Can you trust a drug addict who promises he will stop of his own accord? Should you let him overdose if you think you can save him? What is Zweig’s answer?
Zweig’s novel set in the French Riviera in the years leading up to the First World War is a book in two parts, the first part, unthinkable in polite society, when in a smart hotel a group of people who meet each evening for their meal and discussions note one day the arrival of a charming young man
‘If a lady went to the cloakroom, he hurried ahead to fetch her coat, for each child he had a friendly smile or an easy word, he was at the same time social yet discreet. In short he seemed to be one of the privileged few who’s fresh gracefulness, by seeming agreeable to those around him, with a smile and youthful charm was a stimulant for the other guests of ‘Le Palais”***
But, of course, he was too good to be true and within a day Henriette, the wife of a rich industrialist had disappeared with him.
‘After all , at a first glance, it was easy to understand that this small ‘Madame Bovary’ should swap her provincial English husband for a handsome distinguished looking young man. But that which most surprised the guests was that neither the industrialist nor his daughters nor his wife had ever seen the man before and that hence an evening conversation of two hours on the terrace and a coffee taken together for one hour in the garden was enough to lead an irreproachable woman, about thirty three years old, to abandon her husband and two children from one day to the next to follow a young beau that she didn’t know.’***
The guests then get into a heated discussion with the narrator defending the woman’s right to follow her instincts, even crossing social norms, against all of the other guests.
‘For my part I find it far more honest that a woman should follow freely and passionately her instinct rather than, as is generally the case, cheating on her husband by closing her eyes when she is in his arms’***
As the conversation was boiling out of control the oldest and most respected of the guests, an English lady, calms the situation and eventually asks what the narrator would do if she should meet Henritte in society, would she shun her or would she talk to her to which the narrator replies that she hoped she would talk to her. After a great deal of thought the English woman asks if she could see the narrator in private.
Thus ends the first part of the book, the hors d’œuvre , and begins the true subject of the book, the English Lady’s confession.
She tells us how’ many years ago when she was younger’ her life was shaken up in a twenty four hour period. Her husband had died and she found herself bored in Monte Carlo, as her husband had done she went to the casino and at first finding no interest she remembered her husbands tale of watching the gamblers hands and not their faces. Here Zweig treats us to some wonderful descriptions, this one leading up to her meeting with a young man:
‘But then a terrible moment arrived, a moment I had myself feared during this whole time, a moment which was suspended as a storm above my tense and which suddenly caused them to break. Once again the ball had come to rest after a short thud in its round pit. Again that short second beat during which two hundred lips held their breath until the croupier’s voice this time announced zero whilst his rake was already reaching the tinkling coins and the crisp paper on every side. At exactly that moment, the two tensed hands made a particularly frightening movement, they pounced as if to seize something which wasn’t there and then fell away agonisingly to the table being no more than an inert mass, then suddenly coming to life once again running feverishly from there to the body to which they belonged climbed the torso like wildcats, nervously searching in all the pockets, top, bottom, left and right to see if there wasn’t still somewhere a last crumb, a forgotten coin, but always coming back empty, they kept renewing with increased fervour their search for a useful friend whilst the roulette wheel had begun to turn, the game of the others continued.’***
Enough of this example of his descriptive writing and onto the story.
The English lady relates her story of long ago, a story she has not dared to tell anyone to date, she becomes persuaded the man with the hands has fallen into deep despair she follows him as he leaves the casino, she sees he has a revolver and thinks he will kill himself. She watches him and is torn between intervening to save him and her social position:
‘Five times, ten times already I had summoned all my force and I had gone towards him, but my modesty held me back or maybe it was that instinct that deep seated intuition that tells us that someone who is falling often drags down with them those that try to help. In the middle of this hesitation I felt the foolishness and the absurdity of my position.’***
She ends up spending the night with him, in all propriety we are told, he is revealed to be a gambling addict and she eventually talks him into leaving the riviera to get away from temptation and to save his life, she even gives him money for the train. In the mix of her own feelings she even considers leaving and running away with him, but should you trust a gambler to whom you give money?
First Published in German as “Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau” by Leipzig Insel Verlag in 1927
Translated into English by Anthea Bell and published as “Twenty four Hours in the Life of a Woman” by Pushkin Press in 2003
***Read in French, my translation