Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig
by stefan zweig
translated by anthea bell
pushkin, 384 pages, $30

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig
by stefan zweig
translated by anthea bell
pushkin, 720 pages, $14.99


The World of Yesterday
by stefan zweig
translated by anthea bell
nebraska, 472 pages, $24.95

In The Struggle with the Daemon—one of his three studies in the typology of writers—Stefan Zweig describes three writers, Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche, each possessed by his daemon, or inner spirit. Not one of the three, along with their congeners Michelangelo and Beethoven, married or had children, or had a regular income or possessions. “Their friendships were transitory,” Zweig writes, “their appointments fugitive, their work ­unremunerative; they stood ever in vacant space and created in the void.” Zweig is here describing the reverse of his own career and life—that is, until 1942. On February 23 of that year, in a mountain town outside Rio de Janeiro called Petrópolis, at the age of sixty, along with his second wife Lotte, who was twenty-seven years younger than he, Stefan Zweig took his own life.

Stefan Zweig was an internationally bestselling author of both fiction and biography. Born in Austria, brought up in Vienna, he was a true cosmopolitan, at home in France, Italy, England, and the United States, able to give formal lectures in French, Italian, and English. (“I was sure in my heart from the first of my identity as a citizen of the world,” he wrote in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday.) His splendid biography of Marie Antoinette was made into an MGM movie starring Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. Twenty-four hundred people attended a lecture he gave in Carnegie Hall in 1938. He wrote libretti for Richard Strauss. At one point he was said to be the most translated writer in the world. Rilke, Rodin, Freud, Paul Valéry, ­Benedetto Croce, Maxim Gorky, and Romain Rolland were among his friends and acquaintances.

At fifty, Zweig felt that he had been

given far, far more than I had hoped or expected. My wish to develop and express myself through writing works of some literary merit had been granted beyond my wildest childhood dreams. . . .
My existence had had immeasurable influence beyond the confines of my life. I had made friends with many of the finest people of our time; I had seen and enjoyed wonderful artistic performances, immortal cities and pictures, and the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I had remained free, ­independent of any official position or career, my work was a pleasure to me, and even better it had given pleasure to others! What could go wrong?

What went wrong was, in a word, Hitler. The political victory of Adolf Hitler in 1933 meant the personal defeat of Stefan Zweig. With fascism in the saddle, Zweig’s books were banned in Germany and Austria and often burned by fascist youth; he lost his house in Salzburg and with it much of his collection of rare literary and musical manuscripts and artifacts (he owned, among other notable items, Beethoven’s desk and Goethe’s pen); and his first marriage collapsed. Zweig was an internationalist by instinct and political philosophy—that is, a believer in the compatibility of all nations—but Hitler’s Germany put paid to that dream. On the attack throughout Europe, Germany, a nation to which, Zweig said, “good order had always seemed more important than liberty and justice,” had turned Stefan Zweig from a contented cosmopolitan into a woeful exile. “It is over,” Zweig wrote in his ­diary, “Europe finished. Our world destroyed. Now we are truly homeless.”

In 1934 Zweig published his biography of Erasmus, the great scholar and perhaps the first, certainly the primary, humanist of medieval Europe. Zweig called Erasmus “my revered master of an earlier century” and classed his own book about him as among his “most personal, most intimate work.” His Erasmus of Rotterdam, he wrote, “presented my own views in veiled form through the person of Erasmus” and was “a thinly veiled self-portrait.”

Zweig’s Erasmus is a man, like Zweig himself, dedicated, in politics as in life, to “a supranational and panhuman ideal.” Like Zweig again, Erasmus was condemned to live through “a time of storm and stress,” the religious revolution led by ­Martin Luther. At a time of heightened contention, Erasmus felt it the duty of the artist and the intellectual “to act as sympathetic mediator between the politicians and the leaders and misleaders of a one-sided passion; he was to be the man of moderation who worked towards the golden mean.” Like Zweig, too, Erasmus was an international bestseller: His book of aphorisms and observations, Adagia, went through twelve editions in his lifetime; his In Praise of Folly (Laus stultitiae) was a book popular in its day, still readable in ours, and singled out by Zweig as “in reality a bomb whose explosion opened the road to the German Reformation.”

Zweig-like yet again, Erasmus’s life, owing to the tumult of his times, ended in exile. He was “forced to leave Louvain because it was too Catholic; he was forced to leave Basel because it was too Protestant.” Zweig writes: “He who had so implicitly believed in the possibility of a resurrection and renovation of man and his world by the workings of the spirit and the mind grew bitterer, more mocking, and more ironical in his attitude to the world without.” Yet Erasmus, his integrity intact, died peacefully, chatting in Latin with friends gathered round his bed. Stefan Zweig died by his own hand, preferring death to a world that looked to be permanently darkened by Hitler.

All paradises, Proust held, are lost paradises. By his own account, Stefan Zweig was born in 1881 into one such paradise—the Austro-Hungarian Empire toward the end of the nineteenth century. Vienna at that time, as he writes in The World of Yesterday, offered “the noble delusion [of security, progress, and moral advancement] that our fathers served.” Zweig’s father, whose family’s origins were in Moravia, was a successful manufacturer of textiles. His mother’s family, which had greater social and cultural pretensions, was in banking. They were among those middle- and upper-middle-class secular Jews who “made significant contributions to Viennese culture, only to be exterminated root and branch by way of thanks.” But this was to come later, and Zweig claimed to have known no anti-Semitism while growing up in Vienna.

What he did know was the passionate interest in culture that pervaded the Viennese. “You were not truly Viennese,” he writes of the days of his youth, “without a love for culture, a bent for both enjoying and assessing the prodigality of life as something sacred.” This made for a world that, as he wrote, “offered itself to me like a fruit, beautiful and rich with promise.” The city’s culture was “a synthesis of all Western cultures,” and the Jewish bourgeoisie was preeminent in its intellectual life. “In fact, it must be said in all honesty,” Zweig wrote, “that a good part, if not the greater part, of all that is admired today in Europe and America as the expression of a newly revived Austrian culture in music, literature, the theatre, the art trade, was the work of the Jews of Vienna, whose intellectual drive, dating back for thousands of years, brought them to a peak of achievement.” In Vienna, too, Zweig “learnt early to love the idea of community as the highest ideal of my heart.” This ideal, apolitical at its core, did not serve him well with the advent of fascism in Europe.

As do so many artists and scien­tists, the youthful Zweig found school a great bore. In the classroom he found only compulsion and dreary rote learning, “a place where you had to absorb knowledge of subjects that did not seem worth knowing, sliced into neat portions.” What Zweig did acquire in school, along with working knowledge of several languages, was “a passion for freedom . . . and with it a hatred for all that is authoritarian, all dictums issued from on high, and it has accompanied me all my life.”

The action, for Zweig and his coterie of closer school friends, was outside the classroom. They went to the theatre, the philharmonic, the opera; read Rilke, Nietzsche, ­Strindberg. ­Viennese coffeehouses provided newspapers and copies of the reviews of the day, including the Mercure de France and the Burlington Magazine, which carried short stories and feuilletons and cultural news around the continent. “We were particularly keen to know all about what was not generally acknowledged, and was difficult to get hold of, extravagant, new and radical,” Zweig wrote. “Nothing was so abstruse and remote that our collective and avidly competitive curiosity did not want to entice it out of hiding.” Zweig closes the portion of his autobiography about his education by remarking that of all his fellow gymnasium students, “I am the only one in whom the creative passion has lasted, has become the meaning and core of my whole life.”

Zweig held that “the true desire of a Jew, his inbuilt ideal, is to rise to a higher social plane by becoming an intellectual.” This, certainly, was the name of Zweig’s desire. He began to establish his own intellectual bona fides when he first emerged into print at the age of nineteen with a book of less than immortal poems. His breakthrough came with his publication in the Neue Freie Presse, edited by ­Theodor ­Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. He ­attempted to write for the stage, but without much success. He next turned to translation, working on the poems of the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren. He began to write and publish stories. He lived for a spell in Berlin, then moved on to Paris, which offered “wise instruction in how to be both creative and free.” In Paris he acquired the lesson of artistic ­concentration from Rodin. The lives of artists, the motives and methods of their creation, would become one of his great subjects.

Stefan Zweig’s most famous book may be The World of Yesterday, begun in 1934 and mailed off to his publisher a day before his and his wife’s deaths in 1942. The World of Yesterday is at once an homage to Austro-Hungary and a threnody over its passing. The book is not deeply introspective, but then Zweig felt that true introspection was rarely available in autobiography. In his introduction to Adepts in Self-Portraiture, his book about Casanova, Stendhal, and Tolstoy, he remarks that “autobiography is the hardest of all forms of literary art” and observes how difficult it is “to discern the innermost happenings of the soul; few even of the accomplished artists that have attempted autobiography have been successful in the performance of this difficult and responsible task.”

Shame is the stop sign in nearly all introspective autobiography. Too great frankness in autobiography is to be suspected. Zweig notes that Tolstoy had no difficulty in revealing his whoremongering and much else in the line of youthful roistering and irresponsibility, but couldn’t bring himself to reveal his consistently ­ungenerous treatment of ­Dostoevsky, which makes him seem small, pathetic, mean-spirited. As Zweig notes elsewhere, “naked truth demands from the artist an act of peculiar heroism; for the autobiographer must play the traitor to himself.”

Confession, in any case, was not Stefan Zweig’s preferred mode. He was more interested in the revelations he could wring from the characters in his fiction, and the men and women who were the subjects of his biographical portraits, than in setting out his own flaws, weaknesses, and sins. Modesty and self-doubt are keynotes in Zweig. “I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life,” he writes early in The World of Yesterday. He goes on to report that he has always been “doubtful of myself.” He wasn’t counting on immortality for his works—“my own rather ephemeral books,” he calls them. In a letter to his first wife, he wrote that he knew “how relative all literature is, don’t have any faith in mankind . . . expect nothing from the future.”

Zweig wrote essays, journalism, brilliant portraits of Montaigne, Casanova, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Balzac, and others, and innumerable bits and fragments, or Schnipsel, as the Germans call them. He published many stories and a number of novellas—“the blest nouvelle,” Henry James called the form, midway between novel and short story—but, with the exception of Beware of Pity, not one of his stronger works, he never, for reasons that will become clear, wrote a successful novel. No wonder that by forty-six he had begun to feel “as if the screws are coming loose in the machine: the best thing would be to switch it off completely in its ­fiftieth year and make another attempt to experience the world again instead of describing it.”

Not the least notable thing about Stefan Zweig’s writing is how varied the reactions to it have been. Among contemporaries, Thomas Mann thought Zweig a mediocrity. Robert Musil, Bertolt Brecht, Hermann Hesse, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal did not think much better of him. When told that Zweig had conquered all the languages of the world, Karl Kraus responded by saying, “Except one.” (Zweig called Kraus, rightly, a “master of venomous ridicule.”) But, then, these German and Austrian writers were quite possibly envious of Zweig’s commercial success.

In our own day, a distrust of Zweig’s quality remains, even among those ostensibly writing on his behalf in introductions to his recently reprinted books. André Aciman notes “the Old World charm and velvety composure of Zweig’s narratives.” Joan Acocella remarks on a certain “upholstered” quality to Zweig’s fiction. Peter Gay upbraids Zweig for a want of candor: “Before the all-too-final act of suicide, Zweig, writing Chess Story, might have included his readers more frankly, more openly, about the desperate struggles within him.” ­Michael Hofmann, in a 2010 demolition job in the London Review of Books, writes: “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.” Hofmann claims that “every page he writes is formulaic, thin, swollen, platitudinous,” and compares Zweig to “someone walking up a down escalator, his eyes anxiously fixed on Parnassus—all those people and friends whose manuscripts he collected—toiling away and not coming close.”

On the other side of the ledger, Zweig has never lacked for admirers, critics ready to compare his stories to those of Turgenev, Maupassant, Chekhov, his biographical interpretations like unto those of Montaigne, and to cite Zweig himself as “the incarnation of humanism.” Critics have admired his “concision and subtlety”; others his “passion and dedication.” But his most impressive contemporary defender is the critic Clive James, who devotes the final chapter of his Cultural Amnesia to the works of Stefan Zweig, thus suggesting that it is precisely our neglect of writers such as Zweig—cultivated and learned, a man who lived for art—that is likely to bring on cultural amnesia in our time.

Clive James is keener on Stefan Zweig as a biographical portraitist than as a storyteller. James notes that Zweig “always wrote wonderfully about Montaigne, with whom he shared the gift of summarizing and assessing the actions of historical figures.” He goes on to suggest what I believe is true, that behind Zweig’s skill as a biographer was a powerful admiration for those he wrote about. “Zweig was the sum total of his appreciations,” James writes, “to which his style gave the spiritual unity that they never had in life.”

As for Stefan Zweig the story­teller, here his reputation seems to suffer from his stories’ and novellas’ being too well-made, if that can really stand as a criticism. They are all truly stories; in them moral crises are encountered and resolved, people learn about themselves, lives are changed. The endings do not disappoint. Zweig claimed to be entranced by “the tragedy of losers,” noting: “I am always most attracted to the character who is struck down by fate in my novellas, and in my biographies it is those who are morally right but never achieve success who appeal to me.” Several of the characters in his fictions are obsessives—mono­maniacs, chess fanatics, passionate bibliophiles, dog-lovers among them. He is also attracted to the sadder emotions: confusion, pity, fear. But in all his fiction the people come alive, one wants to read on, and the unpredictable never seems implausible—three tests for excellent fiction, which Zweig never fails to pass.

Then there are the touches, little and large, that show the hand of a master. Aperçus and aphorisms abound: In “Downfall of the Heart,” we learn that “to know yourself is to defend yourself, but it is usually in vain.” In Beware of Pity, we find that “only those with whom life had dealt hardly, the wretched, the slighted, the uncertain, the unlovely, the ­humiliated, could really be helped by love. . . . They alone knew how to love and be loved as one should love and be loved—gratefully and humbly.”

In Confusion, a story about a student’s infatuation with a teacher, Zweig accounts for the infatuation by presenting snippets of a brilliant lecture on the Elizabethan playwrights and poets, so that the reader himself becomes infatuated. Early in Chess Story—which tells of a shipboard chess match between an idiot-savant champion and a man who learned his chess from a book on famous chess-master matches while being brutally interrogated by the Nazis—Zweig offers a description of chess, “the royal game,” that is as good as any I know:

But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, a cogitation producing nothing, a mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end? Any child can learn its basic rules, any amateur can try his hand at it; and yet, within the inalterable confines of a chessboard, masters unlike any others evolve, people with a talent for chess and chess alone, special geniuses whose gifts of imagination, patience and skill are just as precisely apportioned as those of mathematicians, poets, and musicians, but differently arranged and combined.

Perhaps Stefan Zweig’s current low reputation as a storyteller is owing to his not having written a single great work of fiction of novel length, unlike his friend Joseph Roth (whom Zweig financially supported for nearly a decade) with The Radetzky March, or Ivan Goncharov with Oblomov, or Boris Pasternak with (his one novel) Dr. Zhivago. In The World of Yesterday, Zweig provides a clue to why he never wrote a great novel, and it lies in his method of composition. One of the many divisions among writers is that between those who endlessly add to their manuscripts (Balzac and Proust spring to mind) and those who cut them down. Zweig was one of the latter. Calling himself an impatient reader, suffering keenly from tedium—“anything long-winded, high-flown, or gushing irritates me, so does everything that is vague and indistinct”—he readily took the cleaver to his own writing. (Though not everywhere: His excellent biographies of Marie Antoinette and of Balzac both come in at around four hundred pages.) “If I have mastered any kind of art,” Zweig wrote, “it is the art of leaving things out. . . . So if anything at least partly accounts for the success of my books, it is my strict discipline in preferring to confine myself to short works of literature, concentrating on the heart of the matter.” But the concision that made for popular success in his day may have hurt his reputation in ours.

Zweig’s art of concision works to maximum effect in his biographical portraits. Consider those of ­Casanova and Nietzsche, two men who would have found little to say to each other, but both of whom spoke to the imagination of Stefan Zweig.

Casanova, Zweig begins, is “a chance intruder in world literature, above all because this famous charlatan has as little right in the pantheon of creative geniuses as the name of Pontius Pilate has in the Creed.” ­Casanova was not only a fraud, but a man for whom “fraud is not merely a fine art, but a supreme moral duty.” Zweig reports that “he lacked will, resolution, patience,” cared only to be free, and had the unremitting courage to insure his freedom. “Courage,” Zweig writes, “that is the keynote of Casanova’s art of life, that is his gift of gifts.” Here, as set out by Zweig, is Casanova’s philosophy:

Live for this world, unconcernedly and spontaneously; do not allow yourself to be cheated by regard for another world (which may indeed exist, but whose existence is extremely doubtful), or by regard for posterity. Do not let finespun theories divert your attention from things close at hand; do not direct your endeavours towards a distant goal; follow the promptings of the moment. Foresight will cripple your activities here and now. Do not trouble your head with prudential considerations. Some strange ­deity has set us down in our seat at this gaming table of a world. If we wish to amuse ourselves there, we must accept the rules of the game, taking them as they are, without troubling to inquire whether they are good rules or bad.

As befits the professional ­seducer, the paneroticist, Casanova eschewed anything resembling ethics. Boredom was his greatest enemy, induced tension among his chief desiderata. When not in the boudoirs of ­women—in love, as Zweig notes, “he is nothing more than an episodist”—Casanova sought out the gambling tables, where he found “the titillation of anxiety” played nicely off the “shuddering expectation” of victorious profit. Zweig, with his instinct for all that will interest his readers, takes a moment to describe ­Casanova’s physique: “This bel uomo is no ephebe; nothing of the sort! He is a stallion of a man, with the shoulders of the Farnese ­Hercules, the muscles of a Roman wrestler, the bronzed beauty of a gypsy lad, the impudence and audacity of a ­condottiere, and the sexual ardour of a satyr.”

Sword wounds, venereal disease, prison terms, poisonings—“none of these things,” Zweig writes, “abate his phallic energy by a jot.” He describes Casanova’s memoirs, written in old age when this energy was depleted, as “an occidental Kama-sutra, an Odyssey of the wanderings of the flesh, an Iliad of the eternal masculine rut for the eternal Helen.” ­Casanova wrote them out of boredom while serving as librarian to Count ­Waldstein in Bohemia, feeling none of the normal constraints of autobiography since he knew no shame and must have felt he was writing less about his own life than about the history of a campaign.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote no autobiography. Nor is it possible to imagine him on a night on the town—any night, any town—with Giacomo Casanova. The chief point of Stefan Zweig’s dazzling portrait of Nietzsche is his utter loneliness. Zweig’s object, he proclaims, “is to portray Nietzsche’s life, not as a ­biography but as a tragedy of the spirit, as a work of dramatic art, for me his true work began when the ­artist in the man was released and became conscious of enfranchisement.” The release came when ­Nietzsche left his academic post at the Basel and went off on his own in search of truth. “Now, what renders this life unique and tragical,” Zweig writes, “is precisely the absence of repose in Nietzsche’s searchings, his ­incessant urge to think, his compulsory advance.”

What Nietzsche sought was style, or, in Nietzsche’s own words, “morality in the grand style.” According to Zweig, “he did not want to be happy but to be true. Nine-tenths of philosophers seek rest. Not so Nietzsche.” Zweig traces the relentlessness of this quest, and the dangerousness of it. As a hero of thought, Nietzsche “loved life precisely because it was dangerous and annihilated his personal existence.” Nietzsche wrote: “I know my fate. On a day to come my name will be associated with something quite out of the ordinary, with a crisis such as the world has never heretofore experienced, with the profoundest clashes in the conscience, with a decision entered upon in defiance of all that has so far been held sacred and as an article of faith.”

Zweig compares the intellectual career of Nietzsche with that of Goethe, whose life was orderly, carefully paced: “After going through a revolutionary period he [Goethe] turned conservative, after a phase of lyricism he became a man of ­science, after being prodigal of himself he learned how to be reserved.” ­Nietzsche went in the opposite direction, from professor to the ultimate freelance, cultivating intellectual passion, shedding religion and conventional morality, courting disintegration. “This led him in the end,” Zweig writes, “to an excitability of mind which bordered on madness and had fatal results.”

The influence of music in ­Nietzsche went well beyond his tangled relationship with Wagner. Zweig discovers it in his prose, and in a brilliant passage he writes:

The andante maestoso of his earlier works changed into a sinuous and flexible movement possessing the qualities of a genuinely musical idiom. The delicacies of touch we expect from a master of the art are there for the seeking: the crisp staccati of the aphorisms, the mezza voce of the hymns, the pizzicati of his mockery, the daring harmonization of his prose and his maxims. Even his punctuation—unspoken speech—his dashes, his italics, could find equivalents in the terminology of the elements of music.

Zweig does not so much elucidate Nietzsche’s ideas as limn the nature of his extraordinary quest. He describes Nietzsche’s collapse as “a sort of carbonization in his own flames” brought on by the intensity of his own feelings. The reward of the man who follows his daemon unstintingly turns out, in Nietzsche’s case, to be oblivion. “One who has gazed so intently into the eyes of the daemon,” Zweig writes, “is henceforth blinded”—in Nietzsche’s case, by madness.

Nietzsche is a hero for ­Stefan Zweig not least because “he alone recognized how frightful a hurricane was about to disturb our civilization.” Nietzsche was for Zweig “the spearhead of a revolt against the triviality of habitual thought and the monotonousness of conventional morality,” but it was his prophetic powers that attracted Zweig most of all. “No one felt so strongly as he that the old order was decayed and done with, and that, amid death-dealing crises, a new and mighty order was about to begin. Now at length we know it, as he knew it decades ago.” This was the order—or rather, disorder—of disputatious nations, wars, fascism, communism, and mass murder on a scale unknown through all earlier barbarous ages.

Zweig had fame, wealth, the love of a younger woman, but all of it was not enough to brace him to go on living in a world blanketed by what he felt was unrelieved darkness, with only worse to come. So on the morning of February 23, 1942, ­Stefan Zweig was found, fully dressed, on his back, in an iron bed, holding hands with his wife, both dead from an overdose of Veronal.

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.