Conciseness has always seemed to me to be the most essential problem in art. To fit his destiny to a man so nicely as to leave no vacuum, to inclose him as radiantly as the ember does the fly and yet the while preserve every detail of his being has, of all tasks, ever been the dearest to me.
Stefan Zweig was an Austrian journalist and playwright, with a Ph.D. in philosophy. He was a pacifist and a friend of Romain Rolland. Emulating Rolland’s style, Zweig wrote many biographies, including Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Casanova, Stendhal, and Tolstoy. As a Jew, he was forced into exile after the rise of the Nazis, and eventually committed suicide together with his wife in Brazil, far away from his homeland.
Through the story of an old art connoisseur, Zweig conveys a haunting sense of loss and nostalgia. Having fallen on hard times during the war, the old man’s family was forced to sell his prized collection of prints and engravings to survive, despite his firm instructions not to sell them, for they were his life. Opportunistic dealers took advantage of their ignorance, and swindled them out of their most valuable possession. The old man had been blinded by illness, so his family concealed the loss from him by replacing the prints with blank sheets. Hence, the “invisible” collection–one that exists only in the old man’s memory. The story reaches a climax when the grandson of an art dealer who had previously sold him engravings came to visit him, with the intent to buy them back.
The story of the invisible collection is an allegory of the values of human life. The moral and spiritual values that are most important to us have been and are being eroded, by the incessant demands of our material lives, by our own lack of courage, integrity and discernment, by the vain opinions and influences of the fallen powers around us, little by little, day by day, such that our values eventually become either completely invisible, or fossilized like fly in ember, no longer possessing vitality and energy of life, but only retaining abstract and lifeless forms, of interest to none but few academics.