How often the cruelest critiques come from friends. It was certainly true for Stefan Zweig. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Austrian Jewish writer was one of the world’s best-selling authors. His novellas and story collections broke sales records in Germany the week of their publications. Biographies tumbled from his pen. He made Robert Musil jealous and Thomas Mann sniffle. Even in the build-up to World War II, when Jewish writers were being banned or harassed or worse, Zweig was permitted to write the libretto for a Richard Strauss opera.
During his lifetime, Zweig would have no more colorful or close friend than the Ukrainian-born, Viennese-educated Jewish novelist Joseph Roth. “I envy you your lovely epic calm,” Roth wrote to Zweig in April of 1930, after the wealthy, far-more-successful writer accidentally sent his younger colleague two copies of his latest story collection. “How serene is even the saddest thing you have to say!” Shot toward the beginning of their friendship, it’s a striking arrow, serrated with accuracy.
For a writer whose working life straddled both world wars, the latter of which found him exiled by the killing machine of Hitler’s Third Reich, Zweig effects a surprising calm on the page. This is, to some degree, a strength. Zweig has none of Roth’s splenetic narration or Musil’s obsessively coded modernism. One can read him today and understand the context in which his tales are taking place. They are neatly carpentered, companionable page-turners.
And yet this proficiency and quietude is the very thing that keeps him from greatness. To read a Zweig book is to be swaddled in the calm of a confident master, whose ideas of humanity are stubbornly, if admirably, adherent. One need only read Zweig’s posthumous memoir, The World of Yesterday, newly released by University of Nebraska, to appreciate the tumult and heave of his times and the extraordinary luminaries with whom he crossed paths.
But of all the pivotal figures he met—James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Theodor Herzl, who picked out his early poetry for its promise—only Sigmund Freud seems to have made a significant impact on his thinking. Zweig’s celebrated novellas and biographical essays entirely side-step the modernist revolution. Instead, they pivot on a character assessment, like a contemporary Honoré de Balzac, with sharper, niftier technology in his tool kit.
In the past two decades, largely at the hands of the poet and translator Michael Hofmann, Roth has enjoyed a resurgence. And thanks to Anthea Bell, who has brought us the beautiful translations of W. G. Sebald, we now have many of the books that made Zweig the Updike of his time, from the novel Beware of Pity to his memoir and now The Collected Stories, a fat, orange volume that brings together several dozen of the short works upon which Zweig’s reputation rested in his heyday.
The stories are strikingly melodramatic. Reading one after another, it feels like bingeing on a period soap opera on DVR. Passion unleashed almost always takes on an arsonist fever. Many tales end in death or suicide, or utter ruin for the narrator, who is frequently nestled within the story, telling his tale to a sensitive, cosmopolitan listener. In this way, the reader is exposed and protected. Instead of becoming Zweig’s characters, we become confession gatherers, gallery observers, witnesses of an obscure sort.
“Her real name was Crescentia Anna Aloisia Finkenhuber,” begins “Leporella,” a tale about a maid and her disastrous relationship with her employer. “She was thirty-nine years old, she had been born out of wedlock and came from a small mountain village in the Ziller valley.” Even in that first sentence, you sense the poor woman is doomed. “Grey mist lay low over Antwerp,” goes the first line of “The Miracles of Life.” “The shapes of houses were blurred in the fine, smoky vapor, and you could not see to the end of the street.”
Zweig is a lucid writer, and Bell renders his prose flawlessly, but the author can’t help but lay on the mist-machines of atmospherics like the libretto writer he also was: snow falling, light streaming in rooms, somnolent ship bells. His writing is so full of portent one often feels the characters, who Zweig is meant to be laying bare to us, are mere buoys, bobbing on tides of essential human nature much bigger than them. “In the Snow,” which spins a tale about Jews fleeing coming evangelicals, is literally buried in these omens. Their flight is stopped by a heavy snowfall, which kills them.
Any other writer would give such a development a black irony. In Zweig’s hands, it reads like a fairy tale, propelled by a single moral. Flight—and fear—is often worse than what it aims to protect us from. This streamlining of purpose makes Zweig’s stories read like entertainment, even when what they have to tell us is unpleasant or bogged down in many plot twists and turns. “A Summer Novella,” for instance, is full of numerous reversals as its hero confesses to Zweig he has manipulated the feelings of a young girl. Like Poe, Zweig understood the bleak appeal of ruin; unlike Poe, however, he doesn’t nudge us in conspiracy as disaster looms. As a result, many of these stories have the odd flatness of an incident, well-recounted but merely recounted nonetheless.
In “The World of Yesterday,” Zweig spends a considerable amount of time decrying the stultifying bourgeois values of Vienna, before the war—how women were raised to be asexual and men serviced by monstrous throngs of prostitutes. Yet there are very few instances in these stories where the chaotic nature of desire, or natural human emotions, like vanity, are allowed their many-sidedness. Prostitutes are in horrendous relationships; vain people get their comeuppance. Memory comes like a fog. The emotions feel hermetic, text-book, rather than living.
A collector of manuscripts and famous friends, Zweig had a lepidopterist’s faith in order, human civilization and fellowship. It’s what success taught him, because he was rich to begin with. Roth, dyspeptic and forever broke, with his grim childhood and failing body, tried to correct him on this score as he saw what was coming in Austria and Europe. On the eve of Hitler’s election as chancellor of Germany in 1933, Roth wrote to his friend with a kind of warning. “You are lucky enough … not to be able to see certain depths of darkness, yes, you avert your eye.” He went on to say: “You may be smart, but your humanity blinds you to others’ wickedness. You live on goodness and faith. Whereas I have been known to make startlingly accurate observations about evil.”
Roth, on this as in so many other scores, proved to be right. Hitler’s rise was swift and brutal. Within a year, Roth would leave for Paris, Zweig to London, to escape the fate that befell so many other European Jews. The two cities say a lot about their fellow temperaments as stations of exile: one orderly and cosmopolitan, the other sensual and closer to the front. The BBC interviewed the newly decamped Zweig, when he arrived in London. He merely said he admired the city’s libraries and the ability to work unharassed. In a few years, this proved to no longer be the case.
Reading Collected Stories in light of Zweig’s tragic life, it’s hard not to see a larger lesson therein. In the story “Twilight,” a manipulative countess is exiled from court. Alone, she nearly goes mad. To preserve her sanity and win back her standing, she begins making friends, hosting parties. She is, however, more lonely than ever. “The whole thing … seemed to her somehow amusing and extremely ludicrous,” she thinks, when she decides to kill herself. “To think that you had only to take that one tiny sip, and tomorrow you wouldn’t see the clouds, the fields, the woods any more.”
In 1942, Zweig and his wife made a similar choice. He mailed off the manuscript of his final novella, The Chess Story, his darkest and his best, to his publisher. A biography of Balzac and his memoir would follow. He had never publicly spoken ill of Germany. Then he and his young German wife drank a vial of poison and laid down on a bed in a rented home in Brazil and died together. A disturbing photograph of them in the moment of their death can be found on the Internet. The order he had seen in the golden age of Vienna, that he had found in his fiction, was smashed forever.
John Freeman is the author of How to Read a Novelist.