The Invisible Collection by Stefan Zweig
Two more excellent pieces by Zweig from Pushkin. I'm loathe to call them novellas - The Invisible Collection is a scant twenty five pages long (and these are small pages) and (the better story) Buchmendel is itself only fifty five pages: the book can easily be read in a couple of hours. But, regardless of what we call these tales, they are both wonderful treats and Pushkin Press must be congratulated on producing such handsome wee books and doing such a good job at making Zweig's work available. Actually, both these works are soon to be collected, together with Fantastic Night, Letter From an Unknown Woman and The Fowler Snared , in a collection - out in October - called, not that surprisingly, Fantastic Night & Other Stories!
The Invisible Collection, subtitled An Episode of the Inflation Period in Germany is the story of Herr Kronfeld ("Forest Ranger and Economic Councillor, Retired; Holder of the Iron Cross First Class ... His signature was always followed by his style and title in full"), a unrivalled collector of woodcuts and etchings, who is remembered one day by the art-dealer Herr Rackner ("from Berlin ... the famous dealer in antiquities"). Rackner thinks that Kronfeld may be one of the few collectors still about who has not been forced to sell his collection. He travels to "one of the most out-of-the-way towns in Saxony" to meet his man. The old collector, now blind, is delighted to see Rackner and delighted that his collection validated by the esteemed dealer. To his family he says, "[y]ou have been inclined to grumble at my 'squandering' money upon the collection ... Well, Herr Rackner confirms my judgment. When I am dead and gone, you'll be richer than anyone in the town, as wealthy as the wealthiest folk in Dresden".
Buchmendel is, too, a story about art, and cultured men, and how their art and their culture is useless when faced with the harsh reality of twentieth century life. Mendel is a book peddler whose knowledge of the prices, editions, movements of books is unrivalled ("He knows everything about books ... The man is a saurian of the book world ... a living lexicon, something like the general catalogue of the British Museum Readinf Room, but able to walk about on two legs"). Using the Cafe Gluck as his office Mendel is "an emblem of bookish lore" just waiting for someone to come in and consult him. But Jacob Mendel, the Galician Jew, was did something "incredibly stupid, only explicable to those who knew" him to be both a genius and a complete innocent. During the War (the First World War) he wrote to a French - enemy - bookseller enquiring about magazine subscriptions. Hauled in front of the police it became clear that Mendel not only corresponded with the enemy but he himself was a Russian sans papiers.
Zweig is always an utter pleasure to read and these slight yet sublime and profound stories are an absolute must.