31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 20: “The Invisible Collection” by Stefan Zweig; Anthea Bell, trans.

May 20, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Invisible Collection: Tales of Obsession and Desire

The_Invisible_Collection_Stefan_Zweig“No one will know how we lived,” mourns Stephen Henighan in his essay “‘They Can’t Be About Things Here’: The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel.” Henighan was bemoaning the rising tide of globalization that resulted in a raft of 1990s CanLit novels that failed to engage with the country’s experience in any meaningful way; the decade’s most lauded, bestselling books evinced, in Henighan’s view, an “inability to pull our own society into focus.” One reason for this, Henighan suggests, was Canada’s position in the world at the time, having emerged from under the colonial thumb of Britain only to succumb to economic and cultural colonization by the U.S. However, Henighan suggests, “[a] country that no longer exists in spirit may still exist in literature: this is one of the lessons of German-language literatures.”

One of the writers Henighan points to is Stefan Zweig, the Vienna-born author of the early twentieth century, whose signature theme, like Henry James before him, was the disintegration of an old world, with its particular manners and ways of life, and its replacement with a new, in many ways degraded and dissolute, society. Henighan views Zweig as an Austro-Hungarian novelist practicing long after Austro-Hungary had disappeared: an argument could be made. It is true, also, that Zweig was capable of capturing the tenor of the time in which he lived with the kind of perspicacity and insight that allow his fiction to retain resonance for a modern reader.

“The Invisible Collection” is set during the period of German “hyperinflation” following the end of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles was in many ways a manifestation of Europe’s anger at Germany, forcing upon the Weimar Republic crippling reparation payments that had the effect of eroding a once-prosperous economy and sentencing the German population to poverty and strife. By 1923, so-called hyperinflation had set in, rendering the country’s paper money essentially valueless. “At its height,” states an article in The Economist, “prices were rising so fast that waiters had to climb on tables to call out new menu prices in restaurants every half hour. Banknotes became sufficiently useless that workers had to bring wheelbarrows with them to work to collect their daily pay, and bundles were given to children to play with, being cheaper than actual toys.”

This is the backdrop against which Zweig’s story is set. “The Invisible Collection” is framed as an encounter between an anonymous narrator and a prestigious art dealer. The two meet on a train outside Dresden, and the dealer relates a tale of an extraordinary interaction he has just had with a collector. The dealer had hoped to track down this man in an attempt to uncover some paintings he might auction; with the value of the currency so depleted, many of the country’s “nouveau riche” had discovered a taste for fine art, and the supply of original work had dwindled precipitously. The dealer tracks down the collector in what is admittedly a mercenary endeavour; upon locating him, the dealer discovers that the collector is blind and that his wife and daughter have sold his collection in an attempt to feed the family and keep a roof over their heads. The aged man’s beloved “collection,” which is kept in portfolios that he rifles obsessively, consists of nothing more than stained sheets of blank paper.

On one level, “The Invisible Collection” operates as a satirical allegory of the depredations that befell the German populace in the interwar period. “[Y]ou know what these times are like,” the daughter tells the art dealer as she explains how she and her mother have sold of her father’s collection in an attempt to keep the family afloat. Given the pitiful state of the economy, even the wholesale depletion of what should have been a highly valuable collection of paintings leaves them with barely enough to get by:

It was a very valuable item that we sold, a Rembrandt etching. The dealer offered us many, many thousand marks for it, and we hoped that would provide for us for years. But you know how money melts away these days … we had deposited most of it in the bank, but two months later it was all gone. So we had to sell another work, and then another, and the dealer was always so late sending the money that it was already devalued when it arrived. Then we tried auctions, but there too we were cheated, although the prices were in the millions … by the time the millions reached us they were nothing but worthless paper.

The connection here between the worthless paper of the national currency and the worthless paper that has replaced the paintings the mother and daughter have sold is clear; this is also where the story escapes its specific historical setting and takes on a more universal tenor.

That the old man is blind is resonant in the story on both a metaphorical and a literal level. His vision had been “disturbed” before the outbreak of war, but it was the global conflagration that prompted his complete loss of sight. “You see,” the daughter says, “even though he was seventy-six at the time he wanted to go to France with the army, and when the army didn’t advance at once, as it had in 1870, he was dreadfully upset, and his sight went downhill at terrifying speed.” The man’s blindness is symbolically linked to the war and its effects on Germany: pain and suffering that had been gradual prior to 1914 suddenly erupted in widespread, unchecked misery.

But his blindness also literally prevents him from seeing the paintings that make up his collection; likewise, he is unable to recognize when those paintings are replaced with blank pieces of paper. However, his memory remains intact, and he is able to take the dealer step by step through a detailed description of the great works of art that he believes still reside between the leaves of his portfolios. His appreciation of these artworks, unlike those “philistines” who snap up paintings for piles of valueless currency, but with no solid knowledge or recognition of their artistic merit, provides him solace and elevates him from the faceless masses who eke out miserable lives in a depleted country.

The old man, then, is representative of the transcendent power of art: the fact that he cannot see the work does not limit his enjoyment of or devotion to it. Indeed, he exacts a promise from the dealer that when he dies, the dealer will sell his collection at auction: “Just promise me to draw up a handsome catalogue,” the old man insists. “[I]t will be my tombstone, and I couldn’t ask for a better memorial.” In this way, Zweig’s story likewise transcends its historical moment and provides a modern reader with a note of universal insight.

By bringing his society into clear focus at a particular moment in time, as Henighan suggests literature can – and should – do, Zweig has provided his reader with not only a document of German life between the two world wars, but a memorable and expansive meditation on an enduring theme.