addict possesses her to fall in love, and a brilliant, destitute bookseller that doesn’t read the news gets mistakenly arrested for being a spy – the peculiar situations are never too far-fetched.
Book lovers of the Chautauqua County area will be pleased to know that an exemplary literary scholar, Robert Kelz, will be welcomed to SUNY Fredonia March 19 at 7:30 to discuss with the community the cultural significance of writer Stefan Zweig. The lecture is free, open to the public, and will likely be a priority not only to the local bookworms but to anyone with interest in a period of interplay Jewish, Austrian or Hispanic culture, the international effects of the fascist Nazi regime, the value of art in the world today or the debate about the general societal effects of racism and political tensions.
The Stefan Zweig Archives are an ironic point of pride for SUNY Fredonia, whose library staff has collected over the few decades a remarkable collection of letters and other manuscripts donated and purchased from relatives of the author. Gerda Morrissey is now the proud associate curator, and can be contacted through the college by anyone seeking access to this incredible collection.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns to be published in Sunday Living, leading up to the second biannual Stefan Zweig lecture, to be held in Rosch Recital Hall on March 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Rebekah Calhoun is a SUNY Fredonia senior English major from Gowanda.