There seems to be something of a Stefan Zweig renaissance underway. I quite incidentally came across several articles about the author and read that the recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a tribute to him. However, I actually discovered Zweig independently of this attention. I was going through a Joan Fontaine movie phase and working my way through her filmography when I came to Letter From an Unknown Woman. It is a beautiful film, released in 1948, and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. I was immediately captivated and wanted to read the original novella that it was based on. I couldn’t have gotten interested at a better time.
Stefan Zweig was an extremely popular author in his day, especially in the United States. He was Austrian and wrote during the 1920s and ’30s, but being Jewish he left Austria during the mid-thirties. He was so distraut at what he saw as the destruction of the world and culture that he knew that in 1942, he and his wife committed a joint suicide. Afterwards, his fame receded and he’s been virtually unknown in America until recently, as his works are being made available in English once more by the Pushkin Press.
And it turns out that the very story I wanted to read, Letter From an Unknown Woman, was translated and published in 2014, just in time for me to read it.
Published originally in 1922, Letter From an Unknown Woman is a tale of obsessive and unrequited love. An unnamed man, an author only identified as R., returns to his home to find a very long letter waiting for him. It is his forty-first birthday and he seems very much at his ease and satisfied with his life when he sits down to read it.
The letter comes from an unnamed woman who tells him the story of her life and how she has always loved him. She begins when she was a child and he first moved into her apartment building. She soon conceives an all-consuming love for him, but her mother remarries and they move away from Vienna. However, she keeps the flame of her love alive and completely shuns life and anyone who would be kind to her, focusing exclusively on him. When eighteen, she returns to Vienna with the goal of meeting him.
When she does meet him, he is intrigued and they have three days together. But despite her utter joy at being with him, there is some disappointment. Having spent all her years away from Vienna thinking only of him, she is hurt to realize that he does not recognize her as the girl who used to be his neighbor.
R. leaves after the three days, never to contact her, and she gives birth to a son. She lives by becoming the mistress to a string of wealthy men, who all want to marry her. She declines each time, with the vague idea that she wants to be free for R. Roughly ten years later, she does meet him again, but he mistakes her for a prostitute and pays her after their night together. And he still does not recognize her as either the child or young woman he knew before, though she can tell that his servant remembers her.
After that, her child dies and she contracts the same illness. She writes the letter that is only to be sent after she is dead. When R. reads it, he is vaguely disturbed by the story, but still cannot put a face to his vague memories of the woman.
Unlike the movie, there is really nothing redemptive about the story. It is a tragic, though frustrating, tale of such obsessive love that the unknown woman completely buries her identity in her love for R. At every step, she has the opportunity to move on with her life and she never does. And despite her worship of R., you can tell that he’s a selfish, self-satisfied libertine, not even remotely worth her devotion.
Despite the movie’s many differences from the book – they are given names, the author becomes a pianist, she becomes a wife rather than a mistress – the single biggest difference is that in the movie, her identity and love is finally acknowledged, although too late for her. And that acknowledgement gives her life some meaning and inspires him to find redemption. In the film, he has lived a dissolute life and always avoided responsibility. But at the end, when he has been challenged to a duel, instead of skipping out of town to go on living dissolutely in self-loathing, he finally does remember who she is and faces up to to consequences of his actions, choosing to fight the duel that he will probably lose.
But in the book, he still does not remember her. He finds no redemption – there is no indication that he feels in need of it – and it is as if she never existed. She made herself dependent on him for her identity, so she never has one. It’s so frustrating, because it’s almost like a denial of life. There were so many other people who were willing to acknowledge and love her, but she spurns them all. By the end, even her child dies, and she has nothing left on earth to testify to her existence except her letter.
It’s a novella, so it’s a very quick read. It’s also a very interesting read, despite my frustration with the character, and makes what could be a pathetic character very real in how she thinks and acts. In the Pushkin Press release of Letter From an Unknown Woman, there are three other short stories with it, also dealing with unrequited love. “A Debt Repaid” is almost like the flip side of Letter From an Unknown Woman, in that it shows someone who did have an obsessive love as a child, but who grew out of it and lived a full and happy life, though honoring the person they loved as a child through an act of kindness and sympathy.