‘Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ by Stefan Zweig

Twenty-four-hours-in-the-life-of-a-woman

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.

Impulsive action

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.

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13 thoughts on “‘Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ by Stefan Zweig

  1. I don’t think there’s any novel I’ve read from Zweig which HASN’T delivered ‘an incredibly powerful read’. That said I’ve still a few to tick off. The guy is jaw-droppingly amazing though, isn’t he?
    Warmest
    Rob

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  2. Have you read this one, Rob? This is only my second Zweig but I’m delighted to know that there are dozens more to discover — even better that my library seems to have several in stock!

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  3. For some reason it reminds me of a Gatsby style novel which I would be delighted to read. The review isn’t half bad either:) Nice one, Kim.

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  4. I’ve not read enough Fitzgerald to compare them, but I do think Zweig is unashamedly European. His prose is quite old fashioned in a way, filled with long sentences and lots of sub-clauses, but he really knows and understands human nature and gets to the heart of what makes people tick. And what’s more, this story is just 100 pages and can be read in a couple of hours.

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  5. I haven’t read from either country extensively, but I’ve not had much luck with German/Austrian authors in the past… for whatever reason, I’ve had a hard time connecting with their writing (could be an issue on the translator’s part, of course), but this review definitely piqued my interest! The premise definitely appeals and sounds like something I would enjoy, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for this author! Wonderful review!

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  6. This seems like his usual style ,I ve read couple of Zweigs and like the other commenter said I ve always found his writing powerful and subtle at same time ,all the best stu

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  7. I am still yet to read any Zweig and I am not sure why I have resisted. There was a real blogger love in with him about a year or two ago and it both made me very interested, but the sudden rush of love put me off too because I didn’t want anyone thinking I was just going with the trend (can you tell I over thought it?). This review has made me want to try him again, I am hoping I can get this at the library.
    I also must read more Pushkin Press books.

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  8. I think everyone went a little bit mad over ‘The Post Office Girl’ didn’t they? That was certainly the first time my attention had been drawn towards Zwieg. I actually have that book in the queue but am yet to read it.
    I borrowed this one from the library — was delighted to discover they have quite a few Pushkin Press titles.

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  9. I’ve just been given a Stefan Zweig by one of my french students (it’s been translated into French so it’s a very slow read) but I’m intigued and will have to find an english translation. Great to read about him here, love your list of translated fiction!

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