Monday, June 7, 2010

Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig is an author who is not very well known in America today. Indeed, he is rarely mentioned in discussions of 20th-century literature even in Germany or his native Austria. When his name does come up, it is usually only in connection with his more famous friends. Zweig had many literary friends, such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Yet, less than 100 years ago he was the most widely-translated author in the world. In his own day he was probably the most prominent writer to emerge from fin-de-siècle Vienna, though that honor now goes to another friend of his, Sigmund Freud.

Zweig wrote in a number of genres. As a youth, Zweig began publishing poetry in a Viennese paper with the encouragement of its editor, who became yet another famous friend of his: Theodor Herzl. He also published translations of French poetry, especially that of Baudelaire and Verhaeren. Later in his career, however, Zweig concentrated on prose. His prose style is still noteworthy for its clarity and its pleasant fluidity, though he is now dismissed by some critics (unjustly in my opinion) as a “pedestrian stylist.” His prose work consists mainly of plays, short stories, and novellas, as well as many biographies. Of these biographies, perhaps the best known, and certainly the one Zweig valued the most himself, was that of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Erasmus was something of a patron saint for Zweig. Zweig shared certain characteristics with Erasmus that made his intellectual adoption of Erasmus fitting. Both men were born into turbulent times, indeed into events that were truly epoch-changing in modern history: Erasmus was the famous humanist, author of The Praise of Folly and editor of the Greek New Testament, who died in the midst of the Reformation. Zweig was born into the “golden age of bourgeois security,” which ended with the slaughter of the First World War. Both men, however, refused to take sides in those conflicts. Though Erasmus was widely known for being critical of the Church’s hierarchy, he did not lend his skill to Luther’s cause—but neither did he come out strongly against Luther. Zweig did not join either Austria, his homeland, or France, where he had spent some of his most formative years. Instead, he fled to Switzerland, where he spent the war protesting the carnage and pleading for peace. Zweig’s pacifism led him to enter self-imposed exile once again, twenty years later, after the Anschluss; he fled first to England, and then to Brazil when England joined the war against Hitler. Zweig, following what he saw as Erasmus’ example, stood by his principles, even though that meant standing alone, forgotten by the polemicists and belligerents on both sides.

Unfortunately, Zweig was overly conscious of standing alone, and so—in his autobiography, naturally enough—he set himself upon a pedestal, all alone in his single-minded pursuit of peace. The tone of Zweig’s autobiography (The World of Yesterday) is marred by this self-pity. It should not come as too great a surprise to the reader to find out that in 1942 Zweig (and his second wife) committed suicide.

Despite these flaws, what makes The World of Yesterday an interesting read is that, besides the wealth of historical detail, it gives a glimpse inside the mind of a member of the 20th-century literati who, confronted with the spectacle of the world falling down around his ears, had to wrestle with his most deeply-held prejudices. The inner turmoil evident in the narrative is heightened by two factors. First, the introductory chapter, in which Zweig describes the “golden age of bourgeois security” that developed under the guidance of the Habsburg monarchy, presents an idealized childhood that makes clear to the reader what Zweig will lose later. Second, Zweig had enough historical and philosophical learning to maintain some critical distance from his life and his prejudices—though not enough. The most important prejudice, inculcated in Zweig from his earliest days, was his belief in society’s inevitable material and moral progress.

Ultimately, though, Zweig was not able to overcome this prejudice. At the heart of The World of Yesterday is Zweig's gradual realization that progress is not inevitable. Indeed, after the childhood idyll of the golden age of bourgeois security, this realization begins to dawn in adolescence (to which Zweig devotes a chapter called Eros Matutinus), when Zweig deals with his own psychological problems and those of his classmates. The bloodshed of World War I, of course, shows Zweig that there were obstacles to peace. But even World War I did not spell the end of Zweig’s belief in perpetual progress; after the war, he became a firm believer in the League of Nations. At the same time, though, that he was advocating for international peace in the 1920s, Zweig was immersing himself more deeply in Freud’s psychology, which reinforced his adolescent experience of the fragility of man’s mind. It was only the outbreak of World War II, however, that seems to have shattered his comfortable belief in progress. Zweig apparently committed suicide in order to spare himself any further disillusionment.

In the end, then, Stefan Zweig, despite his achievements and his evident skill as a writer, remains a sad figure in a sad period of history: a victim of progress, and of his own prejudice.
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