Monday 24 March 2014

The Society of the Crossed Keys - Stefan Zweig
This book has been published to coincide with the release of the Grand Budapest Hotel unlike other film related books this maintains the simple styling of the other Zweig books published by Pushkin Press.
Stefan Zweig was a massive name in literature in the first half of the twentieth century although his fame seems to have missed Britain. He wrote novellas and novels, plays and biographies; and his work was adapted for stage and film both in Europe and in Hollywood. He was a star, but by the start of the 21st century his work was virtually unknown. That is until the wonderful Pushkin Press started republishing his works. Now an extensive collection of his writing is available in English. I first came across Zweig when a copy of Beware of Pity came into the shop, as a massive fan of central European literature and of anything relating to the Hapsburg empire especially I knew that I would enjoy this novel about the concept of honour in the Austrian officer class in the run up to the First World War. I was right, the novel is wonderful I urge anyone who has any interest in the period to read it. Since then I've been able to read a fair few of Zweig's other works, some of his biographies and a few of his novellas, each one has been a perfect self contained piece of writing.
When I heard that there was going to be a new film made to encapsulate the essence of Zweig I got rather excited; even more so when I discovered that it was to be filmed at the incomparable Grandhotel Pupp in the old imperial spa town Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad during the Hapsburg period) and would be starring Ralph Fiennes. It all sounded perfect. So I was very keen to read the accompanying book that was published to go alongside the film. I was right to be keen, The Society of Crossed Keys is a wonderful introduction to all things Zweig. It features a selection of his writings that offers snapshot of his range and style. Of greatest interest to me was the selected chapters taken from Zweig's memoirs, The World of Yesterday. I loved the depiction of early 20th century Vienna. I read as much as I can about this area and period, and am always so pleased to see just how little seems to have changed in the hundred years or so between then and when I lived in the city. These selections manage to be absolutely fascinating as well as amusing and containing some hints of the darkness that would soon overshadow everything else in the region. The section about University life is just marvellous. It combines a timeless account of student life with the idea of honour amongst students that is so uniquely Germanic.
As an introduction to Zweig's fiction we are given an extract from Beware of Pity, that nicely continues this idea of honour being paramount. This is only a short extract, but it is enough to capture a flavour of the rest of the novel.
The novella Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is included in it's entirety, this is a very stylish story set against the backdrop of the French Riviera in the 1920s. This almost reminded me of the Ford Maddox Ford story The Good Soldier. As with most Zweig stories this is a tale wrapped up in another tale, he was extremely fond of writing little onions that had layers to peel back. This story is an absolute gem, the characterisation of the female characters is superb. It is a joy to read writing of this standard, especially when the translation is so sympathetically done.
To top the book off there is a transcript of a conversation between Wes Anderson, the director of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and George Prochnik who is Zweig's biographer. This gives an insight into why Zweig's life and work has started to fascinate readers again. So many of his novellas seem to be ripe for a new audience and this book alongside the film should open up his work to many many more people.

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