It is so very easy to deceive children

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.

Burning Secret

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10 Comments

Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European Literature, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

10 responses to “It is so very easy to deceive children

  1. Sounds interesting, though I’m reminded of both Last Year in Marienbad and The Silence for some reason.

    It’s nice that you’re reviewing these novellas. I always think that the Novella is a very under-appreciated form, especially coming from the SF world where so many writers deem it impossible to tell a story in anything less than 1000 pages.

  2. Nick

    Your review is also brilliant. A pleasure to eyes and minds.
    I’ve only read The Royal Game (or Chess) so far, but it was terrific.

    I’ve offered Letter from an unknown woman to my mother for Xmas (yes, I really love her) and she highly recommends it (for what it’s worth to you)

  3. Well this is another one that goes on the list. I have some Zweig novels here, but not that one, unfortunately.

  4. Okay, I was thinking about The Magic Mountain as I read the review, so thanks for the reference to saatoria at the end — I too will ponder why Germans set so much fiction there (initial thought is that all needs except for those of the mind are looked after by highly-trained staff).

    Kudos to you also for not referencing the Michael Hoffman hatchet job on Zweig in the recent LRB. Which I am now introducing, of course. I think your review shows why Zweig was a popular writer in his time and is enjoying a well-deserved revival now. It is true that he does sometimes tend to be a bit shallow, but then there are gems — as Burning Secret apparently is — which underline a real talent.

    And finally this strikes me as the ideal kind of book for the seductive Pushkin Press format — just as was my recent experience with Paul Morand’s Hecate and Her Dogs. A slim treasure in a handsome slim volume, both with threatening undertones; one almost feels like the Baron or Edgar’s mother settling in for an afternoon of solitary entertainment at the sanatorium. I might actually save this for our next visit to the Rockies.

    Which means I just ordered the book.

  5. Max: There’s an OOP film version of this….

  6. I love the novella as a form, it’s actually quite demanding and not I think easy to get right. SF does seem subject to bloat, particularly by comparison, at risk of offending any SF fans who may read this (and hey, I’m an SF fan so why not?) I think the SF readership base is less demanding in terms of tight writing which gives less incentive to hone the prose.

    To be fair, for ideas driven stuff like SF, overly honed prose could actually distract, but it could be generally speaking a lot stronger than it tends to be without hitting that territory. I think the tendency of some SF fans to judge book value by width also really doesn’t help.

    Nick, glad you liked it. I’ll look into Letter, I don’t know that one.

  7. Kevin, to be fair I hadn’t read his article yet (and rather wish I hadn’t now), I read the LRB in chunks and hadn’t got to it so far. It’s on the pile.

    I did read it online after seeing your comment, and to be honest I wouldn’t have referenced it anyway. Much of it seemed essentially second hand gossip, I’d have respected it more had he spent more time on why he thought the writing weak, rather than merely repeating the comments of others.

    Also, it’s a very ugly piece. Hofmann criticises the prose of Zweig’s suicide note, suggesting it doesn’t convince (the fact of the suicide suggests otherwise). I find something repugnant in that. The whole piece smacks more of character assassination than criticism of his art, and frankly I care very little about what Zweig was like as a man.

    My only real point of agreement is that this novella isn’t for me as strong as the Schnitzler’s I’ve read, but then I adore the Schnitzler’s and to an extent that’s merely a matter of taste. Besides which, I find gradings unhelpful.

    On a more positive note, it is ideal for Pushkin, you can as you say imagine the baron or mama reading it of an evening. The Rockies would be a perfect location for trying it yourself.

    Which Zweig’s did you find shallow out of interest?

    Guy, apparently Zweig’s had a lot of films made of his work. Makes sense in a way, I think this one is typical in that it’s about a small number of people and a monomaniacal passion that comes among them, perfect cinematic fodder really…

  8. I ordered a copy of the book and an old VHS tape. Now the dilemma becomes which first? …

    I hadn’t read the article about the suicide note, but wouldn’t the fact that the author was in another (resigned?) emotional state perhaps dictate the note’s tone? Or is there some “guide to suicide notes” that I don’t know about?

    After reading the article on Zweig, much of the criticism seems directed towards the writer–rather than the text.

    Funny as I’ve been hearing stuff about Tolstoy’s personal life lately (second hand via someone who’s reading his bio), and Tolstoy sounds like a right royal wanker. Good thing we don’t judge his books by his domestic life.

  9. Always the book first, surely, or when you read it you’ll see the actors in the roles. When I read The Road, the man was Viggo Mortensen in my mind, and I haven’t even seen that film…

    On the note, quite possibly, the article basically says it shares the same flaws as his other writing, which I thought a cheap shot. And yes, the criticism did seem more of the man than the text. For me, I’m interested in the art, not the artist.

  10. Pingback: a case of chess poisoning | Pechorin’s Journal

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