View attachment 547312
Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig originally published in 1922
Stefan Zweig penned a poignant tale of unrequited love in his long short story Letter from an Unknown Woman. For fans of the 1948 movie, while there is a similar jumping-off point, the written tale differs in several ways from the Hollywood version.
Bridging the Romantic Era and our modern and more pragmatic times, Zweig's story can be seen as a throwback tale of an overwhelming love or, in today's terms, as a story of an obsession, almost a mental disease, crippling a life.
Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, an unnamed teenage girl falls in love with her unnamed wealthy, cultured and handsome neighbor, a successful writer in his twenties. She is besotted with him even though he does not notice her.
A move to Innsbruck does nothing to quell her passion, so at eighteen, she returns to Vienna to work in a shop to be near to him. After, effectively, stalking him, they meet and spend three "passionate" nights together where she willingly gives her virginal self to him.
He then leaves on a trip as their time together was casual to him, while she learns shortly afterwards she's pregnant. Unwilling to inform or burden him, she has the child as an indigent, but then becomes a high-priced escort so that his child can be raised with the finer things.
Ten year of sacrifice and pining later, they meet one more time. Her heart soars, but he does not recognize her. Once again, a night of passion is just a casual thing for him. He then gives her some money in the morning as he knows she's a prostitute. It's awful.
To tell more is to give the climax away. The story itself is told as one long cathartic letter from her to him, hence the title. How you react to this powerful story depends on your personal framing.
In 1922, many would see this as a moving tale of romantic love where one selflessly devotes oneself to another, because the passion of love is just that strong. Ethereal love was an embraced ideal of the, then, waning Romantic Era.
With that waning, though, pragmatism, not unrelated to technological advancement, was gaining cultural currency. Today, we would see her as a victim, not of him, as he never knew of her love or sacrifice, but of an obsession bordering on a mental illness.
It is hard as a modern reader to appreciate the story as Zweig probably intended it as a paean to the Romantic Era. Although, it's possible Zweig wrote it as a cynical rebuke of the Romantic ideal. Like most good art, it's up to each reader to decide.
When Hollywood got its hands on the story in 1948, it made extensive changes owing to the demands of telling a story on film and the restrictions imposed by the Motion Picture Production Code.
The result is a more-rounded story with a moral wrapper absent in Zweig's tale. It makes for a traditional and satisfying movie, but mitigates the arrantly painful, unrequited and unjudged yearning of the novel. Both versions haunt; each in its own way.
Zweig's writing has an economy of words that leans more Hemingway than Romantic Era, which happens during periods of stylistic change. It also makes Letter from an Unknown Woman more approachable for a modern reader looking for a short Romantic tale.
Comments on the movie version here: #30,939
For a long time, Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday” was one of my favorites. It’s an autobiographical tale of his growing up in/near Vienna in the last days of the Habsburg empire. Full of color and pathos. I was living in Vienna at the time, so it added some depth to my understanding of the place. That notwithstanding, it’s a great read for anyone interested in central europe and the collapse of the old order.
Bucket list item checked off: I am now a member of the elite club of people who have actually read Les Miserables. At 1,460 pages, it took me four months of fairly disciplined reading.
More than a decade ago, my wife and I introduced our daughters to the musical Les Miserables. Our 13 year old was so enamored of the musical that she promptly read Victor Hugo’s doorstop of a book. And, as she was reading it, she would fill us in on the little known details that the musical skims over. That’s how the book came to be on my bucket list.
In fact, my main criticism is that the musical does a good job of, fairly faithfully, following the plot of the book. So much so, that the reader of the book sometimes struggles not to picture specific actors in the rolls, or to anticipate the action too much.
That said, the musical is no substitute for having read the book. Les Mis captures Victor Hugo’s immense world view, with all is compassion and humanity. It’s a romantic plunge into post-Napoleonic France, with plenty of drama, action, sentiment, and idealism. All of France is laid at your feet, from poor to rich and from believably evil to astoundingly saintly.
At it’s heart is the story of Jean Valjean, a simple peasant and convict who is slowly change from a man who hates the world into a man who is pretty darned close to saintly. The transformation is thanks to a series of sticky moral situations in which Valjean always chooses the difficult way out, as opposed to the easy way out. And, in doing so, transforms lives. Really it’s a book about the unexpected transformative power of duty and of love.
The book does pack an emotional punch. At times you might catch yourself wiping away a tear. The descriptions of young love, of heartbreak, of death and salvation are sincere and well drawn. If it’s an emotional trap set for the reader, it’s not without purpose. Sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it will make you happy, despite yourself.
Like War and Peace, much has been written about the long digressions in Les Mis. The difference is that I found the digressions in Les Mis to be mostly interesting. Many pages are spent giving a blow-by-blow description of the Battle of Waterloo. It was mostly unnecessary from a plot point of view, but —as a student of the Napoleonic wars— I found it very good. The long sidetrack into the story of the Paris sewers will also make you think of Paris in a whole new light.
Victor Hugo’s plan was to hook you with many well drawn characters and then keep you there for the history and sociology. He does a good job of both.
In short, I think Les Mis has completely earned its reputation as one of the great books of Western Civ.
Highly recommended. But it is a major undertaking!
I would posit Hugo wept while Voltaire smiled. I find Les Mis a creation of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution a crucifixion of Christianity with its attendant moral strictures cast to the devil wolf.I did find his discussions of the divisions found in France in the 1820s to be really interesting. There was a crazy spectrum from old school monarchists to 1793-style supporters of the revolution, but every viewpoint was filtered through the lens of Bonapartism, and every faction seemed to have a pro-Napoleon sub faction and an anti-Napoleon sub faction. Napoleon Bonaparte was the invisible ghost haunting every conversation. I really loved that aspect of the book.
^ Spot take Fast. Never read this but any Second War fare is open for discussion though usually it's a land
tale and not a sea yarn. Codes are part of my past martial hitch and I know Enigma cracked a Bismark key pad
or two and I saw the film, so this looks the Ladisla Farago yarn ripe for the telling.
Enigma's cracking is fully captured in The Imitation Game caught on Netflex.