the guardian Fri 05 September 2008
I am occasionally guiltily mindful of the fact that there are many new books clamouring for attention - but then Pushkin Press publishes another translation of the Viennese master, Stefan Zweig, and everything contemporary gets pushed aside.
Burning Secret is really a novella, yet an extraordinarily powerful one. One wonders what they were putting into the water in Vienna a century or so ago to produce people with such a capacity to enter into the human soul, and then render it into art or analysis. Around the time Zweig published this, Freud was writing On Narcissism, and there are moments here when you marvel at the psychological accuracy and plausibility of Zweig's characters.
The story is essentially a three-hander: in an off-season Austrian resort, we have the (narcissistic) serial seducer, the Baron, bored and pining for the hunt, a woman he spies - "a type he liked very much, one of those rather voluptuous Jewish women just before the age of over-maturity, and obviously passionate" - and her son, Edgar, a 12-year-old, "at just that awkward age when children never fit into their clothes properly . . . and vanity has not yet shown them the wisdom of making the best of their appearance". Most tellingly, Zweig also tells us this about him: "The struggle between man and boy seemed only just about to begin." This refers ostensibly to Edgar's features; but there is another struggle about to begin: between Edgar and the Baron. (Incidentally, Edgar is the only character who is referred to by his name; the Baron is always "the Baron" while the woman is usually, as we move towards Edgar's point of view, "Mama". Make of that what you will.)
The Baron, keen on seducing the lady but frustrated by her initial reluctance to flirt with him, notes the boy's insecurity and gaucheness, and befriends him, in order to use him as a go-between. (A phrase which may make you reflect that, pace LP Hartley, the past is not such a foreign country after all.) At first delighted to have found such a suave and worldly friend as the Baron, the boy soon notices that he is being used for some end, of which he knows nothing but guesses to be momentous - the "burning secret" of the title. A comedy of manners becomes something else: we begin to realise that what the story is about is a loss of innocence, an awakening from childish dreams into the adult world of lust and passion.
The glory of this is Zweig's incredibly urbane tone. He makes us feel some kind of sympathy for everyone involved. The Baron, while indisputably a bounder, engenders in us something of the sympathy we might feel for Wile E Coyote in his endless pursuit of Road Runner; in a way, we root for him, wishing him luck in his pursuit, while the boy maddeningly and almost comically takes every possible opportunity to frustrate him. (In one of Edgar's many irritating interruptions to their conversations, "He emphasised the word 'Papa', having noticed already that it had an inhibiting effect on them both. So somehow or other his father too must be part of that burning secret.") We feel for the woman, too, torn as she is by her desire for stability and her consciousness that time is passing, and that she might be beginning to regret a passionless marriage. (Zweig gives her an endearing trait: she addresses her child in French, but notes that should she have to speak French in adult conversation, she would soon find herself in difficulties.)
But Edgar is the centre of the story - a vacuous one, certainly, and more than a little irritating; but tumultuous things are happening within him, and the thought that he might discover the "burning secret" is a terrifying one. How Zweig handles this is breathtaking; not for the first time when reading him, I thought "how the hell does he do that?" As for the ending . . . well, I can't tell you what happens, that would spoil it, but the final sentence is unlike anything I have ever read before; and transforms not only the book, but, in a way, the reader as well.