STEFAN ZWEIG: THE SECRET SUPERSTAR

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Stefan Zweig is a writer readers either love or barely know. As fresh work is published, Julie Kavanagh pinpoints his appeal ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009

Leaving the apartment of her young lover, the wife of a wealthy lawyer is seized by a sudden sense of foreboding. At the bottom of the stairs a woman is waiting, a woman who will stalk, blackmail and intimidate her into a state of suicidal despair. “Fear”, a 1920 novella which charts every fluctuation of its heroine’s inner turmoil and ends with an ingenious twist, is typical of Stefan Zweig’s fiction, which intently examines a single obsession in a narrow social milieu. Whether enacting the delirium of a compulsive gambler or the even more dangerous game of sexual grooming, the narrative has a propulsive force that’s impossible to resist—the cerebral equivalent of being plunged into a vortex of derangement by an Atlantic roller. 

Like many Zweig admirers I first encountered this Austro-Hungarian author (1881-1942) through his novel “Beware of Pity”. His work was out of print in Britain, but I was lent a tatty American paperback by John Gielgud, whose partner was Hungarian and mad about Zweig. An unremittingly tense parable about emotional blackmail, this is a book, like Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier”, which turns every reader into a fanatic. (As I write, the friend of a friend is rationing himself to a page a day because he can’t bear to reach the end.) The fan club has some high-profile members, including the authors Flora Fraser and Antony Beevor, the actor Colin Firth and the singer Neil Tennant. Firth says he experienced “the thrill of feeling you have this forgotten masterpiece in your hand that no one else has discovered. I was riveted by it—the way the strange pathology of the story takes the lid off what might just look like romantic love.”
Zweig’s readability—one blogger calls it “moreishness”—made him one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century all over the world, with translations into 30 languages. His lives of Mary Stuart and Marie Antoinette were international bestsellers, and there were English editions of his poems, travel books, translations and studies of authors including Balzac, Dickens, Stendhal and Tolstoy. In France, where he still has a large, avid circle of readers, there are Livre de Poche editions of all the major works, but in Britain, apart from a small flurry of reprints around his centenary in 1981, Zweig long ago vanished from view.
Since 2000, however, Pushkin Press, which specialises in foreign classics, has been slowly reintroducing him in stylish, palm-size editions, while its American equivalent, New York Review Books, has published three works. The latest of these is “The Post Office Girl”, a posthumous, unnamed and unfinished novel which came out in 1982 in Germany and France with a phrase from the text as its title, “Intoxication of Metamorphosis”. Just out in Britain from Sort of Books, it’s a flawed but fascinating fable about the power of money—“mighty when you have it and even mightier when you don’t”—with obvious topical appeal. It was recently Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime”, and with its promotional tag of “Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde” has strong film potential (there’s even a “Pretty Woman” makeover scene). In March Pushkin are publishing “Compulsion”, a trilogy of stories, which may seem disappointingly minor to the non-fan but has striking biographical interest for the aficionado. Later this year Pushkin will reissue Zweig’s searing memoir “The World of Yesterday”, and their translator, the splendid Anthea Bell, is also at work on an English edition of a rediscovered love story, “Resistance to Reality”. Hailed as “un événement” when it was published in France last winter, it’s one more reason to predict a Zweig resurgence. 
The second son of a millionaire textile manufacturer and a socialite, Stefan Zweig grew up in Vienna’s golden age. He belonged to a liberal Jewish elite which included Mahler, Schoenberg, Max Reinhardt and Arthur Schnitzler. Zweig and Schnitzler have much in common, from their portrayal of neurosis in the novella form (they were friends and disciples of Freud) to their studies of the faux-polymath Casanova. But unlike the aimless, amoral Schnitzler, Zweig was driven by a missionary zeal to make the world a better place. He is “The Incarnation of Humanism” of Clive James’s essay in “Cultural Amnesia”, one of the thinkers and artists who helped to define the 20th century.
As a young aesthete follower of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Zweig published his first book of poems by the age of 19. He then switched allegiance to the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren, a Whitmanesque idealist, but after moving to Paris he made a more enduring guru of the French writer Romain Rolland, who consolidated Zweig’s faith in a united Europe. (He wrote biographies of both.) However, it was Freud—“the exemplar of a young man’s dreams”—who most influenced his writing. Zweig himself acknowledged that his fascination for psychological problems was the source of both his fiction and biographies; and as well as inventing stories that part-resemble Freudian case histories, he often used the device of a frame narrator, a sympathetic ear to whom the protagonist confesses his or her secrets. 
Zweig was in Vienna when the Great War began, but joined Rolland and a group of pacifists and humanists in Switzerland striving for a new order—what he called “intellectual internationalism”. (His ethical arguments for peace are voiced in conversations between a painter and his wife in “Compulsion”, which also expresses the patriotic guilt and isolation casting shadows on the healing landscape of Zweig’s own Swiss refuge.) The deprivations of post-war Vienna disgusted him, and in 1919 he installed himself in a house in Salzburg, and married Frederika von Winternitz, a young writer with two daughters, who had left her husband to be with him. 
The 1920s saw Zweig’s sales and standing soar with a string of classic novellas: “Letter from an Unknown Woman”, “Amok”, “Fear”, “Confusion of Sentiments” and “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman”, a mini-masterpiece about the fever of addiction and of middle-aged infatuation. Taking Maupassant as his model, Zweig gave his stories the substance of full-length novels, often condensing a manuscript of 100,000 words by half to charge the atmosphere further. I can’t think of a writer who is more successful at depicting amour fou—what one critic describes as “sex and madness breaking through the lacquered screen of upper-bourgeois society”—nowhere more grippingly than in “Amok” in which a doctor, a Conradesque loner, is tipped into “a sort of human rabies” by an unattainable colonial wife who comes to him for an abortion. 
In January 1933, as Hitler rose to power, Zweig was working on a collaboration with Richard Strauss, who had appointed him as his librettist after the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. An order had been issued to German theatres not to produce any works in which a Jew had participated, but Hitler, whose esteem for Strauss was enough to dent his anti-Semitism, sanctioned the partnership. “The Silent Woman”, based on Zweig’s translation of Ben Jonson’s play, was staged in Salzburg two years later, but banned after only two performances, along with the rest of his work. Zweig had been harshly criticised at the time for not using his celebrity to take a stand against Nazism, but for all his humanitarianism he had always removed himself from politics, even to the point of not using his vote. When the Nazis searched his Salzburg house Zweig was outraged, seeing it as a violation of the rights he held sacred. In 1934 he left Germany for good, choosing a life for himself in the “civil, courteous, unexcited, hateless atmosphere” of London.
It was here that Zweig wrote “Beware of Pity”. He had left his wife for his secretary, Lotte Altmann, a German Jewish refugee 27 years his junior—which may explain why guilt is portrayed with such heartfelt immediacy in the novel. What shaped this story—that of a paralysed 17-year-old girl who ensnares an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer by appealing to his sense of duty—were Zweig’s weekly meetings with the 83-year-old Freud, also exiled in London. Human compassion has been examined over the centuries by philosophers and psychologists (most recently by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor in “On Kindness”). But only Zweig could have turned an abstract analysis of emotion with symbolic political undertones and autobiographical resonance into a sustained drama. It took genius to make Edith, the object of pity, extremely unendearing—a spoilt, self-dramatising, manipulative hysteric. In her introduction to the American edition, Joan Acocella expresses wonder at the originality of the scenes between the maimed, sexually aroused girl and her unwilling cavalier, torn between pity and recoil. “The great psychologists of love (Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Turgenev) never went further than this.”
Having persuaded Frederika to give him a divorce, Zweig was living in Bath and about to make Lotte his second wife when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. To him, this was the end: “Europe is finished, our world destroyed.” The couple married a week later, and took British citizenship, but the fall of France brought peril even closer, and in July 1940 the Zweigs sailed for the United States, abandoning everything, even vital notes for future books. In hotels and rented houses in and around New York, Zweig wrote his autobiography “The World of Yesterday”—yesterday being the “world of security” represented by the Austro-Hungary of his childhood, on which he could not give up.
Exile was agony to Zweig—“no longer a thing of choice but a flight from the hounds”—and hoping to regain peace of mind in a place he loved, he and Lotte sailed to Brazil, which he had discovered on a lecture tour. The voyage inspired a brilliant story about monomania, “The Royal Game”, and once settled in a house at Petrópolis, Zweig resumed a decade-long project, his biography of Balzac. But even productivity could not assuage his sense of irreversible catastrophe. Manuscripts of “The World of Yesterday” and “The Royal Game”, typed by his wife, were sent with a last letter to his New York publisher and then, on February 23rd 1942, he and Lotte took massive doses of veronal, and were found dead in bed, lying hand-in-hand.

 

Picture credit: Atrium Press

(Julie Kavanagh is the biographer of Rudolf Nureyev and a former London editor of the New Yorker. Her last article for Intelligent Life was about Richard Avedon.)