Thanks to Sam at Golden Rule Jones for suggesting I read “The Invisible Collection,” a story by Stefan Zweig first published in 1925. I found a translation by Eden and Cedar Paul in Fantastic Night & Other Stories, published in 2004 by Pushkin Press. It’s a pleasingly old-fashioned story, heavy with plot and pathos. Zweig even uses the hoary device of a frame story, one I associate with Victorian ghost stories and Conrad’s Marlow tales, and find somehow comforting. The first paragraph, italicized and set apart by an extra space, is in the voice of a nameless narrator who meets an elderly art dealer from Berlin on a train:
“Enough introduction. I will let him tell the story in his own words, without using quotation-marks – to avoid the complication of wheels within wheels.”
The subsequent 12 pages are narrated by the dealer, Herr Rackner, who, like many in post-World War I Germany, is scrambling to survive hyperinflation. Zweig lends a specific historical context to his story, noting that “war profiteers have developed a taste for old masters (Madonnas and so on).” The dealer’s stock is depleted, and he sifts through old receipts hoping to identify financially strapped former customers willing to part with their collections. He settles on an elderly man in Saxony who had previously done business with his father and grandfather:
“All indications showed that he must have been one of those antiquated eccentrics, a few of whom survive in German provincial towns. His writing was copperplate, and every item in his orders was underlined in red ink. Each price was given in words as well as figures, so that there could be no mistake. These peculiarities, and his use of torn-out fly-leaves as writing paper, enclosed in a scratch assortment of envelopes, hinted at the miserliness of a confirmed backwoodsman.”
Rackner travels to Saxony and finds Franz Kronfeld, now in his eighties, living with his wife and daughter. All of his life, this veteran of the 1870-71 war with France has denied himself and his family all but the necessities in his compulsion to collect drawings and etchings. He has amassed hundreds, including Rembrandts and Dürers, but Kronfeld went blind during World War I. With the coming of Weimar inflation his wife and daughter began secretly selling off the collection to keep the household afloat, and replaced the artworks with blank sheets of paper.
Kronfeld wants to show off his collection to Rackner, who is alerted to the subterfuge by the daughter. She begs Rackner not to reveal the ruse, fearing the shock would kill her father, and so begins a narrative tour de force. For hours, Kronfeld, who knows his collection intimately even in blindness, displays the contents of 27 portfolios to Rackner, who goes along the charade:
“[Kronfeld] turned the sheet over and pointed at the back so convincingly that involuntarily I leaned forward to read the nonexistent inscription.
“`The stamp of the Nagler collection, followed by those of Remy and Esdaille. My famous predecessors never thought that their treasure would come to roost in this little room.’
“I shuddered as the unsuspecting enthusiast extolled the blank sheet of paper; my flesh crept when he placed a fingernail on the exact spot where the alleged imprints had been made by long-dead collectors. It was as ghostly as if the disembodied spirits of the men he named had risen from the tomb.”
The scene is half O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and half King Lear, the Dover Cliff scene with Glouchester’s imagined fall, though it’s the poignancy of the latter that predominates. The old man is ecstatic, Rackner appalled. Kronfeld tells him he will add a codicil to his will stipulating that Rackner’s firm will handle the auctioning off of the collection after his death. As Rackner leaves the house, the old man leans out the window and wishes him a pleasant journey back to Berlin. Rackner muses:
“The illusion I had helped to sustain made life good for him. Was it not Goethe who said:
“`Collectors are happy creatures!’”
Zweig resolves the story on a note of ironic irresolution, leaving the last word to the greatest of all German writers. This is quintessential Zweig, delusory contentment, a rueful mingling of comedy and melancholy. In his appreciation of Zweig, “A Neglected Genius” (collected in Our Culture, What’s Left of It), Theodore Dalrymple writes:
“Two main themes pervade Zweig’s writings. The first is the part that passion plays in human life. If reason, as Hume says, is and should be the slave of the passions, how can we control and reconcile our passions so that we may live decently together in society? And if, as Zweig’s works suggest, the need for control and the need for expression are in constant tension, there is no abstract or perfect solution to man’s existential plight. Any attempt to resolve the contradictions of our existence by dogmatic reference to a simple doctrine (and, compared with life, all doctrines are simple) will thus end in monomania and barbarism.”
Zweig denies us the sop of a conventional happy ending. No one has learned anything. An old man is the object of what amounts to an elaborate practical joke. The daughter calls it “a well-intentioned fraud.” She and her mother await his death, when his pension will end. The once-priceless art collection has already been sold for a fraction of its worth. Who is to blame?
“Wife and daughter accompanied me to the door. They did not venture to speak, but tears were flowing down their cheeks. I myself was in little better condition. An art-dealer, I had come in search of bargains. Instead, as events turned out, I had been a sort of angel of good-luck, lying like a trooper in order to assist in a fraud which kept an old man happy. Ashamed of lying, I was glad that I had lied. At any rate I had aroused an ecstasy which seems foreign to this period of sorrow and gloom.”