I’ve been a fan of Zweig ever since I read Chess in 2011. When I’m in the mood for something thrilling and unputdownable his novels and novellas are always a good pick. Lately I’ve been reading from The Man Booker longlist, and rather disappointingly there have been a lot of “good but not great” books on the list – meaning I haven’t read that many books I can fully immerse myself in and forget about the world around me in August. Missing that kind of a book experience I chose to read Confusion in the hopes of it being as good as Chess, Amok and Burning Secret. I wasn’t disappointed.
Confusion follows an old professor thinking back on his life as a student. Someone has recently written his biography and he keeps thinking that even though the book has captured the main events of his life it doesn’t really explain who he is or why he is who he is. Something is missing from it, or rather, someone. In his early student days in Berlin he didn’t care much for his studies and spent most of his time drinking and chasing women, but after a visit from his father, who surprisingly manages to convince him that he is wasting his life – without giving him a lecture or yelling at him – he decides to move to a smaller town and enroll in a prestigious university there. He encounters a lecturer that is so passionate and has such an incredibly distinctive and lively way of teaching that he can’t help but start to love his studies and to love this man as well. The Professor becomes his mentor, guiding him in his field of study, which is English, and he becomes the teacher’s pet, rather annoyingly for all the other students. It makes him a social leper in this small town and he becomes isolated from everyone except the professor and his wife.
And now, too, I understood the volcanic, fanatically exuberant nature of his discourse in his circle of students – after being dammed up for days his urge to communicate would break out, all the ideas he carried silently within him rushed forth, with the uncontrollable force known to horsemen when a mount is fresh from the stable, breaking out of the confines of silence into this headlong race of words.
It’s only a 150 page book and the plot doesn’t seem very original, but the way Zweig writes is incredibly detailed and intense and, like many of his other novellas, it reads almost like a thriller. I was very in the moment when reading this, whilst at the same time just aching to know what happens next. It becomes apparent for the reader that the Professor’s love for his student is not quite the same as the students love for the Professor, but the student remains ignorant of what is so apparent to the reader and also to the Professor’s wife. This exploration of homosexuality in a small German town at the beginning of the last century is very claustrophobic and sad. The Professor is forced to constantly battle his feelings and his urges to stay in control, otherwise he might lose everything he values. It makes for a confined and difficult life, and Zweig portrays this beautifully through the relationship between the Professor and his student.
His words, like an evangelist’s, bestowed grace and were binding on me too; I was always on the qui vive, attentive and intent upon greedily snapping up every chance remark he happened to drop. I seized on every word, every gesture, and when I came home I bent my mind entirely to the passionate recapitulation and memorizing of what I had heard; my impatient ardour felt that he alone was my guide, and all the other students merely enemies whom my aspiring will urged itself daily to outstrip and outperform.