Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A hall of mirrors

Narrative fiction has become an important site for exploring interiority and the complexities of self-reflection. The conscious separation of author from narrator always present in fiction opens possibilities that twentieth century writers have been keen to exploit. Think of the unbelievable narrator of 'The Good Soldier' or the pathological one that tells us all about 'Lolita'. Stefan Zweig is a master of this art of separation. In his short stories and novellas he taps into psychological revelations by creating a series of layers of narration. Sometimes in this hall of mirrors we wonder who is who. In 'Fantastic Night', for instance, the narrator opens a sealed packet that contains the story of a Baron who has just died. The Baron's tale is something of an epiphany, but the way in which it is told allows for a forensic exploration of the self. Initially, or so it seems, the Baron is as hesitant about his writing abilities as he is about himself - but, of course, this is all beautifully written by Zweig. Take this, for example, 'But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word.' Who is it that is really experiencing this ambiguity we wonder? Is it our Narrator, the Baron, or the author himself? The reader is destabilised. And a couple of sentences later, this sense of separation is extended further 'I have just written "I" and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June 1913. But the word itself is not really straightforward....'. Well, no, it certainly isn't - however you think about it! He goes on '...I am by no means still the "I" of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former "I" and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand'. All this is elegantly crafted - but we can't help but think of Zweig himself, sitting at his desk in Vienna, or wherever he was in 1922, writing about pretending to be a man who has opened a package containing the story of someone who has experienced a dramatic shift in his sense of self. Our attention is drawn to what writing is and what writing can do, at that same time as asking us who we really are. In this sense I can see parallels with Foucault's extended commentary on Velazquez's 'Las Meninas'. Zweig's 'Fantastic Night' disrupts our certainties about the world as well as being an excellent storyteller.

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