Stefan Zweig – yesterday’s man

Stefan Zweig – yesterday’s man

STODDARD MARTIN reviews a life of the aesthete and belletrist

Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig

Oliver Matuschek (2006), tr. Allan Blunden, Pushkin, £20

The fall of Hapsburg civilization was a catastrophe for some; for others it was cause for rejoicing. The ways of life emanating out of Vienna had for some time seemed to belong to no Leitkultur. A German-speaking majority felt insecure in a federal state where half the official dicta were in Magyar, much religion in Latin, musical culture in Italian and literary in French, service in a ragout of Slavic dialects and mercantilism in Yiddish or – by the turn of the 20th century – makeshift English. A sense of mélange adultère de tout was abroad, to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase re Europe immediately post World War I[i], in which Vienna was the great loser. A capital city grown so multi-kulti was in the end loved mainly by a precious few whose privilege diminished as its territories split off and raison d’être vanished. The many would shrug and carry on in the semi-depressive state they had always served in, half-unnoticed by narcissistic masters, surviving on trickle-down. In a vertiginous epoch of change they had at least the catharsis of schadenfreude in watching their ‘betters’ brought low.

Stefan Zweig’s career spanned this epoch, and its progress affected his subjects. His mature books on Joseph Fouché (1929) and Marie Antoinette (1932) were in effect studies of further types of calamity about to descend on an order he had been born into. His historical dramas Jeremias (1918) and Das Lamm des Armen (1930) were successes in part because bourgeois audiences saw in them analogues for their deteriorating situation. Yet the received notion that Zweig and kind wished their late Hapsburg delights to continue unmolested may be soft thinking, at least at the outset. Wöllust, a term comprising what the French called ‘volupté’, allied to what Mrs Thatcher used to brand ‘wet’, marked the youth of many like Zweig[ii]; but war altered much, and his fevered work on masculinist icons such as Balzac, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Casanova – to say nothing of Bonaparte’s police chief – suggest unease with an identity as kuchen-und-sahne Baudelaire. Like Emil Ludwig’s contemporary Napoleon or Leon Feuchtwanger’s Jude Süss, Zweig’s Baumeister der Welt series was, despite liberal professions, read as avidly by journeyman Nazis as by carpet-slippered aesthetes[iii]; and his vast productivity, not least in creating this pantheon, may (in a nod to his revered Freud[iv], another target of biographical essay), suggest displacement activity mixed with wish-fulfilment.

Zweig’s own biography turned out more eventful than initially promised. Second son of a wealthy Moravian Jewish mill-owning family with Italian banking connections, he cut his teeth in the Vienna of Johann Strauss waltzes and haut bourgeois networking. Teenage was spent in the milieu of Schnitzler and Schönberg, Schiele and Secessionist renegades. This was the era of anti-Semitic, pan-Germanist Mayor Karl Lüger, whose speeches inspired another young Austrian of provincial extraction pursuing not dissimilar aesthetic dreams on meaner streets; and beside unknowns like Hitler, ‘self-hating Jews’ such as Otto Weininger and Karl Kraus were part of the scene, along with those who sought to evade populist noise and get on, such as Gustav Mahler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Young Zweig hero-worshipped, stood at theatre doors to collect autographs, ran after celebrity, left family affairs to his brother and enjoyed the light Don Juan-ism of a jeunesse dorée. He translated francophone poets – Verlaine, Émile Verhaeren – solicited manuscripts from the famous and set about acquiring those of the great dead. Imitation begat style, inauthentic yet conscientiously à la mode. The life choice de jour was to be an artist, literary above all; he pursued it with a Rastignac’s concentration[v] until his name became known.

Whatever Zweig’s true north as sexual being – and much has been speculated[vi] – he wrote semi-erotic novellas and became embroiled by age thirty with a married woman, herself an aspirant author. Professing complaisance about his touted liaison with a shop-girl in Paris and less specific adventures in bosky Schönbrunn, she separated from her husband and pursued Zweig with zest. Zweig married her suddenly towards the end of the war, acquiring two spoiled stepdaughters as well as a ‘top bunny’[vii] to establish a writer’s Asyl [viii] in a château on a hill over Salzburg. The choice was prescient. With the calm that descended over Europe in the mid-20s, a beau monde arrived to parade itself at the newly-established music festival. Protected by his wife, Zweig became a virtual writing factory and used proceeds to collect ever more compulsively, accumulating one of the most remarkable caches of manuscripts in Europe – eventually he bid for a speech of Hitler’s and the original of ‘Deutschland über alles’ – as well as Beethoven’s violin and ink-pot. His rooms were ordered to perfection, every book he could want near to hand, shelved from floor to ceiling. Yet continually he fled – to Paris, Belgium, north Germany, the Soviet Union and further afield.

Ostensibly this was to avoid festival crowds or fulfil invitations to launch books, read, lecture, speak at congresses, rehearse plays or research new topics. Emotionally, however, obscure restlessness drove him – the Nietzschean ‘wanderer and his shadow’ or, one might guess, the formerly contented bachelor bibliophile who marries an apparently affectionate housekeeper only to find her morphing into a monster who makes his life hell – the scenario of the novel Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé) by young Elias Canetti, which Zweig helped to get published. Zweig’s domestic idyll, in short, may have been something other; yet who really knows what goes on behind the closed doors of a marriage? What is indisputable is that once the 1930s had begun to impel Jews, liberals, pacifists and others to take stock and then flight, Zweig was quick to liquidate his paradise, sell as much of his collection as he could and get out, first to Switzerland, then to England, where he proposed to settle, leaving wife and stepdaughters behind. Eventually – to her dismay, even denial[ix] – he divorced her and, as the receding skies of the continent grew darker, applied for a British passport.

The BBC, imagining its nation honoured, set up an interview with ‘Dr Zweig’ only to have him explain that he had moved to London because the libraries were good, there was plentiful music and you could work because no one bothered you.[x] Hardly a ringing endorsement of the land and its beauties, its culture or lively inspirations… England proved a refuge tout court, and how could it have been more after the mountains of Salzburg and a Viennese lad’s lifelong pursuit of versions of Parisian vie bohème? In this exile, Zweig acquired a young secretary, also Jewish, refugee from Silesia. Once his divorce was final, he married her and they bought a house, in Bath. It was grey. Then the war came in earnest, and they were restricted: put on an aliens list. It was not long before the old restlessness impelled Zweig to move on, this time to New York, just as important for a writer’s career and reputation as London, maybe more so, though no more paradisal. He could not settle there, nor upstate by the Hudson; evidence suggests that his health – he was now in his 60th year – broke down under the effort. So he ended by retreat or advance to the most exotic and colourful locale he had encountered during years of a literary lionized peripeteia: Brazil.

Here was paradise. It had the best coffee on Earth, but… where were the cafés, the artists, literati, musicians, feuilletonistes, politicos – that ‘world of yesterday’ he had thrived in, the grand monde he had known? In a green and warm suburb amid gorgeous hills above Rio, he finished his memoir, labouring as Nietzsche had said the superman must ‘at the edge of exhaustion’. ‘Give me only books that are written in blood because blood turns to spirit!’ Zarathustra had cried[xi]. Zweig’s memoir was one, and he must have known it. In a real sense it was the work he had lived to write. So, mission accomplished and affairs put in order, he overdosed himself – his young wife too, it seems, though when a servant entered the bedroom to discover the bodies, hers was still warm.

Zweig wrote letters implying that the reason for his end was political – the horrors abroad in his vanishing world. Others have found this a serviceable explanation and place him near the head of a list of writers driven to take their lives directly or contingently by Nazis. Such a list might include Zweig’s friends Ernst Toller, Josef Roth and Irwin Rieger, whose ambiguous death preceded his by a brief spell. It would surely include Auschwitz survivors Jean Améry and Primo Levi[xii], as well as other Jews whose careers were turned upside down by events – Romain Gary comes to mind; at a further stretch, Arthur Koestler, who shares with Zweig complicity in the simultaneous snuffing of a younger, suggestible consort. Suicide solo is ghoulish enough; à deux it raises worse spectres. Hitler and his younger wife took their own lives too, but which one took whose, and in what sequence and under what coercion? Such macabre questions may seem in bad taste, but in the case of a writer with a moral agenda – as Zweig decidedly had by his dramatic end[xiii] – they require exploration.

Oliver Matuschek’s biography does not take the hunt far. An archivist and documentary film-maker, this youngish man musters sources and facts but has neither the maturity nor the imagination to take the kind of speculative leaps that Zweig-as-biographer rarely shied from. He gets something of the “lebenskurve” which his subject always sought in his subjects but fails to show how the “innere Seele lodert und glüht[xiv]. He tells us that Thomas Mann suspected a sexual kink had resurfaced in Zweig which he could not face[xv]. This semi ‘death in Venice’ scenario may invite ideas of a Zweig inspiration for Mann’s famous novella, written years before, at the time of Mahler’s death[xvi], but its non-specificity leads the biographer only to muse on unsubstantiated rumours of Zweig being a serial exhibitionist[xvii]. The most credible explanation for suicide may be a feeling of exhaustion of powers and/or sense that the best words had been written and more could only mean less – something like what drove Hemingway to a similar act at the same age nearly two decades on.

This is to ponder. For others it will be the issues and tendencies in the man’s work that most matter[xviii]. So: what of them? The Wöllust and self-indulgence of the early phase, passing through the crucible of World War I (in which Zweig served as propagandist), became harder, more spare and clear in the ‘20s[xix], a shift not unlike that of bestselling, near contemporary D’Annunzio from overblown aestheticism in Il Fuoco to laconic soldier’s eye-view in Notturno[xx]. Another comparison might be to the transit of Somerset Maugham from Of Human Bondage via war experience as a spy[xxi], reflected in the Ashenden tales, to the bestselling Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale. Zweig shared with Maugham ease of access into the imagination of the middle-brow. His fictions can be marvellously finished and on inspection fall prey to charges of manipulation and sentimentality – the war-traumatized amnesiac of ‘Episode an Genfer See’ or the blind collector in ‘Die unsichtbare Sammlung’ are examples. The ‘moral’ behind such constructs is Dickensian in emphasis on charity; it shares with Remarque, Rolland and Hesse[xxii] a modish ‘20s turn to pacifism.

In texture Zweig’s style is ever self-conscious, whether ornamental or spare. The biographical work which increasingly absorbed his energies became strikingly rhetorical, as if anticipating or mimicking great flings of speechmaking by a Mussolini or Hitler, yet always in housebroken mode, as if uttered as lectures out of the pit of a darkened cinema where silent films are simultaneously being unreeled. Coffee was Zweig’s tipple and Balzac his pace-setter. His narratives have a velocity evoking the ‘young man in a hurry’ which another bestselling contemporary, Jack London, depicts in his writer-hero Martin Eden, also a suicide[xxiii]. Zweig entitled his sole novel Ungeduld des Herzens[xxiv] and remained faithful, one could say, to the Decadent creed of ‘burn with a hard, gem-like flame’. If describing his achievement in terms of so many potencies seems pretentious, it is unlikely that he would have objected. A Valhalla of genius is where he longed to dwell, as you might guess of a fetishist of handwriting who pored over pages of Goethe or Mozart or even hapless Mary Stuart before sitting down to purple ink and featherweight paper at Beethoven’s writing desk.

Zweig’s Drang nach Grandeur, noticeable also in book layouts and bindings, lured his language into what many saw as rhapsodic, exaggeré, showily seasoned with foreign or exotic locutions; and when Rosenberg’s Kulturbund für deutsche Kultur got a grip in the mid-‘30s, it was branded ‘un-German’[xxv]. Fifteen of Zweig’s books were banned by the Deutsche Buchverein in the autumn following Hitler’s access to power. Too popular for suppression (50,000 copies of Marie Antoinette had sold the previous Christmas), they were restored to circulation in 1934, only to be banned again throughout Germany after the Dresden première of Richard Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau in 1935. This opera, marking Zweig’s début in succession to Hofmannsthal as librettist to the greatest living German composer, caused a crisis in the Nazi arts establishment. Under normal circumstances, Hitler would have travelled anywhere to attend a new work by Strauss, but – with text by a Jew?[xxvi] Excuses were made; events held the Führer in Berlin; the performance was a triumph but after two more, it was banned and Strauss obliged to step down as President of the Reichsmusikkammer.

To Zweig this débâcle was cognate with police turning up at his house in search for weapons meant to be hidden on behalf of a socialist terrorist group. None were there, of course; the true terror was at the door. Of similar kind were the swindles and half-swindles and chiselling attendant on sale of his collections, and pusillanimity by publishers in continuing to market his work[xxvii]. Zweig was too prescient not to have foreseen this dénouement and was already gone before the worst came. Transposition, however, was never sufficiently more than in body. As his swansong and elegiac masterwork Die Welt von Gestern shows, there was – beyond memory and the covers of fine books – no elsewhere to hold him, not finally, not fully, certainly not in the kind of voluptuous embrace he had enjoyed during the long adagio of crépuscule over disintegrating Hapsburg domains.

Dr STODDARD MARTIN is a journalist and the author of numerous books on 19th century thought, and a regular contributor to the Quarterly Review


[i] A poem of this title appears in the pre-Wasteland Poems 1920, some of which are (notoriously) anti-Semitic

[ii] Zweig uses the term to describe the ‘Art Infektionsphänomen’, ‘Theatremanie’ and ‘absurd Enthusiasmus’ he felt as a young man. Die Welt von Gestern (1941), Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1944, pp. 27, 45, etc.

[iii] Zweig suggests that his Fouché may have encouraged Goebbels and Goering (Ibid., 342)

[iv] He put Freud beside Mesmer and Mary Baker Eddy in Die Heilung durch den Geist (1930). This annoyed the doctor, but in thanking Zweig for a copy he merely said, “I could object that you overemphasise the element of petit-bourgeois rectitude in me – the fellow is a little more complicated than that!” (Three Lives, 248)

[v] Balzac’s hero. Zweig’s essay in the Baumeister der Welt series ascribes Balzac’s genius to an immense power of will manifesting itself in tireless concentration on his subjects and his work

[vi] Zweig’s brother thought him ‘a stranger to passionate love, merely observing it in others’; Fontana called him a ‘detached voyeur’. Zweig boasted to his future wife that only adventures with risk appealed to him; during their courtship he wrote in his diary, ‘the cards of perversion [were] put ever more openly on the table’. Later he mused, “I must make sure that it doesn’t become all about sex… sexual passion frightens me”. After his death, she would claim that he had been “no Don Juan” (Three Lives, 77, 82, 117, 121, 258)

[vii] Her prideful description of herself. (Ibid., p. 147)

[viii] There may have been a mutual fantasy that she should play Cosima to his Wagner

[ix] There were ‘fierce and protracted arguments’; she ‘refused to accept that their life together was over’. Zweig let her keep his name, and after his death she ‘tried to cover that [he] had remarried’. (Ibid., 13, 306)

[x] A transcript is in Three Lives (303-5). On his first trip to London in 1906 Zweig, coming from Paris, compared the change to “stepping out of the bright summer sunshine into the cool shade” (Ibid., 75)

[xi] Also Sprach Zarathustra, I, vii. My translation

[xii] I discussed this in ‘Jean Améry and multiple identities’. Quarterly Review, Winter 2011-12

[xiii] By the ‘20s his politics were pacifist, socialist and pan-European, these shared with friends such as Romain Rolland, whose later Stalinism he did not go along with. He became a member of German PEN in exile but at an international congress in 1936 found its ‘carnival of vanities quite repulsive’ (Three Lives, 298). He disliked Zionism, believing Jews had a key role in creating an international order. Subtitling his memoir Errinerungen eines Europäers, he states that for forty years he had worked for a free European Union and what did war or his own death matter if this should still come to be? (Welt von Gestern, 394-5)

[xiv] Zweig sets down these principles in his Einleitung to Mary Stuart (1935)

[xv] Mann floats this in a letter to his patron Agnes Meyer. (Three Lives, 288)

[xvi]Zweig had written ‘Gustav Mahler’s Wiederkehr’ on return from America in a ship that brought the ailing composer home to die. Mann absorbed the ‘dramatic pathos’ of this essay and wrote his novella shortly after. Though Mahler did not die in Venice (as Wagner did), Visconti’s film (1971) links Mann’s inspiration to him

[xvii] Three Lives, 285-8

[xviii] A fine, scholarly account of them is offered by Rüdiger Görner, head of the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary’s College, University of London. His Stefan Zweig: Formen einer Sprachkunst (Wein: Sonderzahl, 2012), unfortunately not yet available in English, reviews in succinct chapters Zweig’s attributes as poet, tale-teller, travel writer, dramatist, librettist, essayist, memoirist, political and aesthetic thinker. Görner emphasizes the pan-European, internationalist and pacifist ardours of this great cosmopolitan – the Erasmus impulse, if you will. At the same time he is not shy about pinpointing that fascination with the demonic which makes for such compulsive reading in Zweig’s treatment of figures like Nietszche and Dostoyevsky. Görner reminds us that, like Balzac, Zweig put enormous value on a kind of fanatic concentration, with its dramatic concomitant of zeroing in on what he called ‘sternstunden’ – the ‘star hours’ of human and individual history: cataracts, moments of fatal turning. Görner’s portrait is of an obsessive in the great sense, a late or post-Romantic type of genius – driven, idealistic, Angst-filled and finally tragic. Through his eyes, Zweig becomes what he inevitably must seem in the ‘Nerven’ of that sensitive reader with whom he wished to set up ‘Dialog’: a kind of emissary of the spirit; a voice urging as if from within, like Nietzsche’s ‘shadow’ or Kierkegaard’s conscience, impelling one on dangerously, eyes opened, looking backwards or forward through error towards what in civilization and/or personal experience has been or may be for the Good – a condition which, finally, can hardly be defined otherwise than by its fraternal Platonic attributes: Beauty and Truth

[xix] “After the war I told myself everything must be vehement, intense, hard-hitting” (Three Lives, 230)

[xx] I discussed this in ‘Hemingway and D’Annunzio’. Quarterly Review, Summer 2011

[xxi] Was Zweig a spy? He met future Weimar Foreign Secretary Walther Rathenau in Berlin in 1907 at a journeyman stage in his career. Rathenau suggested he go to India and America to view the Anglo-Saxon “colonial” system from the inside. He was given letters of introduction by Baron von Münchhausen and teamed with a journalist to play Hobhouse to his Byron. He was encouraged to send cards and photographs back to “important friends” and able to place every article he wrote in leading journals. In India he communed with geographer Karl Haushofer, seconded there by the military and inceptor of the Lebensraum theory later beloved of the Nazis. Zweig’s first wife, who would supervise his practical affairs, had been daughter-in-law to a high official in the Austrian foreign service, to whom she remained close. Zweig’s work for the imperial ‘hero factory’ in World War I morphed at the war’s end into lecturing abroad for the rump state. This helped raise his profile and by the ‘20s it was clear that the powers-that-be in Central Europe found him useful to promote worldwide. Kosher to a variety of régimes, he found his last phase marred by a rumour that the Brazilian government had subsidized him to write a book about the country in order to lure him to live and work there

[xxii] The latter two were friends and mentors to Zweig in pacifist and pan-European politics (see xii above).

[xxiii] London’s eponymous novel, by some considered his finest, was published in 1909. In an apprentice phase, Zweig had written a novella with similar plot; it was never published. (Three Lives, 42)

[xxiv] Impatience of the Heart, released in English under the bizarre title Beware of Pity

[xxv] An article in 1930 accused him of “crimes against the German language”. This was not just anti-Jewish; Kraus had made a similar attack earlier, and Hofmannsthal had always viewed Zweig as “sixth-rate”. Of his biographical work it was said that “he was always a storyteller first, not a historian”, yet an early review of his stories by his friend Hesse damned him in that genre with faint praise: “He has a singularly amiable personality… which is worth more than all the technique in the world”. (Three Lives, 65, 73, 261)

[xxvi] Hofmannsthal was partly Jewish, but Der Rosenkavalier had been in the repertoire for so long and was so popular that the Nazis did not dare ban it. See Erik Levi, Music in the Third Reich (Macmillan, 1994)

[xxvii] Pusillanimity was not always on one side. In 1933 Zweig agreed to write for Klaus Mann’s exile journal Die Sammlung, but pulled out once he realized it would make sale of his books in Germany more difficult

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2 Responses to Stefan Zweig – yesterday’s man

  1. Susanne Hassall says:

    Can anyone confirm that there is a renewed interest in Zweig in this country ?
    Are the Pushkin Press publications the only evidence for this ?
    Could there possibly be a link to a ‘ rethink’ in this euro sceptic England ?
    I am grateful for any answers
    MA student of Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary London

  2. Derek Turner says:

    Hello, Susanne, and thanks for your message. I am not an expert on Zweig, although I am an admirer of his work, and will in fact shortly be reviewing his “World of yesterday” on this site. So I think the best thing to do is to forward your query to Stoddard Martin, who probably keeps more abreast of Zweigiana than most. If you care to send an e-mail to me at editor@quarterly-review.org I can forward your enquiry directly and/or any response. Regards, DT

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