Saturday, April 3, 2010

Letter From An Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

Since I first read it many years ago I have never forgotten this haunting little novella. As improbable or absurd as some may find the plot, it has always had a special place in my heart.

The story begins in early 20th century Vienna when an unnamed famous novelist returns home. He finds a letter waiting for him, addressed "To you who never really knew me," and beginning with the words "My child died yesterday." And in its pages, hastily written by a woman who has just lost her son to influenza and is running a race with Death herself, he discovers a love he never even knew he had.

It all began many years ago, when the unknown woman was a little girl living in the same apartment house as the famous author. She fell in love with him then even though he never noticed her, and even after her family moved away he still filled her dreams. Rather than outgrowing what should have been just a schoolgirl crush, she carried a torch for him until she was old enough to return to the city on her own and pursue her obsession and make her dream come true.

Back in Vienna, this beautiful young woman of eighteen puts herself in her oblivious beloved's path. The famous author is something of a Don Juan, his life littered with conquests and brief liaisons, none of which appear to make much impact upon him. He takes this beautiful young girl to bed, goes away on a trip, and never thinks of her again. Never knowing that she has conceived his child.

In a time when there was much shame and stigma attached to being an unwed mother, the unknown woman, already fallen from grace in society's eyes, becomes a courtesan in order to give her son the best of everything. She is loved and adored by the rich men who keep her, some even offer her marriage, there is even an elderly count who would have made her his countess and given her a life of comfort, luxury, and respectability, but she refuses every one and stays stubbornly true to her obsessive and unreasonable love for a man who doesn't even know she exists.

Years pass and they meet again in a smart Viennese cafe where she is spending an evening with her current protector and some friends. Never recognizing her, with not even the slightest recollection of their brief affair, the famous author beckons and flashes his come hither smile. She leaves the party, walks right out, with not even a thought to spare for the kind man who loves and supports her, and goes back to his apartment to spend the night with him.

The next morning she is mortified when he stuffs money into her purse, taking her for a common prostitute. Even when she drops hints, he still fails to remember her. And on the verge of tears she rushes out. As she is leaving she almost bumps into his valet, and in that one instant the light of recognition flares bright in that old man's eyes, he recognizes her as the little girl who used to haunt the hallways like a ghost, loitering outside his master's apartment.

And the story ends with the famous author losing even as he has just discovered the one great love of his life, the mother of the son he never knew he had and has also lost, and realizing that, try as he might, he can't even remember her face or recall the voice that chastises him from beyond the grave: "Everyone indulged me, everyone was good to me--only you, you alone, forgot me. Only you, you alone never recognized me,' but nonetheless still declaring her love for him.

It's an amazing, thought-provoking little book, that makes one really ponder the mysteries and complexities of love and the nature of obsession and why, sometimes, people caught in the grip of it can never let go. And while the practical part of me may think the unknown woman was a fool who held on because, for whatever reason, she couldn't let go, and thus let opportunities pass her by, my heart understands and can't quite condemn her; we are who we are, we love who we love, and sometimes it is our misfortune not to be loved by those we love in return.

Note: It was made into a film in the 1940s starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan that is as true to the original novel as the censorship of the time would allow.