The most famous author you’ve never heard of, Stefan Zweig’s influence has been an inspiration for many, from Ali Smith to Wes Anderson. His one and only novel, Impatience of the Heart, has been newly translated for 2016, and is a story that explores how one moment can change a life forever. Read an extract below for an insight into this new classic.
‘I stole from Stefan Zweig’ —Wes Anderson
‘it’s becoming more and more apparent how seminal and original Zweig was and how revelatory of the wheres and whys of the time when fin-de-siecle exploded into Freudianism and empire into full-blown fascism’ —Ali Smith
‘one of the greatest and most famous writers right across Europe in the 1930s’ —Antony Beevor
Impatience of the Heart
There are in fact two kinds of pity. One, the feeble and sentimental kind, is really no more than the heart’s impatience to free itself as quickly as possible from emo- tional discomfort when faced with another’s misfortune; it is the sort of pity which is not at all genuine sympathy – ‘shared feeling’ – but merely an instinctive defence of one’s own soul against the other person’s pain. Then there is the other kind, which is the only one that counts – unsentimental yet constructive, knowing its own mind, fully resolved to endure everything patiently, compassionately, along with that other person, right to the very limit of its strength, and even beyond that limit.
‘To him that hath, shall be given.’ This saying from the Scriptures can be safely substantiated by any writer, in the sense: ‘To him that hath told much, shall be told.’ There is no greater error than the all too common idea that an author’s imagination is continuously at work, bringing forth an unbroken stream of events and stories from an inexhaustible source. In reality, what the author needs is not so much to find, or invent, anything, but rather to allow himself to be found by characters and occurrences that will incessantly seek him out as their re-teller – provided, of course, that he has developed and preserved the essential talent for looking and listening. To him who has repeatedly attempted to expound the fortunes of others, many others will communicate their own fortunes.
And so it was that the present story was entrusted to me, almost complete in the form told here, and indeed in a wholly unexpected way. One evening, the last time I was in Vienna, I was feeling exhausted by all kinds of affairs I had had to attend to, and I went in search of a particular restaurant some way from the centre of town, thinking the place had long been out of fashion and was now little frequented. However, the moment I entered the place I was made annoyingly aware of my error. At the very first table I came to, an acquaintance of mine leapt to his feet with every sign of genuine joy – joy which I have to say was not quite so keenly reciprocated – and urged me to join him. I cannot honestly claim that this enthusiastic gentleman was in himself a disagreeable or unpleasant person; he was one of those compulsively sociable types who collect acquaintances with the same zeal as children collect stamps, taking a particular pride in each and every specimen in their collection. For this harmless eccentric – who had a side-line as a knowledgeable and diligent archivist – the meaning of life was entirely defined by the modest satisfaction of being able to comment, as if breezily stating the obvious, whenever a name came up in a newspaper, ‘A good friend of mine’, or ‘Ah yes, I met him only yesterday’, or ‘My friend A has told me,and my friend B is of the opinion that…’and soon all the way through the alphabet. He could be depended on to be there at the theatre applauding his actor friends’ first nights, and to be telephoning to congratulate every actress the next morning; he never forgot a birthday, unpleasing press notices he left unmentioned while sending copies of the favourable ones, and he cordially shared in the recipient’s pleasure. Certainly not a bad person, then, for he was genuinely eager, in fact delighted, to help out the moment one asked for some small favour, or if he saw any chance of augmenting his collection of acquaintances with a new curio.
But there is no need for me to describe more exactly this friend Adabei, ‘Also- There’ – such is the nickname the Viennese tend to give to this category of good-natured parasite within the richly varied broader genus of snobs; everyone knows the type, and everyone knows that there is no way of warding off his touching inoffensiveness without being brutish. So I resigned myself to the situation and joined him. A quarter of an hour had passed in chatting, when there came into the restaurant a gentleman, tall and of striking appearance on account of his fresh, youthful face with a curious touch of grey at the temples; a certain uprightness of bearing betrayed the former military man. My companion rose eagerly to his feet to greet him, with the zeal characteristic of the man. His enthusiasm was, however, met by the gentleman with indifference rather than graciousness; the newcomer had hardly finished placing his order with the ever attentive waiter when my friend Also-There drew closer to me and whispered softly, ‘Do you know who that is?’ Having long known his collector’s pride in exhibiting any even mildly interesting showpiece, and dreading over-lengthy explanations, I merely uttered an unconcerned ‘no’, and went on segmenting my Sacher- torte. But my nonchalance served only to rouse the name-collector’s excite- ment further; holding his hand cautiously before his mouth, he breathed confidentially: ‘But that’s Hofmiller of the Military Commissariat – surely you know him – the man who won the Order of Maria Theresa in the war.’ As this piece of information did not, as he had hoped, shake me to the core, he now began, with all the passion of a patriotic school book, to recount the distinguished war-time achievements of Captain Hofmiller, first in the cavalry, then on that reconnaissance flight over the Piave on which he had single-handedly shot down three planes, and finally in the machine-gun corps, where he had seized and held for three days a front-line sector – all of this told in copious detail (which I here omit) and with constant expressions of astonished disbelief that I had never heard of this magnificent human being, whom indeed the Emperor Charles himself had personally decorated with the rarest of Austrian military honours.
Involuntarily, I did allow my attention to be drawn to the other table, so as to have just for once a glimpse of a historically authenticated hero, and at a distance of a mere two metres. But what met my eye was a hard, resentful look that seemed to say, ‘Has that fellow been spinning some yarn about me then? There’s nothing in me to gawp at!’ And at the same time the gentleman turned his chair round in an unmistakably unfriendly movement and pointedly showed me his back. Somewhat embarrassed, I looked away again, and from then on studiously avoided showing any hint of interest even in the cloth on his table. Shortly after this I took my leave of the worthy chatterbox, though I noticed as I left that he went straight over to join his hero, probably to deliver just as enthusiastic a report of me as I had received of him.
That was all – a single glance exchanged, and no doubt I would have forgotten this transitory encounter had not Fate so willed it that on the very next day, at a small social event, I should find myself once again in company with this estimable gentleman, who now made an even more striking and elegant impression in his dinner-jacket than in the more informal dress of the previous day. We were both at pains to suppress a faint smile – the meaningful smile two people exchange in the midst of a larger group when they share a well-kept secret. He recognized me, just as I did him; in all likelihood we felt the same irritation, or amusement, about the hapless social broker of the day before. At first we avoided speaking to one another; it would have proved fruitless anyway, since an animated discussion was in full flow all around us.
The subject of that discussion will be quickly surmised if I simply mention the year in which it took place – 1938. Future chroniclers of our times will one day establish that in that year almost every conversation in any country in our fevered continent of Europe was dominated by speculations over the likeli- hood or unlikelihood of another world war. The theme exerted an insuppressible fascination over every social gathering; there was sometimes the feeling that it was not so much the people working out their anxieties in hopes and speculations, but rather the very atmosphere itself – the highly charged air of the time, laden as it was with hidden tensions – that was seeking to liberate itself through words.
The discussion was opened by the host, a lawyer by profession and opin- ionated by nature; he put forward the usual nonsense by means of the usual arguments, namely that the younger generation had direct knowledge of war and would not stumble as unpreparedly into a new one as it had into the last. Even at the point of mobilization the guns would be set to fire back, not for- ward; especially those who, like him, had fought at the front had not forgotten what lay in store for them. The vain over-confidence with which, at a time when explosives and poison gases were being turned out in tens and hundreds of thousands of factories, the man just as casually waved away the possibility of war as he might drop the ash of a cigarette with a light tap of the finger angered me. I replied, quite emphatically, that we should not always simply believe what we wished to be true; the government ministries and the military who drove the war machine had hardly been sleeping, and while we beguiled ourselves with Utopias they had been making full use of the period of peace, thoroughly organizing and preparing the masses so as to have them ready to hand and ready to fire, as it were. Right now, in peacetime, through the perfection of propaganda, the general servility of people had grown to unbelievable proportions, and one should squarely face the fact that, from the moment when the radio hurled into the parlour the announcement of mobilization, no opposition should be expected. The mere speck of dust that is man today no longer ranked as an agent of free will.
Of course it was me against all the rest of them; as experience tells us, people have an instinct for self-deception, and are predisposed to jettison dangers they are inwardly well aware of by declaring them wholly non- existent. Naturally such a warning as mine against facile optimism could hardly be welcome when there was the prospect of a splendidly laid supper in the next room.
Unexpectedly at this point the Maria Theresa chevalier himself came to my aid as a second – the very man in whom my false instinct had assumed an adversary. Yes, he declared passionately, it was sheer folly in this day and age still to want to take into account the willingness or unwillingness of human forces; in the next war the real work would be assigned to machines, of which men would be reduced to no more than a kind of component part. Even in the last war he had not found many men actually fighting who had either clearly supported or clearly opposed the war; the majority had been swirled into it like a cloud of dust on the wind, and then simply caught up in the great maelstrom, each individual tossed around willy-nilly like a pea in a vast sack. On the whole, perhaps there were more men who had escaped into the war than from it.
I listened in astonishment. What interested me above all was the vehemence with which he now went on. ‘Let’s not delude ourselves. If the drums started sounding today in any land you like, for a totally outlandish war say in Polynesia or some corner of Africa, they’d come running in their thousands and hundreds of thousands without really knowing why, perhaps merely wanting to run away from themselves or to escape from some unpleasant circumstances. As for genuine opposition to a war, I wouldn’t really rate it higher than zero. If an individual is going to oppose a whole system he’ll need far more courage than it takes to be simply swept along with the current; it requires independent courage, and that brand is fast dying out in these times of advancing mass organization and mechanization. What I encountered in the war was pretty well exclusively the phenomenon of mass courage, the kind that you find in the rank and file. If you care to place this kind under closer scrutiny you’ll find it reveals some rather strange components; much vanity, a good deal of foolhardiness, even boredom, but above all a great deal of fear – yes indeed, fear of staying behind, fear of being laughed at, of acting alone, and more than anything fear of setting one’s face against the concerted mass spirit of one’s fellows. The majority of those who were counted the most courageous in action became known to me personally, later in civilian life, as frankly rather questionable heroes. Please understand,’ he turned courteously to the host, who was pulling a disapproving face, ‘I in no way except myself.’
His manner of speaking appealed to me and I was minded to go up to him, but at this moment the lady of the house called us through to dinner and, being seated far away from each other at the table, we had no further opportunity for conversation. It was only when everyone rose to depart that we met again, at the cloakroom.
‘I believe,’ he smiled, ‘our mutual patron has already introduced us indirectly.’
I too smiled. ‘Yes, and rather thoroughly for that matter!’
‘No doubt he made much of the Achilles in me, and paraded my Order with immense satisfaction?’
‘You might say so.’
‘Yes, he is damnably proud of it – rather as he is of your books.’
‘An odd fellow! But I’ve known worse. Incidentally, if it’s all right with
you, could we walk a little way together?’
And so we did. Then suddenly he turned to me and spoke.
‘Believe me – this really isn’t mere words – for years there was nothing that caused me more grief than this Order, which draws far too much attention for my taste. Of course, to be quite honest, when I was awarded it out there on the field of battle, to start with it made a profound impression on me. After all, when you’ve been brought up to be a soldier, in cadet school this decoration seemed the stuff of legend, this one Order which comes the way of perhaps only a dozen individuals in any one war, practically like a star falling from heaven. You can just imagine what a huge amount that means to a youngster of eighteen. There you are, standing before the entire company, everyone marvelling at you as something suddenly flashes out on your breast like a miniature sun, and the Emperor himself, that un- approachable Majesty, shakes your hand in congratulation. But you know, this mark of honour only really made any sense, only really counted for something, in that military world of ours; when the war came to an end it seemed ludicrous to me to go round for the rest of one’s life branded as a hero on the strength of having just once acted with real courage for twenty minutes – probably no more courage than a thousand other men, but you simply had the good luck to be noticed instead of them and, what is perhaps the more remarkable good luck, to come back alive. After only a year, when people everywhere used to stare at the little piece of metal and then allow their gaze to move reverentially up to my face, I was already well and truly fed up with parading round like a walking monument; and my irritation at this external conspicuousness was also one of my deciding reasons for switching to civilian life the moment the war ended.’
His stride now became a little more impetuous. ‘I say one of my reasons, but the main reason was a personal one, which you may perhaps find easier to understand. The main reason was that I myself had profound doubts as to my entitlement, at any rate my hero’s status; I knew, better than the strangers gawping at me, that behind this decoration there was a person who was anything but a hero, indeed was decidedly a non-hero – one of those who rushed wildly into the war for no other reason than to rescue themselves from some desperate situation, who were actually more like deserters from their own responsibilities than heroes in the cause of duty. I don’t know how it is with people like you, but at least for me life lived in a halo of glory seems unnatural and irksome, and I honestly felt relieved not to have to go around any more sporting my heroic record on my uniform. Even now it irritates me when someone digs up my former glory. I might as well confess to you, yesterday I was just on the point of walking over to your table and laying into that prattler, telling him to go and find someone else to brag about and leave me alone. That respectful look of yours went on rankling with me the whole evening. Most of all, if only to disabuse that fellow, I would have liked to force you to hear just how crooked were the paths that brought me to my hero’s rank. Believe you me, the story’s strange enough, but it might still show how courage is often nothing more than an inverted weakness. Actually I would happily tell you the whole thing straight out, right now. What happened to you a quarter of a century ago no longer concerns you as you are now; it seems to be about somebody quite different. But would you have time to listen? You wouldn’t be bored?’
Of course I did have time; for a considerable while we continued to walk up and down the now deserted streets, and in the days that followed we were much in each other’s company. I have altered little of his account, perhaps substituting ‘Uhlans’ for ‘hussars’, or slightly changing round the locations of garrisons on the map so as to disguise their identity, and taking the precaution to change all the proper names. But nothing essential has been invented or added, and it is not I, but the narrator himself, who now begins his story.
Stefan Zweig’s Impatience of the Heart (Penguin Classics), is available now.