Stefan Zweig is a writer who dissects emotions until his sharp knife forces us to see them to be other than we thought them to be, however reluctant we are to shake off our denial.  He took his knife to Pity in “Beware of Pity” and showed it to be a horrible emotion that bound us to our pity-object and took away our freedom.

In “Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” he unpicks Gratitude with a different result.  He shows how the appearance of gratitude can deceive, how it can be rather the delight that a selfish person takes in having something done for or to them and not at all the hoped for, free, return of love to the donor of the gift that inspired the emotion.

The scene is set in a small hotel on the French Riveria, and is populated by a genteel crowd of turn-of-the-century Europeans.  The crowd includes a married couple and their children.  The wife scandalises the assembled guests when she elopes with a young French man she has barely met.  Only the narrator does not judge her.  Irritated by the smug judgements of the remaining married couples, who are quite sure that nothing so unsuitable could befall a lady worthy of that name, the narrator aggressively argues that we deny our true natures if we believe that a “coup de foudre” attraction more powerful than her will and her intelligence cannot overtake even a good woman.  It is, he argues, a fallacy for the remaining guests to believe that they are stronger, more moral, more pure than the Madame Bovary who succumbed. 

One other member of the group has remained silent, an elegant older English woman.  Subsequently the novel shifts to make this distinguished, aristocratic English woman the narrator as she haltingly relates twenty four hours in her life.  We are taken back in time.  She has been widowed and joyless for several years.   Nothing has been able to pierce the veil of her depression.  For no good reason she finds herself in Monte Carlo, watching the gaming tables.  She has been taught to watch the hands of the players – for these give away the secrets that the players have long since learned to hide in their faces.  She is transfixed by the beautiful, long fingers of one man.

You will have to read the book to find out what happens next, though it rather obviously illustrates the original narrator’s premise that a thunderbolt may overcome even the most virtuous.  Suffice it, then, to say that the young man’s gratitude to the English woman who rescues him from ruin one evening (and who would have given up everything for him) turns out to be something else entirely.  His gratitude which she experiences like balm from heaven for her soul is nothing of the kind.   the English woman has been deceived by the young man’s narcissism, by the addictive passion with which he leads his life.  Not before he has abused her verbally, derided her compassion, and humiliated her in front of hundreds, does she find the strength to tear herself away.   Beware gratitude.

Stefan Zweig was a Jew who fled Austria to escape from the Nazis, though he had always been a rolling stone, never staying in one place long.  The Nazis burned his library in 1938 but he had already set up home in Bath, England in 1934. It was here that he wrote Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman and, incidentally, gave the address at Freud’s funeral in 1939.  He became a British citizen in 1940 but left England almost immediately, moving first to New York. In 1942, having finally settled in Brazil, he committed suicide by poisoning himself.  His wife, too, killed herself.  The Europe he had loved had destroyed itself, and he, a committed humanist and pacifist, could not bear to see the destruction. He left behind a string of novels, many of which are out of print in English, and notable translations of works by Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, as well as essays about Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Freud. His memoirs were published posthumously, though the optimism expressed in this short passage must have been only fitful.

“Even in the abyss of despair in which today, half-blinded, we grope about with distorted and broken souls, I look again and again to those old star patterns that shone over my childhood, and comfort myself with the inherited confidence that this collapse will appear, in days to come, as a mere interval in the eternal rhythm of the onward and onward.”


Clive James on Stefan Zweig

Amazon – Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman