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.’