Confused feelings in Weimar Berlin

The Stefan Zweig revival in English (I don’t think there was need of one in German) fueled by new (in this case 2009 of a 1927 novella) translations published by New York Review Books (before the biography in English published this year and release of Wes Anderson’s movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) included Anthea Bell’s translation of ‘Verwirrung der Gefühle’ as ‘Confusion.’ In his informative (not to mention opinionated) introduction, George Prochnik writes that the title is blander than the German, that ‘Verwirrung der Gefühle’ might better be rendered as “Emotional Maelstrom.” He also suggests that the novella is less about confusion than about “metastasizing confusions.”

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Well, the recollections are straightforwardly told, and the secret looming unbeknownst to the narrator at the time (perhaps forty years earlier) is not as surprising to 21st-century readers as it may have been to readers in the 1920s. (Actually, I guessed wrong, but “in the ballpark”). After being shipped off to a provincial college from a life of debauchery when he was supposed to be a student in Berlin, Roland falls under the spell of lectures and conversations by an aged professor who has published very little.

After moving into the same apartment building, Roland coaxes the professor with writing block to dictate to him, taking down what the professor says in shorthand. Roland also takes meals with the professor and the professor’s younger wife. He does not understand the obvious strain in their marriage until the whole historical context of the Globe Theater has been gotten down.

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The kind of rapture about ideas makes the recollections closer to Herman Hesse (Steppenwolf, Demian) than to Heinrich Mann (creator of the aged professor played by Emil Janning besotted by Marlene Dietrich in the movie version, “The Blue Angel”). The exaltation of developing ideas may have some connection to German Romanticism of the 19th century (“I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer. Without knowing that I was moving, hypnotically attracted by a force stronger than curiosity, and with the dragging footsteps of a sleepwalker I made my way as if by magic into that charmed circle”), but not a direct influence to anything in Shakespeare that was discussed during Zweig’s lifetime (1881-1942).

Though the book is short (150 pages including some blank ones and large top and bottom margins), I think it develops rather slowly, before the final rush of “shocking” revelations about “incurable inclinations” and periodic disappearances to a city (perhaps, The City, Berlin, the underworld of which Roland had some experience before his mind was awakened to intellectual pursuits) and “the sewers of the heart.” The finale is an interesting document about conceptions and attitudes of the long-ago time (before the First, let alone the Second World War). The tale strikes me as a bit overdramatic (compared to the English-language analog of sorts, Stephan Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but “the past is another country: they do things differently there”, as K. P. Hartley famously proclaimed. Nonetheless, a (post-)modern reader can grasp the aching longing for one’s own long-lost youth that both the narrator and his long-ago professor instantiate herein.

BTW, Confusion was included in Le Monde’s hundred books of the 20th century. The complete list is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Monde%27s_100_Books_of_the_Century.

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

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