Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig
Burning Secret is a 1913 novella by Stefan Zweig. It’s the first Zweig I’ve read, and it’s brilliant.
Secret is the story of essentially three characters. There is the baron, never named, a suave young man who amuses himself by seducing women and is rather good at it; Edgar, a bookish twelve-year old who is recovering from an illness; and Edgar’s mama, a woman no longer quite as young as she was but not yet so old as to have put all thought of adventure behind her.
All three are at a mountain spa, the mother accompanying Edgar, the Baron for relaxation. Unfortunately for the baron, he has arrived at the wrong time of year, his friends are absent, and so he has to make his own entertainment. He decides to do so by seducing Edgar’s mama, and his chosen route to conquest lies through Edgar himself. Befriend the boy, and wait for him to make the necessary introductions.
Soon, to Edgar’s delight and confusion, this polished and urbane nobleman is acting as if nothing could give him greater pleasure than to pass his time in the company of a lonely young boy. Edgar is entranced, the baron’s scheme is set in motion:
He had found his go-between. Now, he knew, the child would pester his mother to the point of exhaustion with his stories, repeating every single word – and he remembered, complacently, how cleverly he had woven a few compliments intended for her into the conversation, always speaking of Edgar’s “beautiful mama”. He was certain that his talkative friend wouldn’t rest until he had brought his friend and his mother together. He didn’t have to lift a finger to decrease the distance between himself and the fair unknown, he could dream happily now as he looked at the landscape, for he knew that a pair of hot, childish hands was building him a bridge to her heart.
The baron’s plan, naturally, works and before long Edgar has forged an introduction. Having done so, Edgar himself of course becomes redundant, the baron only has so much appetite after all for spending his days with a child. Quickly, although he has done nothing wrong he can think of, Edgar finds that his marvellous new friend seems no longer to have any interest in him. Worse, it seems his mama has stolen his friend from him, sharing some secret with the baron that neither of them are willing to let him into.
Where Burning Secret truly shines is in its psychological nuance and accuracy. The baron is merely bored, a man about town with no town to go about in. He feels some small guilt when he realises how much he has hurt Edgar, but he is a man focused on his own desires and his concern does not detain him long.
Edgar’s mother by contrast is aware of her own fading youth:
…at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love.
What is not dwelt on, but clear, is that she is also of quite a different class to the baron, a bourgois who speaks in French to her child though she doesn’t command the language sufficiently to converse in it at any length. The baron is younger than her, better travelled, aristocratic. For a woman open to a last chance of adventure, he’s a dangerous and seductive lure.
And, of course, Edgar. Edgar is at twelve on the cusp of adolescence, moving from the certainties of childhood to the ambiguities of adult life. He has not yet moved far, but there is an irrevocability even to the small steps he is here taking. When Edgar is described, words like hot and burning are constantly used, referring to his heart, his hands, his tears. Everything for him is absolute, passionate, intense. When he realises the adults are excluding him, he is not merely disappointed as an adult might be, he hates them with all his force:
So they’d got away from him after all, by means of a lie as mean as it was vile. He had known since yesterday that his mother told lies, but the idea that she could be shameless enough to break a downright promise destroyed the very last of his trust in her. He didn’t understand anything at all about life, not now he knew that the words he thought had reality behind them were just bright bubbles, swelling with air and then bursting, leaving nothing behind. What kind of terrible secret was it that drove grown-up people so far as to lie to him, a child, stealing away from him like thieves?
He had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them.
As the novella progresses, Edgar decides to revenge himself on the adults, accompanying them at all times, speaking about his papa (he doesn’t know why it disturbs them, but notes that it does), disrupting their plans with his presence and his scrupulous yet truculent obedience. To their frustration, he does nothing that would give an excuse to punish him or send him away to his room. They become his prisoner, but the dynamic between the three keeps shifting, they understand and can counter each other’s actions, but none of them understand the other’s motives.
For Edgar, those motives are particularly obscure. The adults have a burning secret, something between them so momentous that they will lie to children over it, meet in secret, behave incomprehensibly. When the baron tries to lure Edgar’s mama down to a secluded part of the woods, Edgar wonders if he intends to kidnap her, but instinctively it seems to him that’s not quite right. He knows the baron has some other purpose, and that if could but comprehend the burning secret of that purpose the doors of the adult world would forever be opened to him.
Of course, he’s quite correct. The fire that motivates the adults is one he is as yet untouched by, he can’t understand it because he doesn’t yet feel it. Part of his fury is his knowledge that his own lack of comprehension means he is still a child, as long as he doesn’t understand the burning secret, he can’t be considered grown up.
Burning Secret is brilliant. Superbly well written, filled with nuance regarding age, class, intensity of emotion (to the baron it’s all a mere diversion, to the mother a last opportunity, to Edgar it’s his whole existence if only for a brief while). Among all this Zweig manages to bring the setting to precise life (what is it with German speaking authors and mountain sanitaria by the way? They seem very fond of them), and he packs it all in to less than 120 pages. I’d heard Zweig’s reputation, I’ve been missing out though on not starting to read him sooner.
Burning Secret (along with most Zweig’s), has received a fair bit of attention from the blogosphere. Dovegreyreader covers it here, Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader here and Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian writes about it here. Bizzarely, John Self of The Asylum hasn’t written about it, though he has seven other Zweig’s. Clearly I’ll have to buy him a copy for his birthday sometime…
Burning Secret is published by the ever reliable Pushkin Press. It’s in their small, gem, format and is as ever physically a pleasure to hold and read. The translation is by Anthea Bell, and while I can’t comment on its faithfulness to the origiinal (and there’s big questions of course as to what it means to be a faithful translation) it flows smoothly and I’d consider her name on other books a definite bonus.
On a final note, I’ve mentioned before on this blog writers whose lives were cut short by the Nazis, Zweig is another of them. He and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing as did so many others that the Europe they loved was being lost to barbarism. Pushkin Press has brought writers back into the light who we could easily have lost in the English speaking world, and I continue to be grateful that they do so.