Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Review: 'Genius and Discovery: Five Historical Miniatures' by Stefan Zweig, trans. by Anthea Bell

I love history and I love fictionalised accounts of history, when an author takes a moment crucial, in their mind, to human history and imagines what must have gone through people's minds. Stefan Zweig promised to do exactly that Genius and Discovery so I faithfully followed him into its pages. And I wasn't disappointed. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/11/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
One of two beautifully designed hardback gift editions of Stefan Zweig's breathlessly dramatic historical sketches, out in time for the holidays.
Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky.
Five vivid dramatizations of some of the most pivotal episodes in human history, from the Discovery of the Pacific to the composition of the Marseillaise, bringing the past to life in brilliant technicolor.
Included in this collection:"Flight into Immortality": Vasco Núñez de Balboa's quest to be the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. "The Resurrection of George Frederic Handel": Handel falls into depression until a poet sends him an inspirational work."The Genius of a Night": Captain Rouget writes La Marseillaise, the song which is to become the French national anthem."The Discovery of El Dorado": John Sutter founds New Helvetia in western America and attempts to keep it."The First Word to Cross the Ocean": Cyrus W. Field resolves to lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.
When I told my mother I would be reading Stefan Zweig in English she was affronted. Surely I should be reading such a great German author in German? I guess I should be, and after reading Genius and Discovery I also will. But that is the beauty of publishers like Pushkin Press, who allow you discover literature from all over the world in English. This small anecdote also allows me to talk about the idea and theme behind Genius and Discovery. In the five stories contained in this book Zweig celebrates the human spirit. The blind determination and mindless passion that marks some of the key moments in human history has something magical, and Zweig captures that beautifully. Some of the moments he describes have been taken for granted or never even considered to be as crucial as they were to shaping a nation, shaping a century.

There is something magical about these stories. Zweig chose five moments in history that meant something to him, during which something changed forever, in which we progressed. As the reader, not all stories will strike equally close to the heart. Some, like the first story 'Flight into Immortality' following Vasco Núñez de Balboa's journey to the Pacific combine a respect for de Balboa's dedication, as well as a blunt honesty about the costs of his dedication to the indigenous populations. I adored 'The Resurrection of George Frederic Handel', something akin to a love letter to Handel and his Messiah. It is beautifully written and made me desperate to listen to the piece again. 'The Genius of a Night' is a beautiful look at the creation of La Marseillaise, while 'The Discovery of El Dorado' and 'The First Word to Cross the Ocean' are elegies to those giants of spirit who threw their whole being into getting something done, advancing themselves or humanity. I came out of Genius and Discovery with warm feeling, a new love for how foolhardy we are as a species, and with an increased admiration for all that we have accomplished.

Zweig's writing is beautiful.Whether it is describing the beauty of South American countries, the power of Handel's Messiah, the hope gained from singing La Marseillaise, the madness behind the gold rush in California, or the seemingly insurmountable task of connecting the continents, Zweig brings a beauty and a power to it all. He clearly cares deeply about these moments and as a consequence he makes his readers care as well. No matter that these moments are decennia ago and take place in a world fundamentally different form ours, Zweig makes his reader engage with these moments and become invested in them. Anthea Bell's translation of Zweig's prose is stunning. I only have read Zweig in English, through her, but I can see why he is considered such a giant of German literature. Thanks to her, I will definitely be looking for more Zweig to read, both in German and translation.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I adored the stories in Genius and Discovery! There is something incredibly uplifting about these stories of human spirit, of, indeed, genius and discovery. They would indeed make for an excellent Christmas gift. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in short stories, as well as literary fiction.

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