Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"Mendel the Bibliophile" by Stefan Zweig. 1925. A reread from German Literature IV, November 2014)

Mendel, real or not, I deeply regret your passing and your fate.  Ambrosia Boussweau 

"Over everything else, understandably, the crematoria smoke still hung its tragic pall. The unparalleled magnitude of that catastrophe seemed to demand silence before its enormity, both from Jews and Gentiles."  Simon Schama

German Literature Month V has only about a week left.  I have greatly enjoyed participating in this wonderful event. I commend and thank the hosts for their hard work.  There are lots of wonderful edifying posts by event participants.  

I am debating with myself whether or not we will host a party this year.  

Works I Have So Far Read for G L V

1.  Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. A brilliant recreation of life in Nazi Germany. 

2.  Ostend, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and the Summer Before the End by Volker Weidermann. A fascinating social history 

3.  Buddenbrook Ths Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann.  Must reading 

4.  "The Governess" by Stefan Zweig

5.  Demian:  The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth by Herman Hesse.  Read the major works first.

6.  The Tanners by Robert Walser. a serious work of art

7. The Hotel Years Wandering Between the Wars by Joseph Hoffman, a brilliant collection of feuilletons translated and introduced by Michael Hoffman

8.  "The Dandelioln" by Wolfgang Borchert. 

9.   "The Foundling" by Heinrich Von Kleist

10.  "A Conversation Concerning Legs" by Alfred Lichenstein 

11.  A Homage to Paul Celan

12.  "The Criminal" by Veza Canetti 

13.  Rebellion by Joseph Roth. Between the wars

14.  The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch - an amazing work of art

15.  The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun.  Sex and the City redone in the Weimer Republic  

16.  Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada.  A panoramic view of the Weimer Republic 

17.  Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig

18.  Fear by Stefan Zweig

Last year during German Literature Month IV I expressed my great love for a short story by Stefan Zweig, "Mendel the Bibliophile".  I wanted to reread it this month but I was somehow afraid it would not live up to my expectations.  I was so delighted to find I liked it even more this time.  I will just more or less for myself talk about some of the things that struck me on the second reading.

In the last twelve months I have read a good bit of Yiddish literature, holocaust works, and nonfiction on the issues between the so called European Jew and the Yiddish Jew.  I know this is a sensitive topic subject to uninformed misunderstandings but this conflict is very important in understanding much of the history and literature of Germany and the so called Mittleeuropa region.  Stefan Zweig epitomized the fully assimilated European Jew, deeply urbane, highly cultured and very affluent from old family money.  People of this background were a embarrassed by the Yiddish speaking Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia.  I see now that one of the things "Mendel the Bibliophile" is about is this conflict.  The European Jew knows his real roots are with the Yiddish Jews but he is a bit embarrassed to admit this.  I also now understand why Mendel rocked back and forth as he read and why he read with such deep focus.  These are habits instilled in him from ancient traditions of study of the Torah.  The Yiddish culture was deeply into the reading life as were European Jews.  Joseph Roth has said the Prussian hatred of the Jews, he was writing from before the Holocaust begun, was a war on the book,on those who cherish reading and learning.

The narrator of the story has returned to the Gluck Cafe, from which Mendel dealt in books for thirty years.   His memory was amazing, ask him on any obscure work and he could tell you not just what it contained and when it was published, he could tell you how much it was worth and he could get you a copy.  He had contacts all over the book loving  world.  

World War One started but Mendel gave it little mind other than noticing some waiters were drafted to fight and that Herr Gluck's son was killed while serving in the  army.

Mendel maintained a vast correspondence.  He noticed his issues of a famous French journal devoted to rare books stopped coming eight months ago so he wrote to the office in Paris to inquire.  All out going mail was censored and two policemen had him brought in for questioning, asking him why he was corresponding with an enemy country?  Mendel is completely baffled, his work and the books transcend petty politics.  At first the police are planning to release him, then they found out he had as a child in the company of his family moved from Russia to Austria without official permission.  The officials are outraged to discover Mendel never bothered to apply for Austrian citizenship.  He is sent to a concentration camp as an enemy alien and kept there for two years until he was released when the war was over.  He returns to the cafe to find it has new owners who want to turn the coffee house into a sophisticated cafe.  Mendel in his thread  bare clothes, with his long beard and his custom of staying in the cafe 12 to 16 hours a day while buying only the two cups of coffee he could afford is not what the new owner wants.  Compressing a lot, he throws Mendel out one day accusing him of stealing a bread roll and tells him never to return.

The narrator has returned years later.  No one but an old lady who was a rest room attendant remembers Mendel.  She tells the man that Mendel's spirit was destroyed by what he saw in the concentration camp, by the agony of two years away from his reading and his work.  The close of the story is heart breaking.

Now on this reading I see the deep cultural clash in the story, the depiction of the base ignorance of the Prussian junker class and their servants, and a dark look at the future of all European Jews.

The only way I know that those who do not read German can read this amazing story is in The Collected Short Stories of Stefan Zweig published by Pushkin Press.

To any who would suggest, as big name critics and historians  such as   Hannah Arendt have, that Zweig never faced the fate of European Jews I would say you are just wrong.  Yes he fled Europe and could not face the world he thought was coming but it was not because he did not care but because he cared so much the pain killed him.  

I will be readi it  in 2016.  I found I recalled much of the story, but not all as I reread it.  

It is so interesting how being an illegal immigrant made the authorities fear Mendel.  

Mel ü


1 comment:

Caroline said...

I remember how much you ,iked this last year and I'm so glad you liked it just as much.
What a fascinating post. We tend to see Jews as homogenous while they really are not. When I was in Paris I discovered how differemt the Sephardim ware from the Ashkenazy (hope I wtote this right) - and yes, of course thos speaking Yiddish and thse urban Jews like Zweig didn't have a lot in common. I hope I can squeeze this in before the end of the month.