I guessed the twist well before it was revealed, but I also filed it away as unlikely. I didn’t give Zweig enough credit for his frankness (though the book is quite frank; which is not to say graphic or erotic, but it is precisely neither) and it was exactly what you think it is early on.
It is the story of how a lazy lothario goes to a small, provincial university in Germany to study English literature – though only after his father visits him in Berlin during his first year at university and interrupts him en flagrante delicto with young shopgirl.
All those folks who loved Donna Tartt’s The Secret History should be reading this book. It’s much better and also captures that strange spirit of being young and caught up in the glow of your elders or perceived intellectual betters and the secret language and social ties that arise out of the intensity of the environment.
The narrator, who is recounting this tale, decades later, from the vantage point of being an esteemed and aging scholar, able to remember (and mourn?) his school days. And like all such tales, it is also a loss of innocence.
And I shouldn’t have said it wasn’t erotic. Because the act of the student and his professor working feverishly on an academic study of Elizabethan drama is an erotic act, an erotic transference of knowledge. And the professor’s wife… when the buckle on her bathing suit slips, revealing one breast, the youthful students’ shame and desire and inability to turn away are palpable and linger with the reader, even though the description itself is little more than two or three short sentences.
And the secret? The professor is gay. The wife knows and he sneaks off the big cities for sexual encounters that shame him. And he loves his student. At the end, their last moment, he kisses him on the mouth. The narrator goes to become an esteemed scholar in English literature. More esteemed than his mentor, held back by his secret and shame, ever became. And everything is clear. The attitudes of other students and professors, who saw clearly what he did not and assumed that the student was already enmeshed in a sexual relationship with the professor.
The whole thing is sad and sparse and beautiful.