Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stefan Zweig

In lieu of a review as I mismanaged my reading schedule, a few biographical details about Zweig. Stefan Zweig 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.’


Grad said...

Your review of the artist as an artist is excellent. I knew he had committed suicide, but your review provided me with another dimension to the man behind the artist. (I do not necessarily agree with you that a belief in the humanity of the human race is seldom in evidence. But, that's a discussion for another day.) As for the book, I was impressed that Zweig could write about despair as clearly and grippingly as he could about joy...euphoria even. He was obviously a master at painting emotion. However, Zweig describes only the zenith and the nadir of fortune - but nothing in between. Although I truly found it hard to put this book down, there was something disturbing, almost annoying, about both Christine and Ferdinand. In varying degrees, what began for me as feelings of sympathy and empathy for each, eventually turned rather sour. I began to believe that Christine's apparent self-consciousness was rather more a self-absorption, not unlike the young wealthy crowd she so much aspired to. Whether you believe yourself to be entitled to the heavy cream at the top, or whether you feel forever destined to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop - it's still all about you. Teaming up with Ferdinand could not have been a worse blend for her - he saw the world as bleakly as she did. The best solution these two hopeless people could devise was suicide or larceny. Either way suggests a lack of effort and responsibility. Certainly poverty and failed dreams are difficult to overcome, but not impossible. We don't have to look too far to find someone who has it worse than we do. In the end, I just wanted to tell them to grow up and stop complaining about how awful life was treating them...to "do something about it." Something more productive than shooting themselves. If I had not already heard that Zweig took his own life, I would not have been surprised to learn of it after reading this novel. There is much about despair here, with the only hope presented being death or a life of dishonesty and fear. I loved the work itself; I am not fond of the message I found in it.

litlove said...

Grad - are you a Slave? You ought to be. That's a marvellous comment from you with much for me (and the others) to ponder on. I can imagine that the emotional climate of the novel would be one of extremes, and that in the wake of failed idealism, destruction would be the only possibility. And that is, exactly as you say, a very difficult message to assimilate. There's something profoundly melancholy in a very European way about characters who are the victims of shattered dreams and highly-strung nerves. I guess the deference to authority that prevailed in that era did the rest. Beautiful, but hugely frustrating.

Oh and please let's have that conversation about humanism - I'd love to hear what you have to say about it.

Iliana said...

Litlove thank you so much for posting this about Zweig. I can't believe I'd never heard of this author before and it's amazing to read about his life and to realize that he was actually a bit of a celebrity back then. I loved this book and will definitely be looking for more of his work.

I found a website that listed his books but am not sure how many of those are actually translated. Anyway, great stuff and looking forward to the discussion!

stefanie said...

Thank you Litlove for all that wonderful information about Zweig. There is a little biographical note in my book but it lacked all the details you provided.

I think Grad needs to be a Slave and granted rights to post to the blog. And please Grad, will you join in the forum discussion?

SFP said...

Thank you, Litlove. Much more informative than the article I found in the library's database. Looking forward to your take on the book when you've had a chance to read it.

Also looking forward to the humanism discussion!