I consider myself to be fairly well read, obviously there are plenty of authors out there who are mentioned in those never ending lists of ‘books you should have read..’ whose work I have not delved into yet, but when I started working in the book industry I was introduced to Stefan Zweig and to this day a cloud of disappointment and guilt hangs over me that I did not arrive at his work earlier. In fairness my shame can most likely be shared by many in the UK (please accept my apologies if this is not the case for you dear reader, and also, excuse the introduction to the great man which you will not need) as despite Zweig being one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920’s and 30’s, with more books in translation at this time than any other author, he went largely unnoticed by the British public.
A great effort to remedy this has been made by Pushkin Press, constantly championing some of the best translated fiction out there, they have published a stunning collection of his work. These editions are as fine an object to admire as much as the writing inside will set you in awe. I do not want to sound like an obsessed one man band heralding Zweig’s career blindly no matter what, I have read the criticism, the disdain sent his way for his quiet stance politically, the accusations that he was writing soap style melodrama and of course the classic argument that his writing was ‘railway carriage reading’ as it was so popular. The latter I, of course, dismiss out right. The scorn that is turned on authors and their work if they go beyond the literary establishment to be loved by swathes of the general reading public can boil my blood – but I shall not type on about this as a recent Guardian article sums up the situation beautifully (with Zweig showing this is not modern phenomena), have a read here http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/24/good-books-women-readers-literary-critics-sexism
The first accusation, well, I really can’t answer how I would respond if I was one of the most hated Jewish writers who had managed to flee the Nazi regime just in time, would I step up and denounce them no matter what? Zweig claimed that he did not do so as he was worried about the safety of those friends left behind, this has been doubted as being the real reason, but I think that in such extreme circumstances like these one should be very slow to judge. And the last claim, soap style melodrama, well yes – Zweig did love a bit of melodramatic plot in his writing, but oh does the course of love ever run smooth, and more importantly, would we want to read about it if it did? His examination of his characters’ lives, the turmoil within them and the tension of sexual relations is nuanced and told in his simplistic style that make him a constant pleasure to read.
As confessed above I was not familiar with Zweig’s work and my introduction came through another artist I much admire, director Wes Anderson. With the release of his movie ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Anderson admitted that a lot of his work has been directly influenced by the Austrian, after also owning to not being on exactly first name terms with him,
“I had never heard of Zweig…until maybe six or seven years ago…when I just more or less by chance bought a copy of Beware of Pity…I also read The Post Office Girl…The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books. Two characters in our story are vaguely meant to represent Zweig himself”
With the release of the movie came the publication of ‘The Society of Crossed Keys – Selections from the Writings of Stefan Zweig’. This book begins with an interview with Anderson, and the above quote, which introduces us to how exciting it can feel when you ‘discover’ the author and the world that he creates. Within the book our first word of Zweig’s comes from his memoir ‘The World of Yesterday’. You know with certain news events there will always be the inevitable ‘where were you when you heard…’ question that will remain tied with it forever? Well I remember where I was when I first read Zweig, and it ain’t glamorous. The 319 bus from Kingswood to Bath was never fun at the best of times, but this day it was sweaty with condensation, packed to the rafters and running late, usually enough to be sending my blood pressure soaring and providing a terrible start to the day. That day was different. Wedged into my seat I turned the pages and escaped into pre-war Vienna, a place evoked so reverentially I ached to travel back in time to experience the magic, it made my surroundings disappear. In the interview with Anderson he describes what a special time and place this was,
“Vienna – and the environment he grew up in was so – I guess, art was the centre of his own activity, and it was also the popular thing…the daily newspapers they got each morning had poetry and philosophical writings…Vienna was a place where there was this great deep culture, but it was the equivalent of rock stars – it was the coolest thing of the moment.”
When Zweig describes his time there you become acutely aware of how important these surroundings were for him, and why the disappearance of it all was just that much harder to stand.
The book is a great taster for readers, including not only work from his memoir but also ‘Beware of Pity’, his only completed novel, and ‘Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman’, one of his many novellas. His output was as vast as it was varied, producing plays, biographies and many pieces of journalism. My most recent outing with him was to travel through time, as he introduced to me some of the great stories through the centuries in ‘Shooting Stars – Ten Historical Miniatures’. Generally I do not read a lot of history, but these bite sized pieces left me perfectly satisfied as I was waltzed through the discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 through to Wilson’s failure and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, with fascinating pit stops to be had along the way. These momentous moments in history caused me to laugh, gasp at the audacity of some and marvel at some great daring do (seventeen ships being carried across a mountainous headland as a battle strategy anyone?! And when I say carried, I mean carried!). Zweig brings these moments to life so that the people involved, such as Handel, do not read as those we can’t imagine from a past too different to our own, but as living and breathing characters we could almost reach through the page to touch. His style is as elegant and effective with his non-fiction just as we are used to in his fiction.
We cannot ignore the sad ending of Zweig’s own life story however. After escaping Vienna following Hitler’s rise to power, he made his way to London and then onto Bath, but never settled in one place until he reached Petropolis, a town 68 kilometres north of Rio, Brazil. Here he lived with his second wife until they were one day found dead, holding hands, after taking a large dose of barbiturates. The news broke worldwide, covering the front pages of many a newspaper, and a state funeral was given with mourners lining the street, all shops and facilities closed for the day. Sadly a couple of days later a friend of Zweig’s received a letter from him in which he said he would like his funeral to be ‘moderate and private’. His heart was broken, after he found himself having watched “my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself”. In his final words he said,
“I think it is better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth”
The outpouring from his ‘intellectual labour’ has been so loved by so many we can only give thanks for his talent and life. So although the thought of missed time reading Zweig bothers me so much, I will look up to a silver lining, there is much of his work out there for me still to discover and enjoy, and I hope after reading a little about him here you might do the same.
The Society of Crossed Keys: Selections from the Writings of Stefan Zweig £6.99 (Pushkin Press)
Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures by Stefan Zweig £8.99 (Pushkin Press)