The Master of Passionate Excesses

Stefan Zweig probed the darkest emotions with exquisite deftness … and then gave up.

Stefan Zweig

The word that keeps coming back is fluent. Stefan Zweig was born fluent. Fluent in everything. Everything seemed to come easily to him. Born in 1881 into a very wealthy, open-minded Viennese Jewish family, he lived well and traveled widely; published at a very early age; finished his dissertation at an equally pre­cocious age; acquired unparalleled international fame as a biographer, novelist, playwright, es­sayist, and librettist; and had a roster of friends and acquaintances so exhaustive that it is diffi­cult to think of any European worthy of notice in the early decades of the past century whose biography would not at one point or another invoke the name of Stefan Zweig.

He appears everywhere, knows everyone, and is translated into more languages than any of his contempo­raries. Just about everything he put his mind to is stamped with the telltale ease, polish, and effortless grace of people whose success, liter­ary and otherwise, seemed given from the day they were born or picked up a pen. He never quarreled with his tools; his tools were happy to oblige. He didn’t spend nights searching for the mot juste; the mot juste simply came. Agony was not his style. In his work there is not one trace of difficulty overcome. Difficulty never came. There is—and one spots it from the very first sentence in almost everything he wrote—an unmistakable lightness of touch that makes him at once solemn and sociable, humble and pa­trician, scholar and raconteur.

The irony is sel­dom overblown, the drama never overstretched, and the psychology, for all its unsparing, dis­quieting probes into “spiritual upheavals … unknown and unsuspected,” remains spot-on and mischievously subtle. You won’t hear the lumpish footfalls of over-the-top sorrow or pick up the false accents of fin de siècle melancholia. Zweig is firm and fluent. Everything in its time, everything just right, never a false move, not one sleight of hand. The story almost writes itself, from beginning to end. He’ll stop either when he has nothing more to say or when it’s no longer safe or necessary to go any further.

Though similarities to E.T.A. Hoffmann and Guy de Mau­passant—as well as to Somerset Maugham, Arthur Schnitzler, and Alberto Moravia—are tempting, in Zweig we are in the brooding, highly urbane Central Euro­pean universe where sepulchral obsessions and the shady regions of the soul can only be glimpsed and not examined, much less ex­plained, and where redemption is seldom given or earned. He is the master of hidden impulses, of passionate excesses, of l’amour fou, of desires that run amok, and of “the confusion of senti­ments,” which is the title of one of his novellas—or, as he writes in that same novella, of “the unimaginable depths of human emotion.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Paul Verlaine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and, of course, that other free-thinking Viennese Jew Sigmund Freud—these are the voices to whom Zweig, as a scholar and biographer, had already de­voted many pages and whose timbre both underscores the penumbral cast of his fictional universe and explains his near-libidinal urge to penetrate the darker chambers of the heart.

Odd psychological states have a positively disquieting power over me; I find track­ing down the reasons for them deeply intriguing, and the mere presence of unu­sual characters can kindle a passionate desire in me to know more about them, a desire not much less strong than a wom­an’s wish to acquire some possession.

Stefan Zweig was a cosmopolite, a prototypi­cally Pan-European emancipated Jew, who managed to shed all belief systems with the exception of pacifism. To this day he remains, paradoxically enough, Europe’s most grace­fully defeated and disabused optimist. As of the early 1920s, he had picked up the menac­ing rumbles in Adolf Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. By 1933 he showed suffi­cient prescience to see that life was no longer viable for Jews in the German-speaking world and soon moved to England.

And yet, for all his foresight, he too wished to trust Neville Chamber­lain’s assurances that Germany would not seek another war. Like all those who watched the gathering storm, he couldn’t bring himself to heed what was being shouted each time the Führer spoke. Distressed by the war in Europe, he moved to the United States, then settled in a villa in Brazil, where, in 1942—inexplicably—he and his second wife took their own lives. Their bodies were found lying fully clothed in bed; they were holding hands. His was not Walter Benjamin’s suicide, nor the suicide of so many who were hunted down and whose panic before arrest, deportation, and slaughter drove them to seek the quicker exit.

And yet here, as ever with Zweig, things be­come quite misty. He gulped down a fatal dose of Veronal at the age of 60 for the startling reason, as he put it in his suicide note, that he simply didn’t have it in him to “make a new beginning.” There is something so resigned and understated, so speciously civil and gen­teel in his reasons for committing suicide that a recent critic likened his last words to an Os­car acceptance speech. In suicide, Zweig came home to a world he’d already crafted in fiction. Yet whereas suicide was a desperately affirm­ing move in his characters, in him it repre­sented the gradual etiolation of will, purpose, and desire. Zweig wasn’t interested.

One could allege many reasons for his sui­cide. There was no escaping a world at war—even in the safety of the relatively ritzy resort town of Petrópolis on the southern coast of Brazil. Plus—and despite his praises of the country in Brazil: A Land of the Future—Zweig must have found the solitude around his villa supremely stultifying. As far removed from the dangers of war as Petrópolis was, it could offer nothing resembling the social and intellectual climate he was used to, even in crepuscular prewar Europe. Plus he must have sensed that there was, in 1942, no way of defeating the anti-Semitic hydra, which kept sprouting more heads each time the Allies tried to crush it.

Above all, and perhaps here lies a good part of the reason for taking his life, his world was crumbling, had crumbled. “Everything, or almost everything that represents my work in the world during forty years has been de­stroyed”—this from his memoir The World of Yesterday, begun during his brief stay in New York. The indefatigable globetrotter (as he re­ferred to himself once) of l’entre-deux-guerres, who had sought out the world with so much zeal but who always knew that a lavish, shel­tering home awaited him in Vienna, and later in Salzburg, had lost his bearings.

From Aus­tria, to France, to England, to the United States, and now far-flung Brazil, he must have felt like an untethered punt drifting up against a river­bank. “I ceased to feel as if I quite belonged to myself. A part of the natural identity with my original and essential ego was destroyed for­ever.” He might well have been glad to build a new existence in Brazil, since, as he wrote, “the world of my own language [had] disap­peared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, [had] destroyed itself.” But not at the age of 60. Suddenly, thrust into the wings of his­tory, this urbane man about Europe had be­come yesterday’s man.

But the damage was done not in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, or on Kristallnacht in 1938, or on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany unleashed World War II. The real damage was done in 1914 when the “world of security,” as Zweig referred to it, came to a sudden end. Unfit for military serv­ice, he had been assigned to the archives of the Ministry of War, but by 1917, while on leave in Switzerland, was finally dismissed from service. It was in neutral Switzerland, under the aegis of the 1915 Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, that he became a confirmed pacifist. It was also in Switzerland that he became aware of a certain cast of people who, in his words, lived “amphibiously”—that is, between countries, between languages, between loyalties and identities: in short, in exile.

Little did he know then that he would eventually become the ultimate amphibian himself. One day in Zurich, Zweig offered to help James Joyce translate a difficult passage from A Portrait of the Artistinto German. As they were about to do so, both decided to try the words in French first and then in Italian before working their way back to German. To the Austrian’s astonishment, not only did this staunch Irishman, who was his junior by three months, turn out to know English better than Britons but he possessed an “incredible knowledge of lan­guages”—of German, French, and Italian.

But signs of such linguistic fluency and open intellectual traffic during the worst conflict known to mankind, instead of reassuring Zweig that the world could easily rise above war, should have reminded him that the fragile world of prewar empires, which had made cul­tural ductility the most desirable currency known to humans, was expiring before his very eyes and that he himself was fast becoming a vestige, a shadow of that era. The amphibian world of the composer Ferruccio Busoni (part German, part Italian) or of the novelist René Schickele (part German, part French) would never last, nor would there be room one day for Semites whose hearts were in the Aryan world. As Zweig must have felt in 1935 when the Nazis forbade the production of Richard Strauss’ opera, for which he himself had writ­ten the libretto, mankind would become more blinkered and more barbarous yet. World War II simply administered the finishing blow.

Signs of the collapse were still very hazy. Be­low the Old World charm and velvety compo­sure of Zweig’s narratives or, for that matter, of his farewell note, lurked many demons. Zweig was no stranger to demons. In his book The Struggle With the Demon, about Heinrich von Kleist, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Nietzsche, he was fascinated by how great artists, including Beethoven and Michelangelo, were stirred by demonic, “volcanic,” mono­maniacal urges. But what lurked beneath these compulsive demons was something more in­tangible, more sinister, and ultimately more damning, because it found its seat in Zweig’s far tamer, more conciliatory, and depressive personality: the specter of regret, the specter of what might have been if only …

If only one could turn back the clock, if only remem­brance didn’t stifle all hope or renunciation foil desire. If only one could do something to stem the course of what seems unavoidable, if only one didn’t give up before even trying, if only one had acted sooner or not acted at all. If only life did not have to end. If only is the unspoken, the unspeakable, the thing that even the most talented writers cannot name, for one can neither rise above it nor put it be­hind one—only gape and play with tenses. If only is the last stop before we enter the shadowlands. And into shadowlands Zweig had stepped long before the Veronal. As he writes in the closing lines of The World of Yesterday:

Homeward bound I suddenly noticed before me my own shadow as I had seen the shadow of the other war behind the actual one. During all this time it has never budged from me, that irremovable shadow, it hovers over every thought of mine by day and by night; perhaps its dark outline lies on some pages of this book, too. But, after all, shadows them­selves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.

The language here may seem a touch too flu­ent, but it does suggest that the past has ways of reaching into the present and from there into the future to make us the playthings of time. Shadows know more about us than we know ourselves, are more like us than we care to know. They reach into areas where we fear to tread, bear their own secrets, tell their own tales, speak their own tongue. They even fore­tell what is likely to happen and, as Freud knew so well, reinvent what might have hap­pened and perhaps did indeed happen—who’s to know. Shadows are how we grope and speak of time when we’ve run out of time.

A longer version of this piece appears as the introduction to a reissue of Stefan Zweig’s Journey Into the Past from New York Review Books Classics.

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