Some months before the suicide of Stefan Zweig in February 1942, Klaus Mann bumped into him on Fifth Avenue. Zweig, whom Mann referred to as “the tireless promoter of striving talents,” held a special place in Mann’s imagination since his early youth. On the publication of Mann’s first books, Zweig’s was “the most heartening and hearty” voice enjoining him to courage. “Go ahead, young man!” Zweig urged in a congratulatory note. “There may be prejudices against you because of your famous parentage. Never mind. Do your work! Say what you have to say!—it’s quite a lot if I’m not mistaken.” Zweig’s high expectations proved inspirational, and Mann, like many other fledgling authors, came to see Zweig as an exemplary patron with a maternally solicitous streak. He heartened the anxious by cajoling them to self-expression and quietly deployed his ample bank account to dissolve logistical obstacles confronting the impecunious. Yet now, in the middle of New York City in 1941, Zweig looked bizarre—unkempt and entranced. He was so lost in some dark train of thought, Mann wrote, that it took Zweig a while to realize he was being observed. Only when directly addressed did Zweig rouse himself “like a sleep-walker who hears his name,” abruptly metamorphosing into the familiar, polished cosmopolitan of old. Still, Mann could not rid himself of the memory of that first wild look—a stare Carl Zuckmeyer, the refugee playwright, encountered a few weeks later when, over dinner, Zweig asked him what the purpose was of continuing to live as a shadow, “homeless in all countries . . . We are just ghosts—or memories,” Zweig concluded.
In a few years, Zweig had unraveled; stumbling from the ranks of the world’s most successful writers and (in Jules Romains’ phrase) a “catalyst,” dedicated to forging affiliations between artists and advocates of European humanism, into a lonely, spectral wanderer. The zealous bibliophiliac had lost his 10,000 books and was reduced to haunting the libraries of New Haven and Manhattan, fingering the volumes he’d once defined as “handfuls of silence, assuaging torment and unrest.” His commanding residence on the Kapuzinerberg above Salzburg, formerly an archbishop’s hunting lodge, where he composed at a desk that once belonged to Beethoven and entertained a steady stream of luminaries and artistic aspirants, had been replaced by a shady little bungalow in Ossining up the hill from Sing Sing. (What did the frequent train rides up and down the Hudson past those massive walls with their gunner watchtowers conjure for this man who writhed at even venial bureaucratic infringements on mobility?) He spent his days struggling to complete his memoir, lacerated by visions of the war and fretting about identity documents. Lotte, his intriguing, under-acknowledged second wife, could not lift his mood. On the night at the Wyndham Hotel when Zweig tried to bequeath his old friend Joachim Maass his beloved Remington typewriter (an act Maass saw foreshadowing Zweig’s renunciation of life), Lotte remarked privately to Maass, “the only thing I can do now is compel him to drag me with him.”
For all the glaring depression of his final years, Zweig’s suicide with Lotte in Brazil outraged certain members of the exile community. His voluntary death was impugned as a deliquescent surrender to Hitler by one whose fortune and sheer popularity shielded him from the savagery most émigrés had to contend with. It was for some, Thomas Mann among them, the culminating failure in a long history of failing to set the right example—a charge leveled equally at Zweig’s life and literary production. In a letter to Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, explaining his refusal to make a fuss over Zweig’s demise, Mann cited Zweig’s “radical, unconditional pacifist disposition,” which—despite the fact that “one had to pray for” the coming of this war—had led Zweig to see in it just another “bloodstained misfortune and a negation of his whole nature.” Zweig, Mann observed, had actually “praised France for not wanting to fight and thus ‘saving Paris.” He had balked at living “in any of the belligerent countries,” and when it was apparent that Brazil, too, would be drawn into the war, Mann opined, Zweig consequently “took leave of life.” Indeed, Mann implied, there was something about Zweig that was simply too weak for this world—and repellant to the life spirit for being so.
Echoes of Mann’s critique can be found in Hannah Arendt’s condemnation of Zweig’s “hypersensitivity,” his detachment from the cause of the Jewish people en masse—the inadequacy of the “whole structure of his life, with its aloofness from civic struggle and politics,” which left him “unable to fight against a world in whose eyes it was and is a disgrace to be a Jew.” And in Michael Hofmann’s recent cap-a-pie impeachment of Zweig’s life and works, wherein he characterizes him as a reprehensible “passivist,” and thoroughly “putrid” fruit of “catty, envious Vienna,” a sentimental faker who (in Robert Neumann’s words) “spent his life on the run.”
When approaching Stefan Zweig’s story, many of his detractors seem to mine what Zweig’s friend Freud described as humanity’s psychical bedrock, the “repudiation of femininity.” (Freud used the term in the stereotypical sense of a submissive attitude linked with structural disempowerment.)Yet perhaps there’s another way of looking at Zweig’s complex history—another lesson in this “femininity”—that unfolds outward toward the larger predicament of the times as opposed to closing in on Zweig’s ambiguous core. As Zweig himself wrote of Marie Antoinette, after noting her absence of heroic impulse, “[But] history the demiurge can construct a profoundly moving drama even though there is nothing heroic about its leading personalities. Tragical tension is not solely conditioned by the mighty lineaments of central figures, but also by a disproportion between man and his destiny.” In our own era of perpetual disruption and upended cultural values, Zweig’s preemptive surrender evokes a line from yet a third Mann, Thomas’s brother Heinrich: “The vanquished are the first to learn what history holds in store.”
What makes the “good exile”? Is there a calculable equation of inner fortitude, openness of mind and external support networks that determines a refugee’s odds of survival? Why did Thomas Mann, Zuckmeyer and Zweig’s friend the conductor Bruno Walter flourish in the United States, while Zweig, Brecht and the dramatist Ernst Toller recoil from almost every aspect of their New World experience? Goebbels laughed at the entire pack of émigré authors, calling them “cadavers on leave.” And this mockery of course speaks to the great fear of the exile, which Zweig was haunted by, the notion that uprooting translates into terminal disconnection—murder by misplacement. It was an apprehension unmitigated by the fact that hundreds of thousands of others were sharing Zweig’s serial dislocation.
The wartime emigration of artists and intellectuals was so vast that one historian has compared it to the flight of Greek scholars after the fall of Byzantium. Zweig’s story gives a lens onto the hotels across the New World in which the fragmented mind of Europe was floating in the 1940s—a chain of rooms like segments of a snake, hundreds of way-stations in an impossible flight from nowhere to nowhere. All the lobbies and coffee houses where the exiles gathered in their loose pants and bulky coats to murmur between themselves—circling slightly off-center neighborhoods in which the habits of earlier refugees, a fragment of architecture, or natural topography evoked home and emboldened them to speak the way they used to speak, without the pretense to translation—before flickering back to the overwhelmed ministries of limbo, seeking papers and work and working papers——wilting in the unfamiliar heat, and freezing in the nakedness occasioned by the loss of layer upon layer of native stature.
Bruno Walter attributed the secret of a happy exile to remembering the distinction between “here” and “over there.” Zweig, the exile manqué nonpareil, offers a formula for lethal migration—what we might call Lot’s Wife syndrome. He understood to a fault the difference between his former home and current environs and could not stop looking back over his shoulder. Composing his memoir at number 7 Ramapo Road in Ossining, from what he called “the abyss of despair in which today, half-blinded, we grope about with distorted and broken souls,” Zweig wrote of staring up “again and again to those old star-patterns” of his lost continent.
In truth, the acute nostalgia Zweig contracted for a particular strain of pre-War Europe set in while he was still ensconced in Salzburg, within sight of Hitler’s perch on the Berchtesgaden. His initial name for “The World of Yesterday” had been “My Three Lives,” intended to suggest the unbridgeable divide between his life in the semi-borderless Europe before 1918, the existence that began in 1933, and the twilight act that commenced in 1939. It would seem ironic that Zweig himself once proposed a hymn to exile, noting in his biography of Joseph Fouché that the vision of the depths vouchsafed by exile provoked some of the most vital messages humanity ever received—those of Moses, Christ, Muhammad and Buddha, for example. In fact, Zweig wrote, “every period of exile is a period of tuition in which one who has grown soft has his will steeled . . . and the man who is already hard grows harder still.” The hymn’s last line, however, qualifies the encomium. “For those, at any rate, endowed with true strength, exile can never lessen it.” Zweig—who shunned every sort of conflict, even sports matches—never imagined himself possessing “true strength.” So far from ranking himself with history’s signal heralds or the contemporaries he venerated, he downplayed his gifts and flagellated himself for the contradictions in his character. Early in the First World War, at the same time as he was flattering his German publisher by writing that his “great ambition” was “to be an officer over with you in that army, to conquer France,” he was lamenting to his journal. “I don’t believe in any victory against the whole world—I want to sleep for six months straight, know nothing more, not experience the world going under, the whole horror. This is the worst day of my entire life.”
So how did Zweig frame his vocation? In spite-addled Vienna, Zweig distinguished himself by striving to live according to the position he articulated in his study of the poet Émile Verhaeren: “If we admire more, and more intensely than others, we shall ourselves grow richer than those timid ones who content themselves with choice morsels of life . . . The more a man admires, the more he possesses.” Time and again, he withdrew his own ego from the lists in favor of homage to one of his beloved “masters”—or in order to advance the cause of unknown artists. Rather than the ideal “hard man,” Zweig envisioned himself as soft, connective tissue. Explaining to René Schikele why in the early days of Hitler’s regime he had not come out loudly against the Nazis, Zweig wrote, “Everything I do I try to do quietly . . . There is nothing of the so-called heroic in me. I was born a conciliator, and must act according to my nature . . . I can work only from the connective, the explanatory; I cannot be a hammer, nor will I be an anvil.” In a diary entry made after a fete Zweig hosted, Charles Baudouin writes of how Zweig, “deploys his whole talent as an intermediary . . . he darts from one group to another, with a light and easy step in which there is something of the dancer . . . and I would add of the feline,” softened still further by a “warm, velvet-like glance,” a quality “which I would describe as of a warm and sensual vapour, the same which envelops one at the reading of certain pages of his Novellen.” He was, Baudouin concluded, a “creature of communication and communion.”
What becomes of someone who spent his life cultivating alignments between constellations in an extinguished cosmos? And what happens to the larger cultural enterprise without these props to the firmament? This is to ask the old question of the part played by context in facilitating the creative production of even singular dazzlers in the arts. Who is Shakespeare without the Globe and its lesser lights performing as struts and foils for his venture? We can exterminate all memory of these “intermediaries” by trumpeting our awareness of everything they were not, but—why? (Unless the scintillating skewering of dead souls can vault our own renown into the rarefied empyrean they’ve been banished from.) The figures who, rather than being Supermen, play the part of superconductors may, in fact, afford the broadest insights into the age they live through.
Just as Zweig served as a synaptic link between an array of fascinating personalities, photo albums of his life reveal a chameleon quality suggestive of the myriad characters contained in his own person. As a successful young dramatist with plays packing theaters in Vienna, Berlin and Paris, Zweig stares out literally from the lap of his fellow theater folk with a cultivated sensual melancholy. In early middle age, on his estate in Salzburg, in fancy knee breeches and billowy white shirt, beside his hounds and high-cheekboned first wife, he becomes the template of the noble country squire. Hunched next to Joseph Roth at a cafe in Ostende in 1936, Stefan’s tie is crumpled and askew precisely as Roth’s is, while his disheveled hair plasters his brow with a stringy splay of negligence identical to Roth’s coiffure at this late stage of his alcoholic decline. Posing among figures of Brazilian high society in a black suit with a coppered visage and merry smile at a party given by President Vargas, Zweig pinches his espresso cup with a kind of samba snap that steals the picture from the bureaucrats and beauties clustered around him.
This Zelig-quality to Zweig’s character is inauthentic only in so far as the larger Jewish experience of never quite assimilating to any of their “host nations” was fraudulent. The artificiality to which they were constrained by legal proscription and social convention could not have been more real.
It was in Brazil that Zweig seemed to strain hardest to blend in. As he reiterated in his suicide note, he loved Brazil more and more despite his failure to make a new life there for himself. Among the people—if not always the critics—that love was passionately returned. On his first reading tour of South America, unprecedented crowds of thousands lined the streets of Buenos Aires and Rio to hear him speak. No European author of Zweig’s stature had shown himself willing to take these countries and their cultural ambitions so seriously. He rhapsodized over the country’s infectious, multiracial tolerance, which he saw liberating all humanity’s best instincts. In the book he wrote on Brazil just before moving there, Zweig called the country “one of our greatest hopes for future civilization and peace in our world.”
Can we begrudge him his hapless wish to hide himself away there? As he wrote Franz and Alma Werfel, Brazil presented “a countryside that seems to be translated from the Austrian into a tropical language,” with “so many opinions and attitudes that existed in our world before the war,” on top of “an orgy of colors and gracefulnesss.” To Friderike, he boasted, “My decision to leave America cannot be valued too highly; one lives here nearer to oneself and in the heart of nature, one hears nothing of politics, and however much egotism there may be in this, it is after all self-preservation in both the physical and spiritual sense. We cannot pay our life long for the stupidities of politics, which have never given us a thing but only always taken.” Yet elation fizzled as knowledge of what kept happening elsewhere continued to infiltrate his consciousness.
Zweig was obsessed with the impossibility of attaining any distance on catastrophe in an age of enveloping mass media. He saw the inability to escape word of fresh disaster wherever and whenever it was happening—a phenomenon he labeled the “organization of simultaneity”— degrading humanity’s capacity to respond to suffering. “People speak so lightly of bombardments,” he wrote in one of his final letters, “But when I read of houses collapsing I collapse with them.” Over time, his justifications for being in Petropolis come to sound like dutiful recitations of holistic prescriptions. “Montaigne speaks with infinite sorrow of people who live the sorrows of others in imagination, and advises them to withdraw and isolate themselves,” he told Friderike. The contrast between the sight of Rio’s Carnival revelries (“Très érotique, très érotique!” he exclaimed to friends) and the latest news of wartime abominations gave the final prod to suicide. Zweig’s defeat in exile was due, also, to an inability even briefly to sustain the psychic quarantine he sporadically craved.
The fascination with mongrel interconnections between human destinies is key to grasping what Zweig most pined for in pre-war Europe: the faith of his fathers’ generation, who, as he wrote in his memoir, “honestly believed that the divergencies and the boundaries between nations and sects would gradually melt away into common humanity and that peace and security, the highest of treasures, would be shared by all mankind.” Berthold Viertel wrote that Zweig ultimately had “one objective: “the creation, preservation and proclamation of the Europe that was already alive in him.” To Baudelaire’s table of modern heroes—the poet, the flâneur, the dandy, the gambler, the worker, the rag-picker and the prostitute—we might add Zweig’s dream of “the cosmopolitan.” Recounting his years of unhampered travel, he wrote of the “wondrous unconcernedness” which had spread over the world, with nothing to “restrict the élan.” “How useless, we said to ourselves, are frontiers when any plane can fly over them with ease, how provincial and artificial are customs-duties, guards and border patrols, how incongruous in the spirit of these times which visibly seeks unity and world brotherhood!” When eulogizing the Vienna of his youth, he recalled the city’s “sweet” atmosphere in which “subconsciously every citizen became supranational, cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.”
Vienna’s “sweetness” was certainly selective at best; the city was lit with finger-in-the-socket cultural bravura that suggests at times a Habsburg-scale imperium of the imagination. Olbrich’s gold wreath meteor slamming down through the Secession House ceiling sets a tone that ripples through Schiele’s flash-to-the-future, heroin-model nudes and Klimt’s neo-Egyptian fleshpot nocturnes—while the symbolism in Freud’s Egyptian dream book cracked the tomb of the more-or-less unconscious to display the bourgeoisie’s ornate sexuality. These flourishes counterpoint the work of Vienna’s master immolators and denuders: figures like Kraus and Loos decrying all embellishments of language and architecture as signs of the corrupt “penetration of life by art.”
Once he’d reached adulthood, Zweig had only a brief stint as shadchan-headhunter in the city Kraus proclaimed a “workshop for the apocalypse.” In truth, despite his numerous friends there, Vienna’s chronic malevolence got to Zweig. His first wife noted that the whole of Zweig’s “Austrian patriotism grew apace as Austria shrank smaller and smaller, reaching its climax when his homeland ceased to exist.” As soon as he’d completed his education, he fled for Paris—falling head over heels for what he called the city’s “wonderful nonchalance”—the “lovely extravagance,” that carried “a special grace to give happiness to everyone who approached it.”
Though “The World of Yesterday,” with its tender portrait of the Golden Age of Security, and the valorization Arendt so deplored of cultural achievement above political activism, has been accused of nostalgic sentimentalism, it’s important to remember that Zweig acknowledged the degree to which this vision was always fantasy. It would have been difficult for him not to do so when even his youthful homelife was a model of uncongenial affluence.
Never given a room of his own in a flat constantly overtaken by loud social events for which he had no taste, Zweig grew up with parents who seemed to make a point of excluding their children from the fruits of their wealth. Like other Jewish families of their milieu, the Zweigs celebrated Christmas, but—unlike their peers—gave the younger generation no gifts. On the long summer migrations from watering hole to watering hole in an ungainly parade of relatives, servants and trunks beyond number, Zweig and his brother would be sent off with the servants to eat at humble taverns while his father and mother feasted at celebrated restaurants. The constant switching of trains on these nomadic holidays became ritual exercises in stress, neglect and forgetfulness. (After leaving one Belgian seaside resort they found they’d lost a Bohemian maid with an unpronounceable name and had to send the town crier off to bellow those strange syllables into the streets as best he could until she somehow made herself known again). No wonder Zweig developed a craving to slip off on his own for secretive travel, bearing along minimal appurtenances.
Rather than staking a claim on the “real” beauties of the past, Zweig poses the question that haunts the experience of many a nostalgic émigré to this day: what do present circumstances offer by way of compensation for loss of the invariably exaggerated fantasy of sweet home? Although “it was a delusion our fathers served, it was a wonderful and noble delusion,” Zweig wrote, “more humane and more fruitful than our watchwords of today; and in spite of my later knowledge and disillusionment, there is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely.” Zweig’s paean to the aesthetic intoxication that characterized the Vienna of yesterday recalls Nietzsche’s dictum, “We have art in order that we may not perish of truth.”
That said, the ideal Zweig cherished was based on belief that art could trigger sublimation, rather than simple escapism. Why is “reality” more real when brutal? What makes the hardest facts the most germane to the human condition? Such questions hint at the reasons for Zweig’s aversion to the United States, a visceral distaste akin to that which led Freud to quip on one occasion that “America was a mistake, a gigantic mistake it’s true, but still a mistake.” The line resonates with Zweig’s vision of the United States as an evil doppelganger of his ideal for a united Europe. On U.S. shores, he saw peace achieved at the price not just of imagination but of identity. In place of an intricately individualist spiritual cosmopolitanism he discerned a colonizing empire of sensation-addicted, materialist automatons. As early as 1925, he wrote of the “monotonization of the world” being exported by the United States. “Countries seem increasingly to have slipped simultaneously into each other,” he observed. “More and more the fine aroma of the particular in cultures is evaporating.” With everything “geared to the shortest units of time, consumption increases: thus does genuine education—the patient accumulation of meaning over the course of a lifetime—become a quite rare phenomenon.” Protest was useless since the new pleasures “offer amusement without demanding exertion . . . to enjoy radio one need only take the earpiece from the table and hang it on one’s head, and already there is a waltz ringing in the ear—against such comfort even the gods would fight in vain.”
How should we take our inspiration? Straight up or on the rocks? And what is the critic’s role in helping the public navigate the shoals between work that carries merit and work that merits neglect, or even expectorating contempt?
There is near consensus that Zweig is, fundamentally, a “minor writer.” This classification then raises all those questions regarding what precisely the title means, and what value can yet be gleaned from work that falls within the grouping. Auden, one of the few writers to tackle the point directly, noted that the distinction between major and minor poetry does not relate to “the pleasure the poet gives an individual reader,” citing his own delight in the minor poetry of William Barnes and dislike for Shelley’s patently major oeuvre. He advocated the study of questionable and even decidedly lesser work. “Some books are undeservedly forgotten,, none are undeservedly remembered.” Those who find pleasure in Zweig’s work—many of them, be it said, discriminating, polyglot readers of wide-ranging artistic tastes—do not need to rank his writing with that of, say, Roth or Hofmannsthal to find a captivating interest in the books. The aura Zweig conjures of distilled erotic desperation interspersed with the cool play of cosmopolitan beguilements, his poetics of vanquishment and subtle ravishings, remains provocative. Auden concludes: “Some critics argue that it is their moral duty to expose the badness of an author because, unless this done, he may corrupt other writers. To be sure, a young writer can be led astray, deflected, that is, from his true path, by an older, but he is much more likely to be seduced by a good writer than by a bad one. The more powerful and original a writer, the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves.”
Still, what of the work’s integral power? Frustrated sexual passion is everywhere in Zweig’s writing, often drawn with harrowing poignancy. Among its many historical values, The World of Yesterday depicts an elaborate theater of sexual hypocrisy dominating old Vienna that would be virtually impossible to reconstruct without Zweig’s record. He details the well-bred woman’s repressive costuming (squeezed into a wasp shape with stiff whalebone) and hysteria-inducing, hothouse cosseting—along with the contortions to which young men resorted to procure their sexual relief among the city’s “gigantic army of prostitution” with its arcane ranking from the “line girls” to the ladies in evening gowns and “unreticent negligées” of the “closed houses.”
Zweig’s fiction, also, focuses on characters tangled in enchantments of desire. Usually, this desire is that of a woman for a man (24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, Letter from an Unknown Woman); sometimes, however, the passion is that of a man for a woman (Amok, Moonbeam Alley), or of a person for an object (Invisible Collection, Buchmendel), and sometimes, perhaps most revealingly, the desire at issue is of one man for another (Confusion.) Panicked flight, or death, often affords the only resolution to the love dynamic. In the case of works involving a woman’s passion for a man, the man is never “up to” the love. Any effort at reciprocity on the male’s part is invariably tainted with something cloddish, caddish, or both. The most distinguishing feature of these love objects is, in fact, their extraordinary blindness to what they’ve won.
Usually, the love story in Zweig’s works is triangulated by a first-person narrator to whom the tale is being imparted. And it is often this narrator’s responses to the revelation that prove key to the story. Zweig’s fiction grapples most compellingly with questions of the moral obligation conferred by knowledge of another person’s engulfing passion. Freud saw this struggle with secret knowledge informing the structure of Zweig’s nonfiction as well. “The perfection of empathy combined with the mastery of linguistic expression left me with a feeling of rare satisfaction,” Freud wrote him after reading Three Masters. “What interests me especially are the accumulations and the increasing intensity with which your language keeps groping closer to the most intimate nature of the subject. It is like the accumulation of symbols in a dream.”
The question Zweig poses at the outset of his one completed novel is at the core of almost all his work: What is pity? Zweig identifies two types, one that is weak and sentimental and reflects “no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness,” and another “the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.”
Notwithstanding Zweig’s denial of personal heroism, we might locate his own aspirations to nobility here, in the challenge of “creative pity.” In this sense, among the listeners who narrate Zweig’s stories, the exemplary figure is the narrator of Confusion—a young man who comes belatedly to learn that the professor he idealizes is in love with him. For much of the story, the professor in Confusion teeters on the brink of revealing his anguished desire. When the confession comes at last, as the two men sit together in darkness, the narrator reports, “I received that fervent, ardently urgent voice pressing on with its tale into me with a shuddering and painful sensation, as a woman takes a man into herself.” Zweig, as few other writers, repeatedly explores the way that this reception, the creative pity demanded by passionately engaged listening, transforms a listener’s identity, deepening the space inside—consummating a metaphorical feminizing.
In the same letter to Schikele in which Zweig avers that he “can only act from the connective,” he notes, “So we are a very few, who occupy the most thankless and most dangerous post—in the middle, the no-man’s land between the trenches.”
What, finally, of Zweig’s parting “example”—the suicide Hofmann lampoons as Zweig’s ultimate gesture of insincerity? (Noting his own bored, irritated sense on reading the profoundly restrained death note, Hofmann writes that, even here, “his heart isn’t in it . . . he doesn’t mean it.”) How to fathom Zweig and Lotte’s exhausted, broken end—wracked by concern for Lotte’s brother and his wife in London, by their expanding knowledge of mass killings on the eastern front, by the deaths of so many beloved friends, by the burning of the books of the writers he most revered, by the absence in Brazil of the books he needed to continue working, by the annihilation of the pan-European project to which he gave more of himself than he did to his writing, by years of chaotic, hopeless wanderings from hotel to hotel, by Zweig’s increasing debilitation with age and Lotte’s never improving ill health? How shall we pronounce upon the self-destruction of this couple who’d managed to escape?
A long midrashic tradition struggles to understand why Sarah’s death is reported immediately after the sacrifice of Isaac—so abruptly as to hint at a link between the events. The medieval commentator Rashi, summarizing the interpretations, writes that when Sarah learned “that her son had been fated for slaughter, and had been all-but-slaughtered—her soul flew away and she died.” Even knowing that her son survived, Sarah cannot bring herself to remain in this world, whether on account of the excruciating contingency of life, or as an act of protest against a world in which a father could prepare to slit his child’s throat before burning his corpse to placate God.
Like the midrashic Sarah, Zweig saw the terms of his contract with this life shattered. The police photos we are left with of husband and wife pressed against each other (he in trousers, shirt and tie, she in a floral dressing gown) on their grim, metal-frame death beds are heart-wrenching. And the question of how we take this “example” is bound up with that of our own willingness to entertain some version of Zweig’s creative pity. Though Mann railed to Friderike about how Zweig could “concede the archenemy such a triumph,” sometimes the example of another’s act of ultimate despair, whether it provokes sympathy or fury, is a spur to make the ending come out differently for those who yet survive.
Which is more disappointing: the fact that biographies of artists provide so few moral lessons suitable for church or elementary school, or our perennial drive to rediscover this tired truth and vent our smug indignation at the let-down? That so spectacular a poet as Hofmannsthal could betray such pettiness as to refuse to work at Reinhardt’s Salzburg Festival if he ever had to overlap with Zweig. That Thomas Mann could display such icy condescension toward Klaus’s naïve enthusiasms as to help fatally undermine his self-confidence—while himself publicly declaring in 1915 that World War I was a welcome harbinger of the Third Reich, which would prove the ideal “synthesis of power and spirit.” That Kraus’s unrivalled satiric acumen could coincide with relentless campaigns of personal vindictiveness against potential allies—further fracturing liberal elements in Vienna that, with a modicum of solidarity, might have forcefully opposed Austria’s burgeoning Fascist elements. What to do with the inconsistencies and moral ineptitude of dead people who’ve captured the public’s admiration?
Ultimately, Zweig’s kaleidoscopic life, with its extraordinary revolutions of fortune, abounds in insights pertinent to our own time—to the plight of our own growing ranks of refugees, to the problem of how to negotiate the opening of a seismic fault-line between two eras in one lifetime (and the attendant willingness on the part of rising powers to trash the past wholesale in favor of the new), to the problem of how to respond to a world in which the cries of other people’s suffering become more overwhelmingly audible all the time, to the desire to settle and to flee— to do one’s work in private, and to give oneself over completely to helping others in need—to the yearning for absolute freedom in a world criss-crossed with ever more ineluctable grids of checks and controls. Disdain for Zweig’s world of yesterday comes at the risk of forgetting what history holds in reserve for all of us.
George Prochnik is the author most recently of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. He is completing a novel about Stefan and Lotte Zweig’s exile in the Americas.
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