Dying of flu, a woman sends a letter to the man she has loved all her life—a man who would not know her from a stranger in the street. If he has received this letter, she warns, it means that she has died; otherwise the letter will be torn up. Over the next 70 pages she describes the first time they met, when she was a young girl, then the second time, when she was 18, and finally the third time, years later, when still unable to recognize her, he would pay for an evening of her time as a prostitute. She tells the story of life in the shadow of someone else, of a love from afar, not just unrequited, but unacknowledged, kept secret from the world except for in this letter.
To read Stefan Zweig’s Letter From an Unknown Woman (1922) is to know the feeling of being lovesick. You sit and think of all the letters you never sent, the ones that were never really meant for sending in the first place but were written pretending, hoping that you might find the nerve go through with it anyway. In this story Zweig shows us the world through the eyes of a person who both suffers and revels in the agony of love; with his prose, and the inflection of her voice, and every page of this rambling coherent life story Zweig breaks down the anatomy of a lovesick heart.
The lovesick surrender themselves to strange confessions, become preternaturally undressed and are not ashamed of it, but are instead ashamed that they are not ashamed. Zweig’s unknown woman describes in her letter how, while still a young girl, a single warm glance from her beloved awoke the woman within her. She admits without any reticence what would otherwise be the all-too-embarrassing truth of having lived a sad and lonely life and of wanting nothing from the world but a few moments of his time, and chance at standing outside his window night after night. These are the kind of things we do not want those we love to know but hope they will somehow find out anyway.
The unknown woman’s happiest memory is of a blue crystal vase in her beloved’s apartment from which he once offered her a few white flowers. This is because the lovesick cling to small details. When all we have are a few white flowers, small details become precious relics, artifacts. The feel of rough cotton sheets and the smell of cigarette ash, a slapdash breakfast handed to you on your way out the door.
Being lovesick means leading a surrogate life. Zweig’s unknown woman moves to another city and still, hundreds of miles away from her beloved, does nothing but read about him. She stays indoors as if in mourning, and with the wry irony of someone with no more strength to hold anything back, confesses that she probably hadn’t even learned more than 10 streets in her new city. She even enjoys all these self-imposed privations because they are her way of remaining faithful to him. Life itself for the lovesick is seen through a new lens; everything is about them even when it isn’t. We read a certain book or watch a certain film because doing so brings us closer to them, it allows us for a short while to dress up our lives in their trappings.
There is no real closure for lovesickness. Zweig, as a result, knows better than to resort to tropes. His short stories don’t end with someone being inexplicably bludgeoned to death because he was unable to stitch the story shut. He doesn’t deploy twists that are more smokescreen than deus ex machina even, as is all too common in short fiction. Letter From an Unknown Woman doesn’t end with a twist, or reveal that the woman is still alive, and better yet standing at the recipient’s front door, waiting. All that remains of her is this letter and a ghostly chill in the recipient’s apartment. Wounds do not get to close easily or quickly, they are not meant to close easily or quickly.
Stefan Zweig uses style to mimic lovesickness. He avoids the word and along with other rejoinders because they interrupt confessions. In Letter From an Unknown Woman Zweig physically breaks sentences, disrupting their order with an unexpected adjective or the unusual placement of a clause. It is a quick, half-step change in tone and tempo, barely perceptible but present enough to match the frantic beating of a besotted heart. These broken sentences (in Anthea Bell’s rich translation from German) are so near to a natural rhythm of human longing that in them Zweig is able to unpack thoughts in such a disarming, straightforward manner that we not only understand his characters deeply—intimately—after a few short but elegant brushstrokes, but we also wonder why so few writers are able to capture this feeling as expertly as he has.
Zweig’s unknown woman sends a letter that will be delivered only in the event of her death. But why bother writing a letter you could not bear to send in the first place? Because a part of us wants to have done things differently, because a part of us doesn’t, because in remaining faithful to someone else we have acted without complete loyalty to ourselves, because we worry that our letters will not be read, in short because we are torn between desperately wishing to remember this tormented version of ourselves all the while hoping to rid ourselves of it altogether. Stefan Zweig will break your heart.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.