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Stefan Zweig: Angst (1910)

literatur_2012I won Angst in Tony‘s Stefan Zweig giveaway, so I’d like to take a moment to thank Tony for introducing me to Zweig. This was the first of his works I read and it was completely unplanned, too. Without intention, my German Literature Month (for which this post is now officially very, very late) was about reading books from not-Germany and touring Switzerland and Austria instead. Very fittingly, I also went on a trip to Vienna, of which I offer you gratuitous Christmassy evidence here.

Angst is about a Viennese lady named Irene Wagner, who has an affair. She’s become bored with her marriage and family life, which has turned out distinctly “meh” so far. And so she seeks diversion in the arms of a young pianist, when all of a sudden a woman turns up and begins to threaten her. If Irene doesn’t pay her what she demands, she’ll tell her husband about the affair. And so Irene gets caught up deeper and deeper in her fear of being discovered. She knows the woman will be back to demand more, and she knows her husband will find out eventually.

But just as afraid as she is of being discovered, she’s even more afraid of telling her husband herself. She’s trapped in a triangle of fear: of the blackmailer, of telling her husband, and of her husband finding out and judging her. These multiple sources of fear paralyse her like a deer in the headlights. Whenever she decides to finally confess, her fear of her husband’s reaction gets the upper hand, and so her situation spirals downward and picks up speed very fast. And yet strangely, this moment of existential fear makes her come to important realisations about her life. She realises she doesn’t really know her husband – or her children, for that matter – mainly because she hasn’t tried, because she’s been too busy trying to distract herself from her boredom. She has dumped the children with household staff and never made an effort to have a deeper conversation with her husband.

Angst perfectly captures this downward spiral of fear, the way Irene ricochets from one fear to another: in each situation, the fear of what is about to happen is so overwhelming she can only react to it, rather than deciding consciously or taking control. And so, Angst inevitably moves towards its climax…

As such, it would be wrong to say that I “enjoyed” Angst, because its descriptions of Irene’s fear are so well-crafted that it makes the reader very uncomfortable. I still liked it a lot though, precisely for how Zweig conveys her psychological state. And for his unmistakably Viennese touch.

English title: Fear
Spanish title: Miedo