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Genius and Discovery: Five Historical…

Genius and Discovery: Five Historical Miniatures

by Stefan Zweig

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Genius and Discovery: Five Historical Miniatures
By Stefan Zweig

A beautiful little book published by Pushkin Press in London. A great addition to the Stefan Zweig portfolio available to readers of English. Zweig’s The Chess Story remains a special favorite of mine, one which I have gifted to several friends through the years. This new book, five brief historical sketches have lived up to my anticipations.

Three of the pieces are standouts.
Flight Into Immortality, relates the historical beginnings of the Spanish Conquistadors who eventually plundered their way through the Americas. This tale focuses on Vasco Nunez de Balboa who leads a breakaway expedition to the isthmus of Panama where he becomes the first European to look upon the Pacific Ocean and learns of the great Incan empire of Biru (now known as Peru). His eventual downfall is his political ineptitude, he antagonizes the King’s Governor, Pedrarias, and is eventually replaced, captured and beheaded by the next great Conquistador Pizarro, who becomes known as the conqueror of Peru. Zweig, in retelling this historical event brings a fiction writer’s talent to instill the tale with adventure and intrigue.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel, relates the miraculous creation of what many consider one of the greatest religious musical pieces, The Messiah. Through his great will power infused with what he eventually considered a god sent spirit Handel overcomes great obstacles to create this masterpiece. Zweig, again infuses this episode with great drama and wonder.

The Discovery of El Dorado, the shortest piece in this volume, explodes off the page. In a brief but powerful manner Zweig tells the bizarre tale of Johann August Suter who leaves his native Switzerland in 1834 escaping the law where he is viewed as a thief, forger and bankrupt businessman. Once in the United States he recreates himself as a savvy investor in New York, Missouri and eventually California. This tale becomes a classic morality tale which intended or not is also a cautionary tale on the unintended consequences of capitalism.

When I read books I am often amused and pleasantly surprised when a writer reminds me of other books and writers I have appreciated. This volume reminded me of two: the Handel piece made me think of Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful- another book that ignited stories of musical geniuses with drama and magic; and the Sutter story reminded me of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, another tale of the American West in the 1800’s.

I look forward to next reading another Pushkin Press release of Zweigian historical miniatures: Triumph and Disaster. I applaud Pushkin in giving us these gifts. ( )
  berthirsch | Apr 10, 2018 |
Stepping into a time machine

Stefan Zweig adds unimaginable value to history. He can take a fact, a story, a personality, and spin a yarn around them that makes them real, visceral, human, fallible and heroic. His style is appreciative. He loves the superhuman effort, the lightning strike of inspiration, the blind faith, and the persistence of men. They are all on display in this short book, Genius and Discovery.

There are five short chapters in this collection. It begins with Balboa, a dismal failure who has little to lose and gambles it all on immortality. He bamboozles his way into “discovering” the Pacific Ocean for the glory and everlasting possession of the king of Spain, but does not outlive his earlier treacheries.

George Frideric Handel comes to life as a suffering failure, blowing his life’s savings on his unimpressive music, until one miserable day he receives the libretto that would become The Messiah. His life before and after are vividly and intensely portrayed around this lifesaver of a gift and the superhuman, intensive creative spurt it inspired.

The story of the creation of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, is a pathetic comedy of wild acceptance and zero credit to its creator, who spent the rest of his life trying to get recognized for his achievement. Captain Rouget de Lisle was an unsuccessful poet and writer, and his one hit got completely away from him.

The long forgotten story of John Sutter’s gain and loss of San Francisco and environs is a tragedy worthy of a classic horror film. Human greed, the madness of crowds and murderous destruction are as vivid as Straw Dogs or The Mother or anything by Steven King – except this actually happened.

Cyrus Field is a long forgotten Silicon Valley type entrepreneur and venture capitalist, whose blind faith in a transatlantic cable eventually brought the world to instant communication. But not before repeated failures of every conceivable kind, from weather to bad design to bad luck. Vilified as a huckster, feted as a conquering hero and forgotten as a total failure, he re-emerged to complete his vision, but is nothing like a household name today.

The sheer variety of the stories alone makes Genius and Discovery a distinct pleasure. Zweig’s easy and comfortable style makes them an effortless read. This is a great intro to a great writer.

David Wineberg ( )
1 vote DavidWineberg | Sep 20, 2017 |
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