Last night I read Stefan Zweig’s short story, ‘The Invisible Collection’, prompted in part by the mini ‘Zweig Controversy’ that seems to have broken out in the wake of Michael Hofmann’s splendidly vituperous attack a couple of months ago in the London Review of Books. There’s a pretty lazy article by Nicholas Lezard on the Guardian referring to this and pretending to make some sort of rather watery rebuttal of Hofmann’s argument (why are the Guardian's 'culture' pages so consistently shoddy?). I haven’t read enough Zweig to lean either way. Reading ‘The Invisible Collection’, though, I had the sense that there was a particular twist in the plot missing, and that as a result of its absence the story fell flat.
Subtitled ‘An Episode of the Inflation Period in Germany’, the story is framed by an encounter on a train, and recounts how a dealer in art and antiques journeys into the countryside of Saxony to visit a former customer, a collector of old prints, in the hope of purchasing from him some wares for his near-empty shop. Upon the dealer’s arrival, the old man, who is now blind, offers to show the dealer his wonderful collection, flattered by his interest. The old man’s wife, however, extremely flustered, intervenes, suggesting that the dealer may have other engagements and should come back after lunch. The dealer, picking up something of the intent of her piteous glances, agrees. While he is in the dining room of his hotel, the couple’s elderly daughter comes to him and explains that the family have had to sell the old man’s prints one by one in order to feed both him and themselves, substituting them, each time, with sheets of cartridge paper of equivalent size and weight. This they have done so that when, as is his wont, he pulls out the folders and runs his fingers over the prints, recalling their clarity and beauty, he will not realize that his beloved collection is dispersed. On her mother’s behalf, the daughter begs the dealer to go along with the deception. This he agrees to do, and, when he returns to their simple dwelling in the afternoon, he seconds the old man’s praise of prints by Dürer and Rembrandt on what are in fact blank sheets of paper. The deception goes off without a hitch, the old man drinks up the dealer’s words of praise for his collection, and the old women are delighted to see him in a state of near-ecstasy. The dealer leaves as, in his own words, ‘a sort of angel of good-luck, lying like a trooper in order to assist in a fraud which kept the old man happy’ (35). And so the story ends, with the dealer setting out for home and old man wishing him on his way in reinvigorated tones.
The twist I was expecting which never came was that of the old man having been fully aware of the deception being practiced upon him from the start, but going along with it for the sake of his family and their desire not to cause him pain. There is nothing in the story that explicitly makes such an interpretation impossible, although it’s a reading that has no support in the text - it is undoubtedly an ‘improper’ reading, even an ‘inadmissable’ one, yet now that it has once come into my head, I find it impossible to let go of the conviction that the cheerful face with which the old man sees the dealer in art and antiques on his way is a mask, perhaps concealing a truer joy at having successfully gone along with a deception that keeps his family happy in their conviction of not having shattered a happiness of his own.
As for what is to be done with such idiosyncratic readings, and what in this case it means for the/my evaluation of Zweig, I’ve not much of an idea. On the one hand, my perverse reading seems to point to a coming short in the tale, but on the other, the tale itself suggested it. I’m not sure this is what Simon Jarvis means when he says the following, but Jarvis’s essay on ‘Prosody as Cognition’, from which this is taken, is so interesting that I’m happy to crowbar it in anyhow. Jarvis is interested in ‘a rethinking of the place of idiosyncrasy in the experience of poetry’:
the truth about such experience cannot be reached by trimming off what are thought of as the merely private extras. This kind of route to supposed objectivity starts with some individual shudder of experience – as when the thought that I should have been a pair of ragged claws | Scuttling across the floor of silent seas flits half-noticed across the cerebral cortex of one participating in some grim festival of functions – and then deletes the contingent, the accidental, or the merely personal. It thus deletes, in the event, everything about that experience which makes it an experience: in bracketing out the festival of functions, the functions themselves, and whatever else in the moment should be thought to pertain only to this single point in space-time, it presents a mutilated rump known as ‘the effect of the metre upon the reader’. Here is the experience ‘the’ ‘reader’ as mechanical doll, in which the range of experiences which readers historically have had, are having, and might have, much know themselves for their own silly and quite private idiocies, and so must measure their lack against this timeless, placeless zombie.
More on Jarvis’s line of thought here to follow soon, probably…