February 2012

Guy Cunningham


Three Lives: The Rise, the Fall, and the Attempted Rise of Stefan Zweig

Most literary revivals fail. Some don't -- sometimes Edmund Wilson edits a few posthumous volumes of F. Scott Fitzgerald's work and succeeds in saving the author of The Great Gatsby from oblivion. But most "lost" writers stay that way, despite the efforts of the editors, publishers, and critics who try and reintroduce them. Stefan Zweig is not quite obscure in the English-speaking world -- several of his books remain in print and he still attracts high-profile fans like Joan Acocella, Clive James, and the late John Geilguld -- but he seems forever perched on the cusp of a revival that never quite comes.

The latest attempt to return Zweig to prominence comes in the form of a new English translation of Oliver Matuschek's Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig. Taking his cue from a discarded title to Zweig's memoir, The World of Yesterday, Matuschek divides Zweig's life into three distinct parts: his early life and apprentice years as a writer, his rise to fame after the First World War, and his exile from his native Austria and eventual suicide after the rise of the Nazis. Though a bit dry -- Matuschek often chooses thoroughness over fluid storytelling -- Three Lives offers a pretty comprehensive overview of Zweig's career.

Though he published his first novella in 1902, his popularity really took off following the end of World War I. His anti-war play Jerimias (also known as Jeremiah), which Zweig considered his "first true literary work," premiered in Zurich in 1918, meeting widespread critical success. In the decade that followed, novellas such as Amok and Fear further cemented his popularity with readers; he also published popular biographical works on figures ranging from Charles Dickens to Friedrich Nietzsche. By then end of the 1920s, Zweig was one of the most widely translated authors in the world, with a massive public following. As Matuschek explains, "Writing came easily for him, and the sales figures for his books often broke all records within a week of their publication." Even Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud counted themselves as fans.

Zweig's appeal lay both in his accessibility -- his books are very straightforward, devoid of the experimentation that characterized his modernist contemporaries -- and in his emphasis on the psychological roots of his characters' actions. In certain respects, he was also a very brave writer, willing to deal with unsympathetic characters and unpleasant subjects. This is particularly evident in his most significant work, the novel Beware of Pity. The book follows the early career of an Austrian-Hungarian cavalry officer named Hofmiller, and his relationship with a young disabled woman, Edith Kekesfalva. At first unaware of Edith's disability, Hofmiller commits a "gaffe" and asks her to dance at a party. Out of guilt, he visits her to make amends; moved by pity for her condition, he begins to make regular visits to the Kekesfalva house. Eventually, the girl falls in love with him, and Hofmiller proposes, almost by accident. When his fellow soldiers react negatively, though, he publicly denies the engagement. When word of the denial reaches Edith, she kills herself in despair.

Very few writers would make a book about the evils of pity, and the novel's central insight that "it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in the world" is both nuanced and disconcerting. More interestingly, Zweig risks making Edith herself very unlikable. She becomes angry easily; she expects all things to revolve around her and her whims; she treats her father and her cousin Ilona as servants, always demanding that they do whatever she wants them to do. And while she claims she doesn't want Hofmiller's pity, she has no qualms about using it against him: "Remember, you who have taken pity on me as no one else has, remember how horribly helpless I am, chained to my chair, unable to take a single step by myself, powerless to follow you, to rush after you. Remember that I am a prisoner who has to wait in my prison, to wait always in impatient patience, until you come and bestow an hour of your time upon me..."

She both resents his pity and relies on it. Few writers could pull this off as well as Zweig does.

That said, many critics have found serious problems in his work. His contemporary Thomas Mann considered Zweig's writing "mediocre," and many key German literary figures, including Zweig's close friend Joseph Roth, agreed. In recent years, the poet Michael Hofmann has led the charge against him, declaring in the London Review of Books, "Stefan Zweig just tastes fake." Then, as now, Zweig's detractors have pointed to his penchant for falling back on eager-to-please melodrama. As Hofmann sees it, much of Zweig's writing reads as "a sort of sentimental and half-deluded, half-diplomatic twaddle." Even Zweig himself realized he often over-wrote, admitting, "I know that in Amok, especially, the writing is somewhat overheated." But the problem goes deeper than one of mere style. And exploring the roots of Zweig's melodramatic excesses reveals exactly why his audience remains stubbornly limited today.

Though Beware of Pity is mostly concerned with creating a psychological portrait of its narrator protagonist, Hofmiller, its plot turns on issues of class and prejudice. In fact, the book's key event is triggered not by pity but by class anxiety. Hofmiller denies his engagement to Edith because he fears his fellow officers will shun him. And when he hurriedly tells them the rumor isn't true, they prove him right by exclaiming, "It would have disgraced you and all of us, disgraced the whole regiment." There is (more than) a hint of anti-Semitism behind their attitude, because Edith's father, who they dismiss as "that money-lender," is Jewish, though they are also repulsed by her physical infirmities. Hofmiller fails to stand up his fellow officers because he feels duty-bound to respect the mores of his class -- his status in the military forms the whole of his social identity. To a contemporary reader, though, the class pressures Hofmiller feels are inaccessible -- because the text merely asserts their presence without really exploring how they fit into Hofmiller's everyday life. As a result, when Hofmiller says, "I knew that if I admitted the charge there would be an outbreak of whistling, joking, jeering, mocking and ironical congratulations. No, I could not admit it. Impossible in the presence of these hilarious mockers," he sounds a bit like a fretful high school student afraid of being made fun of at the lunch table -- not an adult man worried he is about to throw away his career.

One doesn't get the sense that Zweig, Jewish himself, is unwilling to condemn anti-Semitism or explore issues of social class; he simply has a more modest goal for the novel. Beware of Pity is, ultimately, a very narrow book, concerned with making one observation about human behavior (pity can be destructive) and nothing more. Zweig's apparent melodrama is a side effect of this narrowness. In his Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W.H. Auden distinguishes major writers from minor ones thus: "The minor artist, who can be idiosyncratic, keeps to one thing, does it well, and keeps on doing it... The minor writer never risks failure. When he discovers his particular style and vision, his artistic history is over." To really endure, a writer must be both capable of creating a self-contained world and confident enough to attempt it. Zweig lacks that confidence, and relies on his audience to fill in the "gaps" in his work -- in this case, he forces them to figure out the social pressures that push Hofmiller to act how he does. As society changes, those pressures become less obvious, and it becomes harder for audiences to "add" them to the novel on Zweig's behalf. So the source of his initial popularity -- his accessibility -- fades and his audience stays small.

However, even a minor writer can be worth reading. One could even call Zweig a great minor writer, in the sense that he excels in his own narrow domain. My favorite of his works, Chess Story (also called The Royal Game), in particular is a genuinely compelling read -- a nightmare come to life. The novella introduces us to Dr. B, one-time associate of the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial family. After the Nazi annexation of Austria, Dr. B is taken into custody by the Gestapo and held in solitary confinement in a converted hotel, in an effort to force him to reveal where certain imperial monies have been hidden. Zweig's depiction of Dr. B's eventual slide into madness is both plausible and moving: "you lived like a diver in the diving bell in the black sea of this silence, for that matter like a diver who has guessed that the cable to the outside world has snapped and that he will never be hauled out of the silent deep." Though the Gestapo intends to leave Dr. B in total isolation, he steals a chess guide from one of them. The book is made up of charts depicting important chess matches, and to keep sane, Dr. B memorizes them. Desperate to keep his mind occupied he begins to "play" new matches against himself; the process of dividing his consciousness this way -- of pretending to be two separate players, "unaware" of each other's strategies -- leads him to suffer a complete breakdown. When his insanity makes it impossible for the Gestapo to interrogate him, they let him go. But he carries that hotel room with him. Later, as a free man, he tries to play a game of chess -- and it brings the entire experience back, in a haunting climax reminiscent of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Of course, like all of Zweig's works, Chess Story reads more powerfully in context. Zweig himself fled the German-speaking world in the mid-thirties, in the face of Nazi harassment (he was eventually stripped of his German citizenship in 1940). Settling first in London, than the United States, and finally in Latin America, Zweig never quite adjusted to life in exile. His friend Klaus Mann later recalled seeing a disoriented Zweig on the streets of New York, stony-faced and unshaven, with a bearing "like a sleepwalker." Zweig himself later admitted to experiencing a "breakdown" around that time. A lifelong pacifist, he feared that the cosmopolitan, intellectual culture he championed his whole career would never return. As Matuschek explains, "Zweig... didn't think he would be able to start a new life even if Hitler were to be defeated." He grew increasingly depressed as the war went on, cutting ties to many of his friends and losing his interest in collecting rare books and manuscripts (a lifelong passion). In 1942, he and his second wife, Lotte, committed suicide in their home at Petrópolis, Brazil, almost immediately after sending the manuscript for Chess Story to his publisher. The book appeared in print a short time later, the first of many efforts to reintroduce Stefan Zweig to the reading public.