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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Stefan Zweig

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To purchase Confusion

Title: Confusion
Author: Stefan Zweig
Genre: Novella
Written: 1927 (Eng. 2002, rev. 2009)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Confusion - US
Confusion - UK
Confusion - Canada
Confusion - India
La confusion des sentiments - France
Verwirrung der Gefühle - Deutschland
Sovvertimento dei sensi - Italia
Confusión de los sentimientos - España
  • German title: Verwirrung der Gefühle
  • Translated by Anthea Bell
  • Previously translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, in Conflicts: Three Tales (1927)
  • The US edition comes with an Introduction by George Prochnik

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Our Assessment:

B+ : over-heated, but fine portrayal of passions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 17/3/1927 Alec W.G. Randall
TLS . 1/3/1928 R.D.Charques
TLS . 27/12/2002 Robert Macfarlane

  From the Reviews:
  • "The trouble with this psycho-analytical method of storytelling is that it leaves far too little to the imagination; the explanation is so thorough that one begins to tire long before having come to the end of it." - R.D.Charques, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(O)ne of his finest and most exemplary works (.....) Over its short length, the novella manages to provide a comparative study of different types of loneliness, a finely graded analysis of obsession and transgression, and an illustration of the irrepressibility of desire, even within the inert atmosphere of academia. It provides a perfect reminder of, or introduction to, Zweig’s economy and subtlety as a writer." - Robert Macfarlane, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Confusion is narrated by a professor of literature who has just celebrated his sixtieth birthday, and thirty years of teaching. To mark the occasion, he has been presented with a Festschrift, which would appear to be: "nothing short of a complete biographical record" -- but, he notes:

It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me. It speaks of me, but does not reveal what I am.
       In particular, what's missing is what he believes to be the most significant formative experience he had, and Confusion is the "confession of feelings" where he reveals it.
       The story the professor, Roland, relates takes him back to his own student-days. He was far from being a born academic. In childhood he found: "Surrounded by books, I despised them" and he barely manages to graduate from high school. Packed off to university, he is no more enthused by what he finds there:
The suspicion I had entertained even as a schoolboy that I had entered a morgue of the spirit, where uncaring hands anatomized the dead, was revived to an alarming degree in this factory churning out second-hand Alexandrian philosophy
       But he had at least managed to leave home and was studying in Berlin, and the city offered everything he wanted. Not bothering to attend any lectures, he lived it up. And since he was "a strikingly good-looking young man" he found himself with "a clear advantage over the pasty-faced shop-boys" as far as the local girls went -- and he certainly took advantage.
       A surprise visit from his father, who catches him in flagrante, bring his dissolute escapades and lifestyle to a crashing end, and they agree it would be better if he went to complete his studies elsewhere. So off Roland goes, to a sleepy university town far removed from Berlin and fast women.
       Almost immediately, however, Roland finds himself in the thrall of something completely new: seeking out one of his professors to introduce himself, he finds the man talking to some students -- but with an enthusiasm that Roland had never before encountered. Like the other listeners, Roland finds himself completely carried away:
I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act
       Conveniently, the room he rents is in the same house where the professor lives with his wife, and soon Roland is entirely under the sway of the professor and his enthusiastic scholarship, immersing himself completely in his studies -- and allowing himself to be guided by the older man.
       The picture isn't quite so simple, however: the professor isn't always so enthusiastic, and sometimes his lectures drone on as boringly as any professor's. Then there's the matter of his wife, who Roland doesn't get to know any better for quite a while; the couple's relationship seems somewhat strained and sober, and she doesn't seem to rouse the same kind of passion in the professor that discussing English literature can. And then there are the professor's mysterious absences, when he just takes off for a few days, without explanation.
       Roland also wonders why the professor never completed his magnum opus, a planned The History of the Globe Theatre, and the professor tells him he no longer has the stamina for such a grand undertaking:
Once I had more strength, but now it's gone. I can only talk -- then it sometimes carries me away, something takes me out of myself. But I can't work sitting still, always alone, always alone.
       Naïve Roland doesn't get what really ails the professor, even though there is not too much subtlety here. And, indeed, the professor is weak -- though it's not (just) the weakness of old(er) age -- and, yes, loneliness is part of the heart of his problem.
       Roland becomes his amanuensis, and the project really takes off, with both fully immersed in it. But one passion being followed does not mean that all passions are being satisfied, and, of course, things get complicated again, as the weak professor can't suppress his urges.
       Zweig isn't subtle about what is going on here: his physical descriptions of the characters, notably the professor's wife, and some of the interaction among the characters suggests fairly early on exactly what the situation is. As to the characters themselves, they remain evasive and, more often, unable to directly face the various issues between them . As passionate as the professor is about his academic subject, he barely opens up about anything else -- even as he desperately wants to ("I was so much looking forward to speaking freely to you for once", he tells Roland). Another encounter has Roland give chase to the professor's wife -- whom he does not recognize -- in the water, swimming after her, but she always eluding him.
       Things naturally come to a head, the repressed to the fore. Roland steps back and away, removing himself from the situation: decades later now it remains as a pivotal episode, but also one he was able to put behind him. Roland emerged from this heated youthful confusion whole, unlike the broken professor, who never conquered his; there's an incidental mention in the story's closing passage that makes clear that Roland did not follow down the professor's path, and that, along with the Festschrift, reveals that Roland's life and career have turned out to be much more conventional (and, perhaps, ultimately less impassioned). Nevertheless, Roland is grateful for being exposed to the professor and his passion(s).
       The sad professor's life and fate is a tad melodramatic, though Zweig's overheated prose is appropriate for this story of just-post-adolescent feverish confusion (and the more resigned confusion of an older man who hasn't managed to come to grips with his own desires and needs). Even if it harbors few surprises, Confusion is very well told and quite riveting. The professor's wife is a somewhat neglected figure in this triangle of personalities, which is a shame, since it would be interesting to learn more of her perspective (and position). But there's a good deal going on here, and Zweig unfolds his story well -- and there's a great appeal to his style, convincingly conveying just how feverish these youthful (and not so youthful) intertwining passions -- intellectual and personal -- were.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 May 2012

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Confusion: Reviews: Stefan Zweig: Other books by Stefan Zweig under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Stefan Zweig lived 1881 to 1942.

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© 2012-2022 the complete review

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