Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman by Stefan Zweig (1927)

This 1927 novella is a great introduction to the work of Austrian playwright, journalist and biographer Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920s/30s who has been enjoying a revival of late. His own tale is not a happy one. Spooked by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Zweig left Austria for England in 1934, before settling in the United States and later Brazil. On 23 February 1942, Zweig and his second wife were found dead at their home in the Brazilian city of Petrópolis, holding hands after a joint suicide borne reportedly from their despair at the growth of intolerance, authoritarianism and Nazism. Yes, I thought I’d start cheerfully.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is the story of ‘Mrs C’ (no relation to Mr C of The Shamen as far as I can tell) who is inspired by a scandal breaking at the hotel where she is holidaying to tell her tale of a strange 24 hours that took place over 20 years ago, where – without wishing to give too much of the story away – she essentially tried to save the life of a man she met in a casino. As you do. The story is a reflection of why she behaved in the way she did at the time, how that day changed her life, and how the memory of it has stayed with her ever since:

Scarcely an hour goes by when I do not think of this particular incident…you can believe me, an old woman now, when I say it is intolerable to spend one’s whole life staring at a single point in it…

She is hoping that by telling her story, ‘the spell (on her) would be broken’ and then:

…the stone will roll off my soul, laying its full weight over the past and preventing it from ever rising again.

The plot is gripping but most of all I enjoyed Zweig’s nuanced observations of his characters. There is the sound of the jilted husband’s ‘ponderous, massive body dropping heavily into an armchair, and then a wild, animal sobbing, the weeping of a man who has never wept before’, compared to the cad who ‘seemed to be one of those happy souls who, secure in the knowledge that their bright faces and youthful attractions are pleasing to others, transmute that security anew into yet more charm’. I was particularly mesmerized by this description of hands around the casino table:

I simply cannot tell you how many thousand of varieties of hands there are: wild beasts with hairy, crooked fingers raking in the money like spiders; nervous, trembling hands with pale nails that scarcely dare to touch it; hands noble and vulgar, hands brutal and shy, cunning hands, hands that seem to be stammering – but each of these pairs of hands is different, the expression of an individual life…Every new pair hands to appear on the table…was a fresh experience and a source of curiosity to me…

Admittedly, I also thought of the need for a decent anti-bacterial hand gel to deal with all those grubby mitts, but amidst this deluge of germs there is a pair of ‘extraordinary’ hands which hold Mrs C ‘spellbound’, and that’s where the trouble starts. Don’t go to the casino, ladies. You may regret it…

 

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    I like the sound of this. Your review has intrigued me. Plus, I’m reading an irritating book about psychoanalysis at the moment and one of the essays is about memory as a tool for forgetting the past. Your second quote brought that to mind. It puts the idea far more succinctly and clearly than the psychotherapist who wrote the book I’m reading. I think he needs to go on an editing course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you get a chance to check this one out Jan. That book sounds like quite hard work, but in a familiar way – sometimes science (ish) books in particular need a good editor!

      Like

      1. Jan Hicks says:

        I accidentally brought a book home from the library the other week, a collection of Zweig’s stories that includes this one. Brilliant. Just brilliant. And now I’ve read it, reading your review again gave me goosebumps!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Glad you liked it! I can’t wait to check out some of his other stories!

        Like

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