Burning Secret, published by Puskin Press and translated by Anthea Bell.
Burning Secret is a finely-crafted gem of a novella by the Austrian-born master, Stefan Zweig.
Published in 1913, it is set in an Austrian mountain holiday resort. A young man, a minor aristocrat and civil servant, arrives on holiday. Early on we are told that he is bored when he just has himself for company, and only really feels alive when he is with others. And when he feels most alive is with women. This is a ladies’ man and no mistake.
Initially things don’t seem very promising, but in the dining room he soon identifies a lady in whom he spots plenty of conquest potential, despite Zweig being at pains to point out that she is in the final flushes of attractiveness before beginning the inexorable slide towards ‘past it’ status.
The woman is on holiday with her 12 year-old son, who it transpires is recovering from a protracted bout of illness. Rather than the child being a passion killer, Herr Baron sees him instead as the first means towards his erotic ends. Since the lady initially declines to return his flirtatious glances in the dining room, he decides to strike up a friendship with the boy as the way to get close to his mother.
Things go swimmingly at first, and the boy is besotted with this friendly and garrulous young man with whom he shares jokes, conversations and pleasant walks. Once he has found a way into the mother’s attention’s, however, the Baron pays no more attention to the boy.
This is a bad move, since this is a very bright 12 year old. Hero-worship soon turns to confusion, which turns to anger and ultimately a desire to find out just what it is- this ‘burning secret’- which the two adults share, and which means they want to spend so much time together and ignore him entirely.
Of course we know what the secret is, but the boy doesn’t. And as the Baron circles his female prey ever closer and moves in for the romantic ‘kill’, things don’t necessarily reach the climax you might be expecting.
This is an extremely good story. It’s not exactly a coming of age/ loss of innocence story like L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”, and in a way the central child character struck me as being more psychologically convincing than in Hartley’s book.Or at least, this is a child of inquisitiveness and spirit that he struck more of a chord with me than the almost wholly pure and gullible child Hartley depicted.
Rather than being a victim, he is more of an empowered figure., and if it’s meant to be symbolic of any particular change we go through on the road from childhood to adulthood, I think Zweig has tried to make this book epitomise the realisation we all come to that human relationships can be very confusing, and that the art of reading between the lines is very difficult to master indeed.
If you have read Zweig and want to read more, this is well worth searching out. Best of all this story is not very long at all, and the pace and skill of Zweig’s story telling means you’ll probably finish it in a sitting.