Three’s company

La Parisienne (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff, author photo)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig.
Brennendes Geheinnis (1913)
translated by Anthea Bell.
Pushkin Press 2017 (2008)

There was dangerous unrest in the air here, covert, hidden, alarmingly mysterious, something moving underground in the woods that might be just to do with the spring season, but it alarmed the distraught child strangely.

Chapter 14, ‘Darkness and Confusion’

In this delicious novella, first published in 1913 but probably set in the 1890s, Stefan Zweig tantalises the reader by gradually shifting our point of view from a would-be seducer to the child of the intended victim. In so doing he reminds us that, as adults, our actions and our words have untold effects on young minds and that playing life games with them may result in unplanned consequences.

The story is mostly set in Semmering, an alpine resort in Austria, with a denouement in Baden bei Wien. Semmering had been made accessible in the 19th century by a spectacular mountain railway, which led to a demand for hotels in the town to accommodate wealthy Viennese tourists; it’s to Semmering that a Baron arrives for a spring break and to scout out likely females for dalliance.

His eyes alight on a woman with a young boy in tow, but she initially plays coy. He decides to befriend the twelve-year-old Edgar who, frail and clearly lonely, seems to be the best route to getting better acquainted with his planned conquest. How will Edgar react when his new grown-up ‘friend’ and his mother then seem to share a ‘burning secret’ to which he isn’t privy?

Semmering railway in the early 1900s

Zweig very cleverly gets us to follow Baron Grundheim attempt to take advantage of Mathilde, and to experience disgust at his machinations, first with Edgar and then with the mother. But almost imperceptibly we start to see things through the boy’s eyes; Edgar begins to realise, innocent that he still is, that neither his new friend nor his mother are playing fair with him, that instead of treating him almost as another adult they are hiding something from him. And little by little, and then in a rush, his desperation to like the Baron and to love his mother turns to hate when he catches them telling him outright lies.

For a lad of his age Edgar may seem to be singularly innocent in his apparent inability to guess the secret the two adults share; but we are given to understand that he is a sickly youngster, tutored at home and with few if any friends of his own age, so we may forgive him his ignorance. He learns the hard way the impact of the English proverb Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and the nearest he gets to the truth of what the Baron and his mother are up to is when he sees the pair return to the hotel from a moonlight stroll:

Slowly, the couple aporoached the door. And now, as they went in, one after another, the silhouettes came together again, and their shadow disappeared through the lighted doorway, a single black form.

Chapter 10, ‘Tracks in the Moonlight’

In Anthea Bell’s translation Zweig’s novella captures the fierce emotions of the boy when he grasps he’s being betrayed by the grown-ups he should trust, followed by his attempts to manage his feelings with steely resolve and to exact an appropriate vengeance for their disloyalty. The story’s resolution when it comes feels right, even if it’s not the ending we’re led to believe by events, and Edgar’s roller-coaster of emotions have the authenticity of a pre-teen who has yet to find where he stands in the world’s estimation. /

Read for #NovNov, Novellas in November and for #ERC21, European Reading Challenge

26 thoughts on “Three’s company

    1. It’s a brilliant little drama—I almost felt that Zweig must surely have been drawing on a childhood experience because of the intensity of Edgar’s emotions: that’s always the sign of a master storyteller, I think. 🙂

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    1. He is, and that’s just on the basis of having read two of his works! By the way, I’ve scheduled a review of the One Billion Years to the End of the World about which I think you posted for SNB, and that was huge fun too. 🙂

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        1. Fab especially in being totally unexpected! I particularly had fun reading up about the probable Japanese tanka by Yosano Akiko that’s quoted two or three times in the text by, I assume, Arkady Strugatsky (who studied English and Japanese at the end of the war).

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    1. That occurred to me too, and I wondered at first if was going that way but luckily it wasn’t a rerun of the Hartley! I did like the switch of focus, almost like the change from monochrome to technicolor™ in The Wizard of Oz, and made what initially felt like a 19th-century novel into one from the 20th.

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        1. I don’t think I’ve ever watched that Cliff Richard vehicle (pun intended!) other than the odd clip. I might watch it now though as a period piece—the songs were certainly well crafted!

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          1. JJ Lothin

            LOL!!! I really can’t say I recommend it – you’d be better off watching (probably for the nth time) The Wizard of Oz!


  2. Sounds intriguing! I haven’t read anything by Zweig so I may have to pop this one onto the wishlist. Reminded me a little of Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, another novella, also about a young boy discombobulated by his mother taking a lover, although that one is more focused on the Oedipal aspects than this one sounds.

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    1. Ah, don’t know the Moravia. The Oedipal aspect here, if present, is mild—in fact, the child tends to be berated by his mother but otherwise left to his own devices, which means he’s rather isolated and alone — no other kids are around — with precious little to entertain him.

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    1. I can’t remember about the narrator’s realisation in the Hartley — either ‘if’ or ‘when’ — but in the Zweig story Edgar twigs he’s being played for a fool quite early on, though he never gets to the bottom of what they’re hiding from him. This tale obviously predates The Go-Between by exactly forty years, though whether Hartley had read it, either in German or in an early English translation, I have no idea.

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  3. Hugs to you from Wisconsin, my friend! Your unique reading has never wavered, I see. 🙂 I wonder if we, as adult readers, are a bit more invested in the child “caught” in such situations because we honestly do not know what they’ll do under that veil of “innocence.” A child can be just as manipulative and vicious as any adult, especially if they’ve been treated as a “grown-up” by other characters. Yet other characters may only see the fragile youth, while we readers cannot be certain and therefore fear the worst…

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    1. Yay, thanks, Jean! And you’re right, that’s exactly what this novella turns out to be: a study of the lengths to which a child might go if they’re thwarted, pushed, lied to, made a fool of. And you’re right, the adults here are ignorant of, indeed uninterested in, the needs and wants of the child, and so we do fear for the worst; this is where Zweig skilfully plays with the reader.

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