What I’m reading this month – March 19

We’re halfway into the month already, and the book I’m reading right now is the same book I was reading this time last month, only it’s a different book.

That’s not just me being cute.

Last month, I had a conference in Vienna. And, as I’ve been getting into the habit of doing, I wanted to read some fiction from or set in the place I was going. Worked swell with The Master and Margarita and Love in the Time of Cholera in a possibly uncappable 2017. With Vienna on the table, I did some research on good Austrian fiction (or, failing that, something new and decent set in Vienna. And I don’t consider The Third Man new, as I’ve seen the film.)

After nosing about, I had a shortlist together and headed to the local bookstores to see what they could supply. No luck at the quality second-handers, but Waterstones came through with, in fact, four choices. Or maybe three. I had found Joseph Roth, who writes more from the hinterland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I had sort of decided that was good enough, especially as Jeremy Paxman had written the very enthusiastic foreword. Yes, he can be a bit of a blowhard, but I still think his fiction recommendations would be worth exploring. But then I found, at the bottom of the alphabet, three, or possibly two books by Stefan Zweig.

Pushkin Press’s Beware of Pity by Stefan ZweigZweig, from what I had read, was a master of the short story and novella. He was also accused by at least one snooty critic as pretty much phoning it in, making him a lesser choice on the scale. As a complete neophyte to Austrian literature, besides a non-German speaker and thus relying on translations, I was in no position to judge. But returning to the first point about him, here were three or possibly two not short stories or novellas. What gives?

One, The Post Office Girl, was published posthumously, after the author and his second wife killed themselves in Brazil in 1942, apparently believing they couldn’t get far enough across the planet from the Nazis and the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people. The story has sad echoes of Walter Benjamin, but Benjamin’s tragedy was that he had made it just over the border and worried he would be sent back. The Zweigs were already, at least with the benefit of hindsight, safe, which makes their choice more perplexing. Tragic, too, but in a different way. An intellectual tragedy.

So, this novel was rescued and given to the world without the intervention of its author, who might consider it, whittle it down, pare away everything he thought spare until he had yet another brilliant novella, and the gist I got viz critics is that that’s a good thing. He may have been too handy with the red pen, and people wanted stories that breathed.

This makes the other two (possibly one) novels a larger mystery. Ungeduld des Herzens is Zweig’s original title for the only novel he actually published. Why let this one slip the scissors treatment? Theories abound – I came across that ever-so-convenient one of “It had to be as long as it is,” which my wife snorted at. Doesn’t matter. It is as long as it is, and it became a sensation in its time, published right on the cusp of the Second World War and framed at a dinner party full of confidence that this war simply would not happen, though its action is mostly set on the cusp of the war they hoped would ensure no second ever happened.

Zweig’s German translates literally as “The Heart’s Impatience”, but it was rather quickly put into English as Beware of Pity by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt, and thus it stayed, produced as a film after the war and also inspiring Wes Anderson‘s film The Grand Budapest Hotel much, much later. Three years before Anderson’s film, Beware of Pity received a new translation into English for Pushkin Press, by the much loved, much trusted, and much missed Anthea Bell (yes, she of Asterix fame). In her translator’s note, she talks about how translations themselves need to be revisited and refreshed sometimes for new generations, a thought that gives her pause in considering her own work. She also notes that the English translation of the title puts rather more emphasis on the concept of “pity”, front-loading our encounter with the book. It is certainly an important element of the book, but Zweig with his title was emphasising something else – something that, I think, links the two protagonists more powerfully, whereas the English title we have received is really only fitting for one.

Penguin Books’ The Impatience of the Heart by Stefan ZweigHow interesting, then, that the third or possibly second Zweig novel on the shelf should be one called The Impatience of the Heart. Ah. I see what has happened. Wait, what happened? This is a translation by Jonathon Katz, published by Penguin as a Modern Classic. So when did this happen? 2016?

Why on earth would a novel that had been satisfactorily stuck in its original English translation for about seventy years suddenly get two different ones within five years of each other? What did the world not trust from Bell that made it turn to Katz? I don’t have much in the way of guidance on this front, though if I were hatching a theory it would go like this: New York Review of Books republished the Blewitts’ translation in 2006, seeing the book as a kind of lost gem. It was good but felt stale to people in power, so Pushkin commissioned Bell to write a fresh one. Anderson also read the 2006 reissue and liked the world it evoked. Who cares if the translation was stale – he is a filmmaker. So he puts this idea into production. It is released in theatres after Bell’s new translation and there’s lots of buzz and interest. Pushkin’s a smaller press, and Penguin feels it can grab a piece of this action, too. So as not to trample on Bell’s work and reputation, they make it distinctively different by getting Katz to translate it under a direct transliteration of the German title, thus making it look sufficiently novel (see what I did there?) to serve as its own thing.

All of this is retrospective speculation, because I had far less information and equipment to help me at that moment in Waterstones last month. The Post Office Girl seemed to be the current critic’s choice, but I was a little put off by the Cinderella re-make aspects of it. But now, which version to choose? Truth be told, the aesthetics of the Penguin cover pleased me more, as did the phrasing of the title. (It pays to go into these things rather naïvely, sometimes.) But there was a kind of retro-chic look to Pushkin’s cover, and anyway, I trusted Bell. Also, I may have been preparing myself for some of the detective work that has since followed. Start early and, if you need, work forward. (I wasn’t aware of and didn’t see the Blewitt & Blewitt version.)

So that’s the one I bought, and I must say I rather devoured it. A good companion during travel – for planes, for spare moments in cafés, for nights back at the AirBnB when I would otherwise be watching Les Mis or Rick Stein cooking programmes on the iPlayer. Heavy and deep in ways I hadn’t anticipated, including meditations on hope among chronic patients being like morphine that must be carefully administered and will become ultimately detrimental, if no other treatment or cure is available. I also found its tone to be natural and conversational, as suits the narrational frame.

Finally, of course, it had me wondering what I had missed in Katz’s translation. Was this a project seeking to improve on something, get closer to Zweig’s original or what? In the end, I decided to chuck nine more pounds at the book industry and pick up the Penguin version, so I am now immediately re-reading the novel I just finished – something I have never done before – only it’s not the same novel.

Well, except in many ways it is. Which may be why I’m working through it more slowly: I know what’s coming, I can anticipate all the arcs. I’m also back in the hurly-burly of everyday life with work commitments in the day and family members to spend time with in the evenings. My first impressions are that Katz’s is the lesser work. Without being meticulous and checking paragraph on paragraph, I feel he makes excessive use of adverbs and adjectives. I am less fond of the narrator from the beginning, and perhaps that is a necessary consequence of already knowing the decisions he makes as the story progresses. Yet I feel that Bell’s translation captured the honest discovery of a young, privileged, sheltered man who finds himself ennobled by seeking the benefit of others; with Katz, it seems a bit sly. We shall see. I can’t claim such intoxication that I’m going to seek the NYRB version by any means necessary, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it wound up on my bookshelf one of these days.

Fitzcarraldo’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga TokarczukSince I’m in the habit of doing these blog posts in threes, I’ll keep with the fiction-in-translation theme (oh, how Brexit-conscious of me!) If I do make it to the end of Zweig Mark 2 before month-end, I will have a go at the wonderfully named Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. I spotted it in the bookstore back in the winter – we were shopping for a birthday gift for our friends’ son’s seventh birthday. “What would he like?” Hem, haw. Serials, too easy, too challenging. I saw the super-attractive basic blue cover with the white text in the serif font (maybe this is not attractive to everyone, but this is the kind of aesthetic I just love; cf my last reading blog on Faber’s poetry books) and said, “Oh, how about this one?” Title seemed just right for a seven year old. Hah hah. My little joke.

Then my wife saw a reference to it and discovered that Tokarczuk is legit hot shit, having won the Booker International. And this recent translation is supposed to be really good, smart, funny, etc. As the cover is something Michael likes, it would seem what’s between them (apologies for the singular/plural violence) is also tailor made. The book was calling to me, so I grabbed it alongside Zweig the First, and it is on my list.

But I won’t write about it in April’s blog, because “what I’m reading” is reserved for one I’ve already read twice and one I want all of you everywhere to read. Stay tuned.

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