Stefan Zweig's 1920 novella Fear (Angst in German, translated by Anthea Bell) is the story of one woman's torment when she becomes the victim of a blackmailer. The catch is she's married and has been enjoying an affair with a pianist. One day she is seen leaving her lover's apartment by his former mistress. The woman begins gradually demanding ever larger amounts of money. The fear of being caught out by her husband causes such agony that she despairs losing everything in her life that is comfortable and happy. This is a morality tale of sorts, and a gripping one at that.
What is it that makes a woman who appears to have everything take a chance like Irene Wagner takes by having a fling with a man she doesn't even love? The thrill of the chase? The idea of an adventure?
"Satiety can be as much of an incitement as hunger, and it was the very safety and security of Irene's existence that made her feel curious and ready for an adventure."
Irene is happily married to a successful lawyer, one of the best known and regarded in the city. She has two lovely children and a beautiful home. She leads a completely comfortable middle-class, bourgeois existence. Her life is, apparently, too calm and contented. Her life it not unlike other famous heroines--Emma Bovary maybe, or Eline Vere--who glimpse a world of romance in the books they read and the plays they see at the theatre. A world unlike their own and peopled with romantic figures who lead lives of extravagance. Into the mixture of this comfortable boredom add one young man filled with "ardent and obvious desire" and a new and exciting passion is sure to ignite.
"Perhaps all that really attracted her to him was a touch of grief lying like a shadow on his rather too interestingly arranged features."
This is not the stuff of her usual mild but meaningless flirtations with other men. Irene has a certain something and the men of her class pay her "respectful court". But perhaps it is the added danger attached to this artist. They meet, they chat. He pays her attention and shows interest in what she has to say. Interest moves from curiosity to the sensual sphere, and then all is lost for Irene. Into her orderly, middle class life she adds a weekly tryst with this young man. He becomes just one more of her normal pleasures.
It becomes a dangerous game to Irene. Her life, which was so full of routine, takes on an added and exciting hue. She begins pushing the boundaries. Like a top whirling around and around she herself begins to spin out of control.
"Not since girlhood had she felt so light at heart, with all her senses so animated. Nothing like it had sent sparks flying through her body, not in the first days of her marriage or in her lover's embrace, and the idea of wasting this strange lightness, this sweet frenzy of the blood, on well-regulated hours seemed unendurable."
And then it happens. It all comes to a head. There's a woman waiting in the stairwell. A knowing look in her eyes. She knows Irene's name. Knows what she's been up to. The threat now, to her placid bourgeois existence is obvious. In one blink of an eye she can lose everything she took for granted. The woman bars her way, she has scorn in her eyes and a fierceness in her tone.
"That's right, oh yes, what they call a real lady, every so respectable! Not satisfied with her husband and all his money and that, no, not her, she has to go stealing a poor girl's fellow too!"
And so it begins. The demands for money. For more and more money. Irene tells her the affair is over and she will not return to her lover's apartment, but the damage is, of course, done. And now she is at the mercy of her blackmailer. Irene feels hunted by this woman who seems to know all about her. Where she lives. Where she goes. Irene now only feels safe outside the house and in the company of her friends and it is a frenzied existence she begins leading. Again, like that top spinning out of control.
What is most eye opening to Irene is that she realizes how little she actually knows her husband and understands his feelings. Despite their years together and their intimacies, she finds she cannot even imagine how he will respond to the knowledge of his wife's betrayal.
Zweig quite brilliantly uses the idea of crime and punishments as meted out by Irene's husband to cast light on the characters. Irene begins really seeing what her husband is like and his beliefs and how he will regard her own pitiful transgressions. Will he understand that she was never in love with this other man? It was only the idea of an adventure which lured her into straying. Like a demon sitting on her shoulder at all times, this fear eats away at her until she is ready to pull an "Emma Bovary". And if you've read Flaubert you'll know what I mean. And if not, I'll just say a trip to the pharmacy and a small purchase of something powdery and lethal is one way out of her troubles.
This could have ended all too predictably. A woman stumbles. She has an affair. She pays. But Zweig is too much a master of his art to leave the reader with such an expected ending. This is what I love about Stefan Zweig. Aside from being an assured storyteller and careful observer of human foibles and shortcomings, he gives the reader something more. I won't say Irene doesn't pay in her own way. But there is a stunning twist at the end which leaves something more for the reader to think about when all is said and done.
I have loved everything I have read by Stefan Zweig. And Fear is yet one more example of why I will keep returning again and again to his work. He truly is a master of the short story and novella. His works, slender though they may be, always pack a punch.
I read this last month for Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature Month. I had hoped to read more of Zweig's short stories and more books translated from German in general, but there never is enough hours in the week to squeeze in all I want to read. In this case, quality certainly trumps quantity.