The pathos of Stefan Zweig and his overdue revival
The careers of Stefan Zweig and Walter Benjamin offer a contrast so perfect as to become almost a parable. The two writers were contemporaries—Benjamin was born in 1892, Zweig in 1881—and both operated in the same German literary ecosystem, though Benjamin was from Berlin and Zweig from Vienna. Both reached their height of productivity and reputation during the Weimar Republic, and as Jews both were forbidden from publishing in Germany once Hitler took power. And both ended darkly as suicides: Benjamin took his life in 1940 while trying to flee from France to Spain, and Zweig died a year and a half later in Brazil, where he sought refuge after unhappy sojourns in England and America.
Yet the similarities end with their biographies. As writers, they could not have been more different, and their literary destinies were exact opposites. Zweig flourished during his lifetime, enjoying huge sales of his psychologically charged novels and his popular historical biographies. Born with a fortune—his father was a textile manufacturer in Bohemia—he earned another fortune through his books, carrying into literature the bourgeois discipline and regularity that he inherited from his businessman ancestors. Three Lives, the definitive biography of Zweig by Oliver Matuschek, describes his annual production of books during the 1920s:
Over time Zweig had evolved a taut and effective work schedule for the production of his books. The winter months were spent in assembling the material, the spring was used for working up the early drafts, so that the final draft could be completed during the summer and the manuscript then sent off to the publisher as soon as possible. This allowed the typesetting and proofreading to be completed in good time by the autumn, in order to get the printed and bound copies into the bookshops to catch the Christmas trade.
Benjamin, by contrast, was not remotely as popular, nor would he have wanted to be. His audience was not the public at large but his fellow writers and intellectuals, who held him in the highest esteem; Brecht, Hofmannsthal, Adorno, and Scholem were among his friends and patrons. Zweig, whose books were bestsellers in several languages, was able to survive the loss of his German market and remain fairly prosperous; but for Benjamin the exile from Germany was devastating, and he spent the rest of his life in dire poverty. When the two men died, Zweig was one of the most famous writers in the world, Benjamin one of the most obscure.
Yet today there has been a reversal of their fortunes. It is Benjamin who has been canonized as one of the most important theorists of modernism, his works studied and debated and interpreted endlessly. He has become an emblem of the fate of the mind under fascism, not just a thinker but—in the hands of admirers such as Susan Sontag—also a kind of saint. Zweig, on the other hand, was until very recently a cipher on the American scene, a name from history rather than a living literary presence. It is a literary tortoise-and-hare fable, whose familiar if unwelcome lesson is that the most serious, most difficult, most “highbrow” writing is usually what wins in the end.
What are we to make, then, of the current burst of interest in Zweig’s work? Thanks almost entirely to two publishers—New York Review Classics in the United States and Pushkin Press in Great Britain—novels and novellas from Zweig’s lengthy catalogue are pouring back into print at a fast clip. Zweig is written about in The New York Times; his extraordinary memoir, The World of Yesterday, which has just been reissued in a new translation by Anthea Bell, is cited by Wes Anderson as an inspiration for his film The Grand Budapest Hotel. And now The Impossible Exile, George Prochnik’s fine study of Zweig’s last years, brings the melancholy tale of his emigration and death to a new generation of readers.
It is not clear, however, that this surge of interest has been accompanied by any increase in his critical standing. Zweig remains today, as he was during his lifetime, the tragic German Jewish émigré writer whom it is acceptable to disdain. A few years ago Michael Hofmann caused a minor sensation with an essay in theLondon Review of Books when he attacked the long-dead and almost forgotten writer with as much passion and invective as if he had been, say, Jonathan Franzen. “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake,” Hoffman acidly quipped. “He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.”
In doing so, he was reviving an old tradition of intellectual sniping.Three Lives is packed with the nasty things that other writers had to say about Zweig, who was less gifted than they were but, infuriatingly, much more successful. To Hofmannsthal, he was a “sixth-rate talent.” Karl Kraus, told that Zweig had triumphed in all the languages of the world, replied, “Except one”—a jibe at his less-than-perfect German style. A satire published in 1920 described a creature called “ the Steffzweig”: “there are a few who still regard it as a living being. However the Steffzweig is an artificial creation, constructed for a writer’s conference in Vienna from feathers, skin, hair etc. taken from all manner of European animals.” Kurt Tucholsky summoned a whole world of pathetic mediocrity when he described a character this way: “Frau Steiner was from Frankfurt am Main, no longer in the first flush of youth, quite alone and dark-haired. She wore a different dress every evening, and sat quietly at her table reading refined books. In a word, she belonged to the readership of Stefan Zweig. Enough said? Enough said.”