Book Review by Regis Schilken
Fear by Stefan Zweig
Imagine a sense of guilt so intense that you consider suicide as relief. From the first two pages in Stefan Zweig’s novella, FEAR, you will find yourself engulfed in Irene’s conscience entrapment. Bored with her humdrum family life, this wealthy woman seeks a moment of physical excitement with a younger lover.
Fear is very reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s, Tell-Tale Heart. In Poe’s story, the conscience of a murderer chews at his mind so viciously that he finally admits his crime, reduced to a state of madness. In a similar way, Zweig’s character, Irene, caught being unfaithful as she leaves the dwelling of a younger man, is almost reduced to madness fearing her husband and children will find out.
After her sexual interlude, as she descends the outside steps of her lover’s apartment, a woman witnesses her leaving and makes the deriding comment, “Oh, I catch you here for once, do I?” Irene’s mind starts racing. Fear! She wonders if the woman truly knows her identity. Fear! Will the witness tell Irene’s husband of her infidelity? Will she ever see or hear that woman’s voice again? Fear!
With a tell-tale heart, Irene hurries home to her beloved family. She is an intelligent person fully aware that public knowledge of her indiscretion could ruin her marriage; her relationship with her children; her relationship with her lawyer husband. It might even ruin his career.
But then the blackmail begins. At first demanded sums are small. Irene desperately hopes that when the witness to her infidelity finally gets enough money, all will be forgotten. It doesn’t happen. Blackmail fees continue to grow. Although Irene is wealthy, she desperately hunts ways to release money from her bank account without her husband becoming suspicious.
The blackmail demands get larger. Irene’s tormentor actually comes to her home demanding her glittering wedding ring. What’s worse, Irene’s husband returns while the tormentor is still there. Desperately, Irene gives the blackmailer her ring so she’ll hold her tongue, and hurries her out.
Irene finds herself becoming desperately irrational. In her obsessive mounting sense of hopelessness, she devises a plan. Convinced that-suicide-alone will terminate her mental torture, she begins planning her own death.
In Fear, Irene’s agonizing despair becomes the reader’s angst so clever is the writing of Stefan Zweig. You’ll find yourself thinking Irene’s very thoughts. You must empathize with her. Why? Because it is a rare person who does not have a skeleton lurking in her/his own closet simply because we are all human. Once begun, the desire to finish Fear in one sitting is entirely possible. This classic store is only 106 pages long. Interestingly enough, the book was first published in 1920. It is a gem.
I would highly recommend Fear as an exciting quick read that will leave you hoping against hope that somehow, in some mysterious way, Irene can escape the insane suicidal thoughts that possess her. Is that even possible? Read this book.