Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

Thoughts on Papyrus

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922]★★★★★

The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What…

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Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

If music moves me, it always generates images – a procession of apparently disconnected images in my mind. In the Fifth Symphony, for example, as soon as the first four notes are sounded and repeated, this magic population springs spontaneously into being. A nude, terror-stricken figure in headlong flight with hands pressed to the ears and arms bent at the elbows – a staring, bulgy-eyed mad-woman such as one sees in Raemaekers’s cartoons of the Belgian atrocities. A man in the first onset of mental agony on hearing sentence of death passed upon him. A wounded bird, fluttering and flopping in the grass. It is the struggle of a man with a steam-hammer – Fate. As tho’ thro’ the walls of a closed room – some mysterious room, a fearful spot – I crouch and listen and am conscious that inside some brutal punishment is being meted out – there are short intervals, then unrelenting pursuit, then hammerlike blows – melodramatic thuds, terrible silences (I crouch and wonder what has happened), and the pursuit begins again. I see clasped hands and appealing eyes and feel very helpless and mystified outside. An epileptic vision or an opium dream – Dostoievsky or De Quincey set to music.
In the Second Movement the man is broken, an unrecognisable vomit. I see a pale youth sitting with arms hanging limply between the knees, hands folded, and with sad, impenetrable eyes that have gazed on unspeakable horrors. I see the brave, tearful smile, the changed life after personal catastrophe, the Cross held before closing eyes, sudden absences of mind, reveries, poignant retrospects, the rustle of a dead leaf of thought at the bottom of the heart, the tortuous pursuit of past incidents down into the silence of yesterday, the droning of comfortable words, the painful collection of the wreckage of a life with intent to ‘carry on’ for a while in duty bound, for the widow consolation in the child; a greyhound’s cold wet nose nozzling into a listless hand, and outside a Thrush singing after the storm, etc., etc.
In the Third Movement comes the crash by which I know something final and dreadful has happened. Then the resurrection with commotion in Heaven: tempests and human faces, scurryings to and fro, brazen portcullises clanging to, never to open more, the distant roll of drums and the sound of horses’ hoofs. From behind the inmost veil of Heaven I faintly catch the huzzas of a great multitude. Then comes a great healing wind, then a few ghostlike tappings on the window pane till gradually the Avenue of Arches into Heaven comes into view with a solemn cortège advancing slowly along.
Above the great groundswell of woe, Hope is restored and the Unknown Hero enters with all pomp into his Kingdom, etc., etc.
I am not surprised to learn that Beethoven was once on the verge of suicide.

THE JOURNAL OF A DISAPPOINTED MAN AND A LAST DIARY