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Stefan Zweig: The Invisible Collection / Buchmendel

This nice little book from Pushkin Press, about A5 in size with quality paper, contains two shorts from Austrian author Stefan Zweig, whom I’d no knowledge of prior to spotting this on the shelf. Both stories, named The Invisible Collection and Buchmendel, are linked by the theme of obsession and describe the lives of two different men for whom life was solely about art and literature respectively.

The Invisible Collection begins on a train where the narrator meets an elderly art collector who proceeds to tell him about a recent experience that he believes is the strangest of his career. The story follows the man’s trip to a far outpost of Saxony where an old customer lived – this is in the time of the German depression following World War I – in the hope that he may sell up past purchases cheaply in the desperate financial climate. When he arrives, he meets with Franz Kronfeld, an octogenarian and veteran of the 1870s war. He notices that something is amiss with Kronfeld: he is blind. After lunch, Kronfeld’s daughter asks that their visitor understands the situation regarding Kronfeld’s collection, which he spends time with daily, and, in respect, deceives him so that he never knows the truth about its value, a worth he sees as the saviour of his family through these hard times.

Buchmendel is the longer of the two stories and a more popular tale from the Zweig canon. Another narrator recounts the story of a man called Jacob Mendel, a Russian Jew living in Vienna, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of books. For over thirty years he has sat from dawn to dusk in a coffee shop studying books and taking payment for advice on myriad esoteric subjects. His bibliomania is such that he notices little around him: the advent of electricity, the onset of war. Then, years later, the narrator remembering the character of Mendel returns to the café to find the old man no longer there and only one person, Frau Sporschil, who remembers him. With much sadness she recounts the story of his last few years, and how, emotionally wrecked from his mania and financially ruined from the depression, he was left with nothing and died on the steps of the café in which he had spent the greatest part of his life.

Zweig’s couplet of existential tales is emotionally wrought, and study a wider canvas than implied by their setting. Both display what I’ve found is a familiar trope of the author’s work; namely the decline of Europe and its increasing level of corruption – a belief that led to his suicide in 1942. There is a strange authorial decision in The Invisible Collection that, in my opinion, eliminates the need for the opening paragraph, as, to paraphrase, it states that the narrator met a man on the train and the following is what he said. Overall, though, the stories work well together, but a larger collection of Zweig’s work would have made a better introduction to his catalogue as it’s hard to understand the scope of his writing and ideas when both pieces are thematically linked.

June 1, 2007

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