Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 100 pages; 2003. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.
Stefan Zweig, an Austrian-born author who died in an apparent double suicide pact with his wife in 1942, is one of those authors that bloggers champion — and with good reason. He writes beautifully framed stories, often about thwarted passion, and this novella, first published in 1927, is typical of his ability to get inside a woman’s head.
A scandal in a small hotel
The story begins in a small hotel on the French riviera, where holiday-makers from across Europe are staying, “ten years before the war”. The guests are scandalised when Madame Henriette, a married French woman, runs off with a younger man, leaving her wealthy husband and two daughters behind, seemingly on a passion-fuelled whim.
This scandalous event acts as a catalyst for another guest, Mrs C, a distinguished 67-year-old woman from England, to recall a similar incident from her past. She decides to unburden herself to our narrator, a nameless man, because she realises he will have a sympathetic ear.
She comes to this conclusion because she heard him defend Madame Henriette in a rather heated dinner party conversation. He said it was highly probable for a woman in a “tedious, disappointing marriage” to want to “take some decisive action” and that he thought it “more honorable for a woman to follow her instincts freely and passionately than to betray her husband in his own arms, with her eyes closed, as so many did”.
A compelling confession
Mrs C obviously appreciates this non-judgemental — and refreshing — take on a woman’s desire and invites our narrator to her hotel room, where she tells him, in great detail, about a day that changed her life some 24 years earlier. It is her confession which forms the substance of this strangely mesmerising book.
In her early 40s, freshly widowed and no longer having to care for her two adult sons who had left home, she takes a solo trip to Monte Carlo. In the casino she spots a handsome young man whom she is compelled to help when he runs from the venue distraught, having lost all of his money, and collapses on a park bench.
Over the course of the next 24 hours she finds herself bewitched by this troubled Polish aristocrat and decides she would give up everything to be with him despite his crippling gambling addiction. Her confession is heart-breaking and, in typical Zweig style, it is recounted with great sensitivity, understanding and compassion.
Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman reveals how acting on an impulse — whether it be motivated by passion, as per Madame Henriette and Mrs C, or desire for riches, as per the gambling addict — can have far-reaching and life-changing consequences. For a woman in the early 1900s this was especially so: respectability was at stake.
But, it could also be argued, that for men from powerful families, throwing your money out the window had similar ramifications.
In this short tale about obsession, compulsion and following your heart, Zweig delivers an incredibly powerful read.