Stefan Zweig

I managed to mess up my book reading schedule and haven’t read Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl for the Slaves of Golconda group. Instead, I thought I’d offer some background information on Zweig himself. He is a little-known author these days, although when he was alive and at the height of his fame, he had to barricade himself in his house at Salzburg to keep his legion of fans at bay. His books were translated across the world, although he was better known for his biographical writings (on Erasmus, Balzac, Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dickens) than his fiction. He was also a friend of any number of famous cultural figures, including Freud and Rilke – after a conversation with Rilke he wrote ‘one is incapable of any vulgarity for hours or even days’. This excitable, idealistic Zweig is much in evidence in his youth. As the rich second son of a millionaire textile manufacturer, he was able to devote himself to the causes that interested him, and art was the guiding star of his life. He had joined with a group of aesthetes in Austria during his teenage years and was devoted not just to the concept of art but to a vague, if stirring, political belief in a united, harmonious Europe. He declared himself not Austrian, but a European, and in this optimistic frame of mind reported that ‘The world offered itself to me as a fruit, beautiful and rich with promise.’ It seems scarcely conceivable that less than thirty years later, he and his second wife would die in a joint suicide pact.

Part of the problem – although by no means all of it – was that Zweig was Jewish. Initially he didn’t think this counted for anything. His family was not religious, but they were prosperous, educated and assimilated. His memory of his youth was entirely free from anti-Semitic slight; indeed his race was something that he entirely discounted. Not that he was ignorant of the Jewish question, rather he dissociated himself from the Ostjuden, the Eastern Jews who were migrating from a hostile Russia into what would eventually become an even more dangerous Western Europe. Such distinctions were not destined to last. By 1933 the Nazis were burning his books, in 1935 an opera by Richard Strauss, The Silent Woman, was closed down after only two performances because Zweig had written the libretto. In 1938, the Nazis destroyed his library in Salzburg, but by that point, Zweig had been driven into exile in London. He had begun to believe that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was directed at him personally and he never really recovered from this paranoia.

But other discontents were stirring. It was in the thirties that his 20-year marriage to one of his fans, Friderike (they met through the letters that she wrote to him), broke down when he fell in love with his new secretary, Charlotte Altmann, who was a clichéd twenty-seven years younger. In her biography, Friderike explained how Zweig longed for space and for silence to create, something that her two children and her sociable lifestyle prevented him from enjoying. Zweig begged for a divorce on the grounds that he wanted to regain his ‘student’s freedom’, although within the year he had married Lotte. It might have been peace that Zweig was after, but given the brief interlude between this point and his suicide, peace regained clearly didn’t hit the spot. Instead it might be a blissful return to a former point in time that really appealed, nostalgia for his student days confused with a longing for a youthful, optimistic state of mind that he could no longer summon up. It would not be the first time that a man, feeling something had turned inexorably sour in his life, decided that a change of woman might provide the answer.

If it wasn’t love that went wrong on Zweig, if that was a smokescreen for a deeper discontent, we might look instead to the strongest guiding force in Zweig’s life, which was his belief in humanism. Humanism is a kind of moral philosophy, a perspective on life that affirms the dignity and worth of all people and the supreme belief in human intelligence as the source of all solutions to the problems that beset mankind. It proposes the need for a universal morality that would guide and inform all human conduct, but chooses not to trust to the supernatural or the spiritual for answers. The ultimate goal of humanism is to make life better for all individuals, but it doesn’t necessarily believe that is easily achieved; instead it looks to the community to work together to provide support and sustenance.

There is something beautiful and idealistic and almost noble about the humanistic stance. It’s also managed to be the dominant moral philosophy in the Western world between the Renaissance and, oh around about the end of World War II. All those years, people believed they held the key to the good life in their hearts, if they looked carefully enough. They believed as well that life was continually getting better, and that eventually, man would reach a state of perfection. Humanism was also deeply bound up with culture and the arts, the finest expression of humanist knowledge. Humanism had its problems, undoubtedly, not least of which was that this was a philosophy created by, held by and explored by men; half the world was rigorously excluded from its all-encompassing claims. But there is a nobility to it that our modern day philosophies lack. Now we’re in the era of post-humanism – the belief that the answers to all our problems lie beyond the human domain, in the world of technology and science. We’ve given up on ourselves as the agents of our own rescue.

Stefan Zweig believed in civilization – that beautiful faith in intelligence and artistic understanding to promote harmony, insight, communal well-being. He believed that there was a natural understanding between people of similar education and ability. He was thrilled to be part of an intricately interconnected group of artists whose mutual acclaim he assumed to be second nature. We might call him naïve, as much artistic achievement was ever fueled by jealousy, rivalry and enmity. But there is a fragility that Zweig always identified in his fictional characters as well as his biographical ones, a recognition that civilization might not always be the solution, that one might be too nice, too charming, too civilized for one’s own good. It provided the real spike of interest in his work, but it may also have tormented him in reality. The jury is out as to why Zweig and Charlotte took their overdose of barbiturates, in what should have been a peaceful exile in Brazil in 1942. Zweig ought to have had some inkling that the Nazis were not going to be allowed to overrun Europe as he feared. But the Second World War destroyed, for many artists, some fundamental belief in the humanity of the human race, and the possibility that truth and beauty might make a better world. Certainly those beliefs have been rarely in evidence ever since. The enormity of such a loss might well be behind the enigmatic words Zweig wrote in his final note, thanking the people of Brazil and saluting his friends:

‘May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.’

11 thoughts on “Stefan Zweig

  1. Lovely post, Litlove. Sadly, though the NYRB edition I have is very nice, there was no introduction or afterword and only the briefest of brief biographical material. This fills in some spots I felt like I was missing. He was certainly idealistic, wasn’t he. I read that he may have committed suicide because he was in despair the world (culturally) would never be the same as it was or live up to his expectations. Certainly the Nazi regime did it’s very best to stifle most free thinking when it came to art and literature. How sad about his library–I hate to admit it, but I might be despairing a bit if I lost my own. This adds interesting insight when thinking about the novel!

  2. What a sad story. So many layers here I hardly know what to discuss first…

    If I were to call myself anything, politically and philosophically, it would be liberal humanist, and I know I’m not the only one, so I think perhaps humanism does live on, albeit in an altered and hopefully less hegemonic state. I know it’s idealistic and on some level naive, but it’s the closest thing to what I believe, which includes needing to be the agents of our own rescue. I haven’t given up on that idea. I hope I never do. I’m sorry for him, so clever, so privileged, that he still fell for the ‘ole younger woman ruse… and yet it happens throughout human history, so I’m sorry, though not surprised. As for suicide, well, I forgive his bleak world view and even his paranoia as a Jewish creative exile circa 1942. Dark, dark days indeed. But suicide I find personally inconceivable. Anyway, I am intrigued by this rock god legion of fans…more for the list…

  3. Thank you for the background on Zweig, and the beautiful way you presented it. He is someone I clearly should have read, but somehow did not (I have a “thing” for early 20th century Vienna, and adore Rilke). Your description of humanist philosophy at that time is interesting also. Much food for thought in this post!

  4. What a sad story. Poor Zweig. Just on the humanism / post-humanism issue, is post-humanism related to post-modernism? I see Freud is now regarded as a post-modernist (well in certain readings of him anyway). Reading this post, I started to get some idea of how devastating WWII was for Jews. I know that’s a bit of an obvious comment but with 60 years of distance the holocaust always seems to bracketed by the fact that good triumphed in the end. But I guess, as you say, there was a sense that truth and beauty were never quite the same again.

  5. “There is something beautiful and idealistic and almost noble about the humanistic stance.” My initial reaction to that statement is “Oh yes!” But then I think about the fault I find with humanism, which is putting humans (and what we think of as human intellect) at the center of it all, as expecting us to have all the solutions, because I can’t see that we would ever reach that point at which we can all agree on a common morality. Oh, and the older I get, the more I have trouble believing that this one species is superior (and I often fantasize about becoming a rabbit, say, and discovering there is such a thing as “Rabbitism” among rabbits, as well as various rabbit versions of many other beliefs humans hold dear). I think it’s almost inevitable to become disillusioned and even very unhappy if one puts too much faith and hope in humans and not to notice (no matter how much I hate to notice it myself) the fact that some of us aren’t just plain, for some reason, rotten to the core, while others are too good to be true (and then there are the rest of us).

  6. I think for someone sensitive who truly believes in intrinsic goodness would pretty much have had to kill themselves after WWII. If they lacked the moral courage to face what is and do their part to change it (which is most of us), AND had a clear vision of what humanity could and should be, I can understand that they wouldn’t be able to live in this world in those times. Some people are more sensitive to the stain on the collective soul than others. If you can’t block it out it really hurts.

  7. Danielle – I couldn’t agree more. If anyone wanted to hit me where it hurts the most, they would just have to go for my books! Oh I’m glad this is useful – I was afraid that everyone’s editions would have super-duper intros and it would be redundant. But I enjoy finding out about the author’s life, and it can sometimes shed light on the novels, too.

    Doctordi – it’s always good to know that humanists still exist, not least because what this world really needs is enough diversity to prevent any one philosophy from taking the upper hand and driving society forward in a blinkered way. Oh what am I saying? I guess that’s always going to happen. But still, the more voices, the better. Zweig’s suicide was a little surprising, but he seems to belong to a line of German writers that you can trace back to Goethe and his Sorrows of the Young Werther in which art and romantic sensibility produce an exquisite sort of human being but one not well equipped to deal with the brickbats of existence. I’d love to know what you make of his writing if you read any.

    ds – you are talking to another Rilke worshipper here! I agree wholeheartedly that Viennese culture was enthralling during that era. Thank you for the lovely comment – you are making me keen to do a Viennese reading challenge!

    Pete- oh boy that’s a good question and one I’m not sure I can fully answer. If anything, post-humanism is what comes after post-modernism, but they are both such whopping great doctrines with so many dimensions that they undoubtedly relate in more complex and subtle ways than that. I might have to get back to you on that one. As for the Jews, well, Theodore Adorno said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Academics have debated that one for years, but they all knew where he was coming from.

    Emily – I am captivated by the notion of Rabbitism. What a thought! Maybe all those warrens would be fascinating to an anthropologist and reveal cave scratchings or vegetable art from previous ages that indicate the presence of a superior race. Wow. The humanist question is a huge one, but you make a fine case for one side of it. You can imagine what a horror it would be to someone like Zweig, believing in the intrinsic value and perfectability of mankind, to end up persecuted by someone like Hitler. Not good.

    Honeypiehorse – that’s an extremely sensitive and insightful comment. I think you are quite right about Zweig’s character, and that his suicide stemmed from exactly the reasons you put forward.

    Natalia – hello, lovely Natalia – I would love to know what you make of Zweig if you do read him.

  8. Just thinking about Emily’s comment, and Pete’s (because I’m very interested in post-modernism and wonder if this somehow relates to my own homespun brand of humanism…), and I wanted to qualify that I don’t think humans are at the centre of it all, I think we’re just one (very egocentric) part of an essentially unknowable whole.

  9. I agree with Danielle — this biographical information was very useful! I do hope you read this book and post your thoughts on it (no pressure though, of course!) because I’m curious how you would connect the biography and the novel. To me, the novel expresses Zweig’s rage at the failure of the world to meet his ideals — which doesn’t undermine the ideals at all, but rather reinforces them. There’s nothing like the anger of someone with high hopes that have been dashed.

  10. Doctordi – thank you for that qualification. Isn’t it a complex and complicated problem? I’m still working out what I think about it myself. I seem to shy away from deciding on a stance every time I edge towards thinking about it.

    Dorothy – I would love to read the novel – your review was great, and I loved all the posts by the Slaves. They made me think that this is one intriguing book. You’re so right that it’s the contrast in those attitudes that’s so powerful.

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