Sunday 1 February 2009

Fantastic Night & other stories by Stefan Zweig – the jury is in

Stefan Zweig is incredibly popular on the Continent, and thanks to Pushkin Press many of his works are now available in the English-speaking world. I read a positive review of Zweig’s The Post Office girl (published by Sort Of Books) on the Times yesterday, and was glad to see that it has reached number seven on the Small Independent Publishers’ chart. But I was shocked beyond words when I read the publisher’s strapline “Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde in Zweig’s posthumous classic” and an endorsement by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. There seems to be no more decency in the publishing world.

Anyway, Pushkin Press has published around a dozen Zweig volumes so far, including his masterpiece, Beware of Pity – which Tibor Fischer recently described as “one of the best books I have ever read” – as well as various novellas and collections of short stories, most of them newly translated by acclaimed translator Anthea Bell. Having read no Zweig before, I thought I’d begin with Fantastic Night & other stories, and here’s my verdict:

Did I like the book?
Overall, yes. But Zweig’s style is not entirely to my taste, and I liked some stories better than others.

What did I like most?
The short story ‘The Invisible Collection’.

What didn’t work for me?
Particularly in the title story – but also in some of the others – there’s a tendency to verbosity and too much reported speech and action. The dialogue is unconvincing. There’s about a hundred million similes, and inevitably many of them are clichéd.

Would I publish it?
I wouldn’t dream of competing with Pushkin Press. They are doing an excellent job, and I couldn’t beat their lovely package.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I would probably be tempted to publish the book, but only with some editing.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
My interest ebbed and flowed depending on the story. The one I struggled most with was the title story. The action is slow and there’s lot of repetitiousness.

The best bit in the book?
The last page of The Invisible Collection.

The best scene in the book?
In that story, when the collector is showing his “invisible” Dürers.

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
The package is lovely (although this is one of Pushkin’s “mass-market” editions, not one of the small volumes printed on Conqueror paper and with flaps). The paper in this edition is about twice as thick as any Penguin Classics book – the typesetting is lovely. It was a joy to read. I found a couple of obvious typos and a few other things that I would either check against the original or query with the translator.

My final verdict?
A good book overall. It left me wanting to read more Zweig, which is a good sign. But not exactly my cup of tea. My next read will be a book by either Flan O'Brien or John Updike.



  1. This blogger hasn't read the book, so won't realise that it is in fact a re-telling of the Cinderella story - set in Austria in the inter-war years.

    And what exactly is indecent about a quote from Neil Tennant, who reviewed the book on his blog as follows:
    “Just finished reading this beautiful, fast-moving, tragic novel. Written in the will haunt me for a long while”?

    I'm the publisher and genuinely bemused why anyone could take offence at any of this.

    Mark Ellingham, Sort Of Books

  2. I for one broadly agree with the blogger's sentiments about straplines which cheapen or dumb down classic works. And I think the "A meets B" formula is trite, facile and irritating. If the Zweig story is indeed a retelling of the Cinderella story, it would be nice to see this fact formulated in a more original and eloquent manner. And I also personally don't see much value being added by a Neil Tennant endorsement, but if it works for you...


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