Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Stefan Zweig: the tragedy of a great bad writer

Stefan Zweig wasn’t, to be honest, a very good writer. This delicious fact was hugged to themselves by most of the intellectuals of the German speaking world during the decades before 1940, in which Zweig gathered a colossal and adoring public both in German and in multiple translations. It was like a password among the sophisticated. Zweig might please the simple reader; but a true intellectual would recognise his own peers by a shared contempt for this middlebrow bestseller. The novelist Kurt Tucholsky has a devastating sketch of a German equivalent of E.F. Benson’s Lucia:
Mrs Steiner was from Frankfurt, not terribly young, alone and with black hair. She wore a different dress each night and sat quietly to read cultured books. She was a devoted follower of Stefan Zweig. With that, everything has been said.
Some modern-day readers might find themselves agreeing with Zweig’s sniggering colleagues. His prose is apt to sink into the embarrassing commonplace. In his autobiography about the outbreak of war, he writes that the room
was suddenly deathly quiet…carefree birdsong came in from outside…and the trees swayed in the golden light…Our ancient Mother Nature, as usual, knew nothing of her children’s troubles.
Elsewhere, ‘the soft, silken blue sky was like God’s blessing over us; once again warm sunlight shone on the woods and meadows’. The odd thing was that, despite his immense success among readers who couldn’t hear enough about golden light in gardens and Mother Nature and silken skies like God’s blessing, Zweig was under no misapprehension about his own merits.
Talking about his art, Zweig had always denigrated it in a way much more like masochism than the sort of self-deprecation that invites contradictory praise. At the outset of his career, he had admitted that ‘at best my talent is a small one’. He was very much like Max Beerbohm’s Walter Ledgett: a bustling, friendly operator in the world of letters. His engagement with brilliant, original writers from the apparently safe standpoint of his luxurious schloss in Salzburg is untiring, despite their open jeering at their patron and host.
His relationship with the great, difficult writer Joseph Roth is a perfect example: there were almost no insults that Roth didn’t offer Zweig in exchange for his charitable support. Michael Hofmann, in his edition of Roth’s letters, says that ‘Eventually there is nothing that Roth will not write; a letter, in his hands, is an instrument of necessary terror.’ And Zweig took it all. He was heartbreakingly proud that when the Nazis burnt books in the Bebelplatz in 1933, he had the honour to be
permitted to share this fate of the complete destruction of literary existence in German with such eminent contemporaries as Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel and many others whose work I consider incomparably more important than my own.
 In other circumstances, he would have been a comic figure, all mouth and trousers, in love with the orotund paragraph.With some amusement Carl Zuckmayer said that Zweig ‘loved women, revered women, liked talking about women, but he rather avoided them in the flesh’. But for a Jewish writer in Austria in the 1930s, the possibilities of remaining a comic figure were few.
The flight from Austria that followed, and Zweig’s painful attempts to make sense of his own fate, are the subjects of George Prochnik’s study. The photograph on the cover (reproduced above) sets the tone: Zweig, the product of Viennese ‘Jewish bourgeoisie of the first rank throughout’, is exquisitely dressed and groomed, and looks simply terrified: he had received an uncompromising rejoinder to his plea that ‘all we ask is that we may not be bothered by politics’.
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