In his time Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most famous and most successful German-language writers, but when – despairing at the political situation in his country of origin (he was Austrian of Jewish descent) – he took his own life in Brazilian exile, he knew that he was a relic of The World of Yesterday as he had perpetuated it in his autobiography. The works of the prolific author are classics of literature today and many of them have never gone out of print here in the German-speaking world, but their English translations seem to have fallen into oblivion to be rediscovered only recently. The novella that I’m reviewing today counts among Stefan Zweig’s most important and superb ones. It’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (Brief einer Unbekannten) first published in 1922 and adapted for the screen several times, e.g. one from 1948 directed by Max Ophüls.
It’s 1918 and a flu pandemic ravages in Europe killing tens of thousands of people. Upon his return to Vienna after three days of rest in the Austrian mountains, the renowned novelist just referred to as R. finds in his mail an envelope containing two dozen pages in a lady’s hand without name or address of the sender. From this letter he learns for the first time that he had a son and that he just died. The mourning mother, who is sick herself and just waiting for death to reunite her with the deceased boy, reveals to the self-centred and philandering novelist the story of her long infatuation for him and of her life. She first knew him at the age of thirteen when he moved into the house where she lived with her widowed mother in the apartment opposite his. For her it was love at first sight, but she didn’t only fall for the bachelor’s good looks and his charms. His refined and extravagant way of life and his writing attracted her also. Through the spying hole in the door she watched with pleasure elegant women come at night and go in the morning, until her mother remarried and they moved to Innsbruck. However, she could never forget R. When she was eighteen, she found herself a job and returned to Vienna in the hope of meeting him. So they did. He didn’t remember her and she didn’t remind him of their previous acquaintance. They had dinner together and passed three passionate nights together before he left Vienna once more for extended holidays. Although she soon discovered that she was pregnant, she never had any intention of telling her lover and forcing him into marriage. She had the child, a boy, but as an unmarried mother any decent job to earn a living was barred to her. Thus she decided to use her beauty and sell her body to rich men becoming their mistress for one night or longer stretches of time. On a night out she met her beloved R. again. He had completely forgotten her and she left it at it wishing to spend another, a last passionate night with the love of her life knowing well that she’ll be gone from his mind as soon as she will have left.
The epistolary novella is a skilful double portrait of the anonymous woman and the bon vivant novelist that displays both of them in great psychological depth and entirely true to life. The voice of the feverish mourning mother confessing her life story to her ignorant lover is full of despair about her loss and yet not at all sentimental or even bitter, but it’s gripping and touching. For the rest, Stefan Zweig’s language is that of an extraordinarily well educated, highly cultured and much travelled man of his time that today feels a bit old-fashioned or even odd at times, but it flows lightly and is therefore a great pleasure to read.
Letter from an Unknown Woman - Stefan Zweig
You liked what you learned about Letter from an Unknown Woman? Read also my long review of Stefan Zweig’s Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany.