I have not been very active on the blog this week, but I have a great excuse. Classes have started again so that means I am back in the classroom. I have a record number of students who have signed up for Latin this year. So when someone makes the comment that Latin is a “dead language” I reference my robust numbers of enthusiastic students. Confusion is the perfect book to review for back-to-school since it highlights a rather unusual relationship between a student and teacher. This book was originally published in the German in 1929 and this English translation is done by Anthea Bell.
When the novella opens, Roland is celebrating his sixtieth birthday and his thirtieth anniversary of teaching in the Department of Languages and Literature. His colleagues and students have presented him with a book that is a complete biography of his academic career. The only thing missing is an account of how he was inspired to begin his career in academics. The rest of the story is an account of Roland’s youth and his experience with the teacher that inspired his career.
Roland first attends university in Berlin where he is bored and uninspired and as a result he does not take his studies seriously. He spends months lounging around in coffee-houses and sleeping with many women and not tending to his studies at all. One day his father shows up unannounced and this incident makes for a very funny and awkward scene in the book. Roland is so embarrassed by his behavior that he agrees to leave Berlin and attend university in a small provincial town in central Germany. This is where he encounters the teacher that will change his life and infuse in him a lifelong passion for literature.
When he first arrives at his new university, Roland stumbles into a lecture on Shakespeare which is being given by a passionate and well-spoken professor. All of the students listening are captivated by this teacher and Roland is instantly inspired as well. He finds the professor and enlists his help in mapping out a plan for his academic future. Roland lives in the same building as the teacher and his wife so he quickly becomes very close with the couple. Roland eats meals with the couple, spends evenings in the teacher’s study, and even goes on various social outings separately with the wife.
From the beginning it becomes clear that the teacher and his wife have a very strange marriage. They never display an affection for each other and seem to be more roommates than husband and wife. As Roland spends time with the wife, she drops hints here and there that they are not happily married and that the teacher is rather a difficult person to live with. But the true details about the non-traditional relationship between husband and wife are not revealed until the very end of the book.
Throughout his time with the teacher, Roland is plagued by the constant mood swings of his mentor. Sometimes his teacher is encouraging and kind and then all of a sudden he is insulting, distant and cold. Roland works hard at his studies to impress his teacher, even to the detriment of his mental and physical health. Roland feels like he is walking on eggshells because he never knows if his teacher will be kind or cruel. The teacher’s feelings and reasons for his changeable behavior are not revealed until the end of the book.
As a teacher this book was interesting to read because it reminded me that we oftentimes never know what kind of an impact we can have on students’ lives and careers. Roland has this one man to thank for his long and successful career but he never gets to tell the teacher about his inspiration. It is significant that the teacher is never given a name; he remains a nameless entity even though he has such an amazing impact on Roland’s fate. Furthermore, there could not be a more apt title for this book than the word “confusion.” Roland is confused about his relationship to his teacher, and he is also confused about the relationship between the teacher and his wife. And until the very end, the reader is confused about what, exactly, is going on with the teacher.
This is a touching, powerful and short read that I highly recommend. I look forward to reading more of Zweig’s works. Thanks to the New York Review of Books for reviving another fantastic classic work in translation.
Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.
Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.
Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’