In a Nutshell: Written with pin sharp perception and translated by one of best in the business (Anthea Bell), Burning Secret is likely to give you one of your most incredible reading experiences ever.
A few years ago Vienna-born Stefan Zweig was largely unknown (the fact that he tragically took his own life in 1942 in Brazil alongside his wife, in despair at the rise of Nazi power, probably had a lot to do with this). But thanks to the industrious efforts of independent publishers such as Pushkin Press, and the applaudable first-class translating skills of intelligent minds such as Anthea Bell, Zweig has emerged from obscurity and has started to build up quite a reputation.
Before reading Burning Secret I’d heard a few people singing the praises of this Austrian author but I didn’t quite know why. But now that I’ve had the pleasure of reading this novel I can see clearly why Stefan Zweig is held up with such high esteem. Quite simply Zweig is an extraordinary writer and Burning Secret provides an a perfect example of why that might be.
Weighing in at a little over 100 pages Burning Secret isn’t a long book, yet it still gave me one of the most incredible reading experiences that I’ve ever had. The story follows ‘The Baron’ – sexual predator extraordinaire — who is having no luck in seeking out female ‘prey’ during a stay at a particularly quiet Austrian resort, during its off-season. The Baron’s ‘gloomy’ outlook changes however on the arrival of a tall, voluptuous Jewish woman, who has brought her twelve-year-old son, Edgar to the resort, for rest and recuperation following an extended illness. It’s not long before the cold and calculating Baron decides that the best way to get to this woman — a woman who sits ‘just before the age of over-maturity’ — is to befriend the son so that he can be utilised as a ‘go-between’. So kicking proceedings off with a short and fake-friendly conversation with the young boy, the wheels of the Baron’s abhorrent scheme are set in motion:
The Baron easily won his [the boy’s] confidence. Just half-an-hour, and he had that hot and restless heart in his hands. It is so extraordinarily easy to deceive children, unsuspecting creatures whose affections are so seldom sought…[...]…He had found his go-between…[...]…He was certain that the talkative boy 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.
If he is chilling in the offhanded nature in which he objectifies women, then the Baron is positively ‘sub zero’ in the way in which he cruelly exploits young Edgar in order to meet his own depraved needs. It’s heartbreaking enough to bear witness to such a young and innocent boy being picked up and toyed around with as if he were a mouse to a cat (before he’s unceremoniously discarded by the wayside with his innocence stripped away), but it’s made all the more powerful because of Zweig’s profound ability to tell stories. So masterful is Zweig in his penning of Burning Secret that I swear I physically heard the heartstrings of young Edgar twang and break at one point during the story, which was an astonishing experience to say the least.
With profoundness in storytelling there often also comes complexity. But I’m happy to say that at no time did I find Burning Secret to be a difficult book to get one’s head around. Quite the opposite in fact because Zweig is very clear and straightforward in his writing, and he’s completely unpretentious with it. At the same time however, he is mind-blowingly astute in his observations, and deftly in his ability to relay those observations across to the reader in an uncomplicated, yet wholly intense way. Many times while reading Burning Secret I found myself gasping at Zweig’s perceptive capacity, but perhaps the biggest exclamation came forth from me early on in the novel, when Zweig is describing a particular transmutative period during a woman’s life:
It was very likely that he would not pursue this woman in vain. She was 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. At such a moment a life that seemed to have chosen its course long ago is questioned once again, for the last time the magic compass needle of the will hovers between final resignation and the hope of erotic experience. Then a woman is confronted with a dangerous decision: does she live her own life or live for her children? And the Baron, who had such a keen eye for these things, thought he saw in her just that dangerous hesitation between the fire of life and self-sacrifice.
That’s an incredible paragraph and quite how a 32-year-old man can tune in so deeply into the psyche of the middle-aged woman is beyond me. But tune in Zweig most certainly does, and he continues to demonstrate this profound depth of understanding and insight throughout the novel, and that goes right to the very last paragraph in fact. Quite remarkable!
Through fear of going into spoiler territory (because as I said it is a short work of fiction) that’s all I’m going to say about Burning Secret for now. But I will say that through reading this novel I’ve found Zweig to be achingly more-ish, and as a consequence I’ve already added a number of his other titles to my reading pile – Fear, Amok and Other Stories, The Post-Office Girl, The World of Yesterday to name a few. So if that doesn’t stand as a testament to just how incredible a novel Burning Secret is, then I don’t know what would.
Well, there is one more thing that might convince you just that little bit more. I said at the beginning of this review that Burning Secret has given me one of the most incredible reading experiences I’ve ever had. And I’m willing to put money on the table right here and now, in support of the suggestion that this novel will give you one of your most remarkable reading experiences too. That’s how confident I am that you’re going to like it.
Pushkin Press | 2008 | £10.00 | PAPERBACK | 100 PP | ISBN: 9781901285857
:: What others have said about Burning Secret::
- “Extraordinarily powerful.” - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian.
- “This is not a major work of Zweig, but is still another example of his deep insights into the predicaments people can get into and the psychological stresses and pains that result.” – Tom Cunliffe, A Common Reader.
- “For a brilliant delineation of the mind of a child on the brink of adulthood, look no further.” – Lynne Hatwell, Dovegreyreader.