The “Flying Salzburger”
Stoddard Martin considers the enigma that was Zweig
Among German-language authors of the first half of the 20th century Stefan Zweig is now being re-positioned near the top. Some contemporaries saw him as in ‘the first rank of the second rate’, to use Somerset Maugham’s self-deprecation; Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whom Zweig briefly succeeded as Richard Strauss’ librettist, put him several rungs beneath that.[i] In the moments of depression which darkened his later years Zweig may have seen truth as well as envy in such relegation. He was lucky however to have huge numbers of admirers, a public which bought his books in the hundreds of thousands, fellow humanists who shared his ideal of a finer pan-European order and above all an adoring young second wife, who followed him in a restless search for a final resting-place and finally joined him in suicide there.
From a literary point of view Zweig belonged to the last great era before writing was overtaken by other media as a principal means of telling stories and promulgating ideas. From a political point of view he belonged to a last gilded age before world war disfigured Europe. Child of privileged Jews in fin-de-siècle Vienna, he was one of its most famous sons by 1920 when with a fellow-writing first wife he decamped for a hill over Salzburg. There he busied himself on the novellas and plays such as he had churned out since his early twenties. He worked indefatigably, travelled peripatetically and cheated on his wife shallowly. In a life devoted to the written word, he was a manic collector as well as a producer. He gave public readings and lectures about culture far beyond his imploding Germano-phone sphere. And as his fame spread, his tendency deepened to explore of acts of danger, daring and will.
He wrote mini-biographies of great men – Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche – building them into the popular Baumeister der Welt series, based not so much on research as on analysis. He sought to discover what he called the lebenskurve and in effect to create literary-historical equivalents to the psychological case-studies being written by his friend and fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud, a reluctant inclusion among his subjects. Analysis of great men morphed into pinpointing crucial moments, the Sternstunden as Zweig called them, on which history pivots. High-risk explorations, visionary inventions, inspiration via mass emotions, creativity against physical odds, vain leaps after fortune, persistence in the face of defeat… Zweig zeroed in on the obstacles he saw men as having to face if mankind as a whole were to move forward: Balboa in sighting the Pacific, Scott in the Antarctic, Lenin in Petrograd.
One can hardly read of these heroic cruxes, all in the present tense, and not feel Zweig’s febrile excitement. He was a man in a hurry in an age which had an appointment with destiny. His vignettes, full of hope of beating the odds, were also haunted ever by spectres of downfall. Rouget de Lisle composing ‘The Marseillaise’, Grouchy’s lack of initiative at Waterloo – Zweig had vast interest in upheavals of the previous century and naturally sensed that in a few years’ time some of his readers might be burning his books. Anxiety stalked, but he did not let it impede the drive of his prose or choice of his topics, which belonged to the frightening Zeitgeist. Like Freud, this child of Austro-Hungary reviled Woodrow Wilson for ‘the failure of Versailles’. He grew as ardent in promoting pacifism and European union as malign contemporaries were in inciting war and race hatred. Hitler was a contemporary compatriot. Goebbels and Rosenberg read his books. Suicide with younger wives would happen in the Berlin bunker too. Victim and victimizer came from contiguous milieux.
In fiction Zweig specialized in the long story and wrote only one novel. Like his Sternstunden, his collected tales have recently been made available in English by the elegant Pushkin Press. Cloth-bound and printed on good paper, with decorative colophons to demarcate the text, these books are objects that the bibliophile Zweig might have approved. And the tales match their covers in quiet smartness, with a variety of styles and subjects including something to seduce a life-savvy aunt as well as wide-eyed boys. Like Maugham, Zweig had a knack for narration and a feel for human nature; yet unlike that often spiteful ironist, he had a suffering soul. Hard hearts may accuse him of sentimentality, but few now will be able to read ‘In the Snow’ – a Jack London-like tableau of the population of a ghetto freezing to death when fleeing pogrom – without appreciating the prescience of this carpet-slippered son of Vienna to the catastrophe others of his kind were shortly to undergo.
By the mid-1930s Zweig was in full flight from the arrival of the mad expressionism of National Socialism, with which his overwrought style and enthusiasms had aspects in common. In a book recently published about his last years, George Prochnik does not flinch from recognizing such ironies. The Impossible Exile shows Zweig as a figure in whom the disease of the age was ever apparent, and never more so than at his end. Where in a world beset by furies could an individual of devout European culture turn? London took him, for a time; he retreated to Bath, tried to idealize it but eventually found English sang-froid insipid. New York took him, also for a time; he retreated to a quaint hamlet on a bluff overlooking Sing-Sing but found it a prison. America enjoyed bounty while Europe convulsed in war and its citizens starved. Zweig, rich from both inheritance and book sales, was beleaguered by indigent fellow-refugees wishing introductions, begging cash. On top of it all, where in the U. S. could one find a proper café, that institution so central to Viennese cultured life?
If the detail sounds banal, it is crucial to the tale Prochnik tells. For it is not just Zweig in exile whose plight he analyzes but the condition of flight from Hitler’s Europe altogether, especially for Jews who in a few generations had gained and now were losing the splendeurs et misères of high civilization. Where to go, who to be, what language to write in? One may have been ‘saved’ – that is, to have found shelter in the United States – but what then? The world they knew had vanished. They wandered hither and thither, haunted, bickering with one another, hating while at the same time being obliged to love where they had come to. Zweig’s solution? to penetrate further into new worlds, another land of the future – Brazil. Nature in the hills overlooking Rio was gorgeous, the coffee to die for. And that was it. Fully cut off. Utter deracination. At age sixty, the man was played out. And worse tragedy, whose promptings can never quite be known, is that his young wife should like some Brünnhilde of mythic opera have chosen to cast herself into this personal Götterdämmerung with him.
The finale has caused much speculation: Laurent Seksik published a novel about it in French in 2010, now available in English from Pushkin and as graphic text from Salammbo. The latter makes Zweig’s story accessible for those who are unlikely to read his massive oeuvre or more challenging works proliferating about him[ii]. Whatever the dominant motive for his melodramatic end, the novel musters its probable elements: his exhaustion, his wife’s asthma, the melancholy of exile, horrors engulfing those of his kind left behind, a killing nostalgia, temperamental allergy to the new and a bourgeois mittel-European fragility in face of carne-val masses… The pagan new age birthed no ‘terrible beauty’ for Zweig. It was no ‘country for old men’ in either metaphysical or physical senses. Suicide is a pathetic response, however, and surely no country for a loving young wife. On the basis of the evidence, it is hard not to construe that the great writer was at his exit neither a worthy exemplar nor a responsible husband. But let us be kind. His end, like London’s[iii], was above all a Faustian price to be paid for having poured out popular books of brilliance year after year.
[i] Hofmannsthal called Zweig sixth-rate, as Oliver Matusek reports in his biography Three Lives, which I reviewed in a more extensive essay on Zweig for QR at the beginning of 2013
[ii] Such as Rudiger Görner’s excellent critical study, published by Sonderzahl but not available in English, discussed in an extensive note to the above-mentioned essay
[iii] I have in mind the sudden death of the exhausted Jack London, which many believe to have been by his own hand. The suicide of other played out writers of Zweig’s period and after comes to mind too, those haunted by the Auschwitz spectre such as Primo Levi and others who simply couldn’t face loss of powers such as Ernest Hemingway
Books under review:
Shooting Stars: The Historical Miniatures, trans Anthea Bell (Pushkin, 2013)
The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig trans. Anthea Bell (Pushkin, 2013)
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik (Granta, 2014)
The Last Days of Stefan Zweig, Laurent Seksik with Illustrations by Guillaume Sorel, trans. Joel Anderson, adaptation Kelly Smith (Salammbo, 2014)
Stoddard Martin is an author, publisher and academic.
This article is adapted from material published in the Jewish Chronicle