Passion. It’s a word that gets bandied about a lot these days. People tell prospective employers that they’re passionate about their work; others say that they are passionate about their hobbies, their sport or their gardens. But true passion, as Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) shows in this neat little novella, is a kind of madness. If you’ve been lucky enough to fall passionately in love, you know what I mean. Nobody would want an employee who really was passionate about accounting, or teaching, or driving a train.
Once again a small pensione is the setting for strangers to come together; this time it’s on the Riviera, where an unusual incident triggers a confessional narrative from a very old lady. On the spur of the moment an otherwise respectably married woman with children runs away with a very recently arrived handsome young man, and amongst the guests there is indignation and outrage. They are convinced she must have known him beforehand and had been having a covert affair. The narrator, irritated by their judgementalism, plays devil’s advocate, and provokes consternation by saying that he thought that such a hasty passion was possible. This is the catalyst for the old lady to take him into her confidence, unburdening herself of a secret that has tormented her for most of her life.
Zweig’s depiction of the compulsive gambler whose plight moves her to passion is, given what we now know about gambling addiction, entirely convincing.
And I’m sure that neither you nor any other feeling human being with his eyes open could have withstood that fearful curiosity, for a more disturbing sight can hardly be imagined than the gambler, who must have been twenty-four at the most but moved as laboriously as an old man and was swaying like a drunk, dragged himself shaking and disjointedly down the steps to the terrace beside the road. Once there, his body dropped onto a bench, limp as a sack. Again I shuddered as I sensed, from that movement, that the man had reached the end of his tether. Only a dead man or one with nothing left to keep him alive drops like that. His head, fallen to one side, leant back over the bench, his arms hung limp and shapeless to the ground, and in the dim illumination of the faintly flickering street lights any passer-by would have thought he had been shot. And it was like that – I can’t explain why the vision came suddenly into my mind, but all of a sudden it was there, real enough to touch, terrifying and terrible – it was like that, as a man who had been shot, that I saw him before me at that moment, and I knew for certain that he had a revolved in his pocket, and tomorrow he would be found lying lifeless and covered with blood on this or some other bench. For he had dropped like a stone falling into a deep chasm, never to stop until it reaches the bottom: I never saw such a physical expression of exhaustion and despair. (p.42)
Mrs C’s impulse to save him from himself is exquisitely rendered as she progresses from humane motivations to more sensual emotions at odds with her initial maternal feelings. Few readers would not be on her side as she hastens towards the inevitable…
Author: Stefan Zweig
Title: Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman
Translated by Anthea Bell
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2016
Source: on loan from Bill at The Australian Legend – thanks, Bill!
Available from Fishpond: Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman