Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers... (Books - Twilight & Moonbeam Alley by Stefan Zweig)

The pair of short stories Twilight & Moonbeam Alley, both by Stefan Zweig, collected in a single petite edition by Pushkin Press, both concern people whose very existence depends on others. We all depend on other people to one extent or another, even if we try hard not to. The two subjects of Zweig's twin character studies could not be more different from each other. The focus of Twilight is Madame de Prie, a member of the court of French king Louis XV. She offends the king with a bold political move and is banished to her country estate at Courbepine, she assumes, for a short while. It turns out to last must longer than she expected and while she considered herself a self-sufficient and powerful woman she discovers otherwise in her exile.
But as soon as he left she felt as if the weight of the silence were descending on her twice as heavily as before, as if she alone had to hold up the high ceiling, she alone must keep back the advancing darkness. She had never known how much a single human being can mean to another, because she had never been lonely before. She had never thought more of other people than of air, and one does not feel the air, but now that solitude was choking her, only now did she realise how much she needed them, recognising how much they meant to her even when they deceived and told lies, how she herself drew everything from their presence, their easy manners, their confidence and cheerfulness. She had been immersed for decades in the tide of society, never knowing that it nourished and bore her up, but now, stranded like a fish on the beach of solitude, she flinched in despair and convulsive pain...
Madame de Prie first tries to do what she is used to - manipulate friends in high places, take a young lover in order to feel more powerful than someone else, and finally beg those in power to reinstate her. None of these succeed in changing her circumstances, so she changes her attitude, accomplishing this by planning her own death. ** SPOILER FINISHED**

What is unusual about this story is its tone, which feels for all the world like a fairy tale, dark though it may be. There is a magical, dark-and-stormy-night mood to this piece which is a parable about valuing others more than ones position or wealth. The story is also nearly prophetic in light of Zweig's own experience of and response to forced exile from his native Austria by the Nazis.

The accompanying piece, Moonbeam Alley, concerns an encounter had by a German traveler on his way home by ship, with a woman and a man, both of whom he encounters in a seedy bar in an alley near the docks.
I liked such alleyways in foreign towns, places that are a disreputable market-place for all the passions, a secret accumulation of temptations for the sailors who, after many lonely days on strange and dangerous seas, come here for just one night to fulfill all their many sensuous dreams within an hour. These little side-streets have to lurk somewhere in the poorer part of any big city, lying low, because they say so boldly and importunately things that are hidden beneath a hundred disguises in the brightly lit buildings with their shining window panes and distinguished denizens. Enticing music wafts from small rooms here, garish cinematograph posters promise unimaginable splendours, small square lanterns hang under gateways, winding in very clear invitation, ussuing an intimate greeting, and naked flesh glimpsed through a door left ajar shimmers under gilded fripperies. ..But all this is hidden in modestly muted yet tell-tale fashion behind shutters lowered for the look of the thing, it all goes on behind closed doors, and that apparent seclusion is intriguing, is twice as seductive because it is both hidden and accessible. Such streets are the same in Hamburg and Colombo and Havana, similar in all seaports, just as the wide and luxurious avenues resemble each other, for the upper side and underside of life share the same form. These shady streets are the last fantastic remnants of a sensually unregulated world where instinct still has free rein, brutal and unbridled; they are a dark wood of passions, a thicket full of the animal kingdom, exciting visitors with what they reveal and enticing them with what they hide. One can weave them into dreams.
This story, although it sets the atmosphere beautifully, almost lost me, because it appeared to do nothing else for some time. But once our narrator meets the central character, things get interesting. The story is built around a central psychological surprise that I won't disclose as it is the whole story. The set-piece of this story is a brilliant ten-page monologue about obsession of one person for another that has me sold on this story as perfect for adaptation to a one-man drama. As a director, I used to read constantly with an eye to what story might adapt well to drama, but I haven't been drawn to that characteristic in a story in some time. The translation by Anthea Bell, as with her work on Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repaired the Gramophone, feels fluid, natural and stylistically right for the period. I'm going to get cracking on this idea so you had better no steal it. In the meantime, I'm grateful to John Self for recommending these wonderful stories and to Dovegrey for seconding that emotion. I third it, and get them in this elegant little edition, it's a pleasure to read.

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