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?
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