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03/26/2014 04:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Reader's Guide To Stefan Zweig

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Stefan Zweig was an enormously prolific author--he composed dozens of novellas and short stories, two novels (one incomplete), a shelf worth of fat biographies, comparative studies of great artists, philosophers and healers, a hefty memoir--and that's not to mention plays, libretti, poems, hundreds of articles and over 30,000 letters. So where to plunge in?

As a takeoff point, I'd start with one of the novellas suggested below. Almost every one of the fictions he wrote, from those composed during his happiest period as a global celebrity author in the mid-1920s to those written in his tormented last years as a wandering exile, contain moments of great strength and overarching conceits of compelling poignancy. (It's a sad irony that as Zweig's life became more miserable he became convinced that his writing had lost all its driving force, while in fact his late work is often his best. He's an exemplary case of the unfortunate truth that joy in the act of creation is no gauge of value.) Once you've dipped into the world of Zweig's novellas, and begin to get some sense of the abundance of characters, haunting predicaments and evocative settings he created, I wouldn't wait to begin his autobiography, The World of Yesterday. He'd once thought of titling it My Three Lives, since his life story seemed to fall into three phases--pre-World War I, Intra-war, and post-Hitler's ascendancy--that were so discrete he couldn't fathom how a single person could have passed through the full gamut of his experiences. After the memoir, I'd turn to his one completed novel, Beware of Pity, which reads like a macabre nightmare of Raskilnokov stripped of God and jammed into the Habsburg Empire on the eve of World War.

From there--well--everything else. There's always some strange and telling efflorescence of the human predicament to be observed in Zweig's work. A line from his novella The Burning Secret was chosen as the epigraph for a collection of stories he published the year he went into exile: "Gradually he became conscious of the amazing kaleidoscope presented to him by life." It's this kaleidoscope that Zweig ultimately sought to hold up to the reader's gaze, and the response he sought to kindle above all was sheer marveling admiration for the varieties of human nature. As he wrote in one biography, "if we admire more, and more intensively, than others, we shall ourselves grow richer than those timid ones who content themselves with choice morsels of life instead of grasping life in its entirety."

Buchmendel

"He read as others pray, as gamblers follow the spinning of the roulette wheel, as drunkards stare into vacancy; he read with such profound absorption that ever since I first watched him the reading of ordinary mortals has seemed a pastime." Zweig's tale of a shabby Galician second-hand book dealer who possesses a titanic memory and conducts all his business from a Viennese coffeehouse begins as an affectionate, gently teasing portrait of an eccentric. But with the eruption of the First World War into this bibliophilic cosmos, the story shifts tone, becoming a passionate indictment of the barbarism unleashed not only through actual violence but through the general brutalization of culture that occurs in the wake of war. The novella's mix of irony, sentimentality, cruelty, intellectual gymnastics and coffeehouse life make "Buchmendel" one of Zweig's most evocatively Viennese tales.

The Burning Secret A boy's innocent, protective love for his mother goes sick and scary. When twelve-year-old Edgar and his mother go off on a spring visit to the mountain spa town of Semmering, she, being "one of those slightly voluptuous Jewesses, in age not quite past her prime," quickly attracts the notice of a young, bored, handsome baron. The baron intuits that the child might be the quickest way to the woman's heart, and sets about befriending Edgar. When Edgar starts to realize he's being cut out of the happy threesome he begins his own, half-delusional, violent counter-game. The denouement, posing as the redemption of the mother's virtue, becomes a twisted vehicle for the boy's own erotic awakening. It's a fascinating Oedipal fable, with hints of a dark, political undercurrent: the relations between the staid, anxious, Jewish bourgeoisie and the toxically underoccupied, physically imposing, Austrian minor nobility.
The Invisible Collection "Was it not Goethe who said: 'Collectors are happy creatures?'" asks the narrator of this haunting novella, which tells the story of a Berlin art dealer's visit to a provincial collector who is reputed to have amassed a vast, magnificent portfolio of engravings. The dealer hopes to pick up some high-quality work from a family fallen on hard times, intending to sell the pictures off to cash-flush war profiteers. When he arrives at the collector's out-of-the-way house in Saxony, and discovers that the collector has gone blind and can no longer see the collection over which he still lingers with passionate love and remembrance, his speculative sortie takes a plunge into the surreal. The story has a glorious pathos, and plumbs some of the most recurrent themes in Zweig's life and writing. A climax that could easily have devolved into mere bitter nostalgia instead poses a philosophical question: What, if any, is the emotional difference between living in the imagination and living in the ostensible reality of the outside world?
Beware of Pity

One of Zweig's strengths as a writer is his facility for showing how minor events can snowball into a ghastly mess. In this work, Zweig's only completed novel, a young lieutenant posted to a provincial garrison town accepts an invitation to dine at the home of the district's wealthiest family. In the course of the evening, he inadvertently humiliates the magnate's daughter by asking her to dance without realizing that the young woman can only walk with crutches. The lieutenant's efforts to make-up for this faux pas engulf him in a demented passion with increasingly high stakes. The falling-dominoes structure of events--mistakes leading to misunderstandings, leading to bigger mistakes and bigger misunderstandings, has the logic of a dream or slapstick--but plays out here as wild tragedy.

Zweig's stories frequently contain tales within tales, in a style reminiscent of Russian nesting eggs. Most often the framing device involves a mildly detached narrator becoming the recipient of a chance acquaintance's confessional monologue about some passionate incident in the distant past. The remembered drama then becomes the tale the reader is engaged with--which ends by destabilizing the narrator's own perspective. In this novel, Zweig pointedly gives the whole tale further weight as a political allegory by setting the frame story in 1938--the year of Hitler's annexation of Austria. Misconceived erotic entanglements, even when rooted in good intentions, resonate with the political debacle of the times.
The Royal Game

"Is it not an offensively narrow construction to call chess a game? Is it not a science, a technique, an art, that sways among these categories as Mohammed's coffin does between heaven and earth?" So muses the narrator in this, Zweig's last novella--among his very best, and the only one of his fictions to directly engage with events of the times after Hitler's ascendancy. The story unfolds on an ocean-liner sailing from New York to Buenos Aires. On board is a man named Czentovic, the world's reigning chess master, a kind of idiot savant who, while tactically brilliant, is a brutal monomaniac. It emerges that also on board is one "Dr. B," a lawyer, whose activities on behalf of Hitler's opponents eventually led to his incarceration in a concentration camp where, deprived of all forms of external stimulation, he learned to play games of chess entirely in his imagination. The series of chess matches the two end up playing on the voyage become an extraordinary allegory for the contest between a totalitarian will to power and the extravagantly overgrown life of the mind characteristic of the pre-War Austro-German intelligentsia.

Letter from an Unknown Woman

When does single-minded, self-effacing devotion to a beloved slip over into the realm of creepy stalking? At first glance this tale appears to relate the story of what happens when a curious, naïve young girl of modest means falls under the inspiring spell of a famous novelist--a fascination that culminates in her physical seduction, with predictable consequences. But as is often the case with Zweig, a fairly typical convention--innocence tempted into a fall from grace by worldliness--is here pushed so far, so hard, that it ends up folding back over on itself and becoming something more richly enigmatic and perverse. As the reader begins to grasp the ferocious passion with which the woman nurtures her unspoken ardor it emerges how feebly the surface events of her life, positive and negative, express the cosmic tempest of her inner existence. "What else had my whole life been since I grew past childhood but waiting, waiting to know your will?" the woman writes in her letter to the novelist, a confession that forms the core of the narrative, which ultimately reveals the world-swallowing power that a secret love can confer.

The World of Yesterday

Zweig's memoir is an essential read not simply because it offers a potent transcription of the tumultuous events through which he lived, nor only because it supplies intimate details of the process by which he developed into a celebrity author, but also because of its remarkable enjambment of super-charged, hyper-personal emotion with momentous historical upheaval. Zweig's autobiography is, in effect, a psycho-spiritual portrait of an era. He discloses next to nothing about his domestic life in this book--not even mentioning the names of Friderike and Lotte, his successive wives. Rather, he flips the usual pattern of interior/exterior on its head, turning all of civilized Europe into his personal drawing-room salon. Because he sketches the private details of his life with the sort of cool remove ordinarily reserved for the great passages of history, the book can, at first glance, seem rather frosty. But it was born from an incalculably vast and violent storm of emotion. Zweig wrote the entire first draft during the summer of 1941 when, sweltering in a tiny house in Ossining New York, he felt himself swept into the eye of the apocalypse. Once you begin to sense how hard he was fighting not to let that anguish spill into his sentences, you see how even at its most restrained the book is written in the key of Socrates, as he fondled the stem of the cup that held the hemlock.

The Post-Office Girl It's both intriguing and unfortunate that Zweig stopped work on this book--which he intended to be his first full-length novel--in the early years of his exile. Many of the critiques of Zweig voiced in the wake of his suicide took him to task for failing to write about the catastrophic intra-War unemployment and poverty in Austria. This book tackles these very topics head on, with a stark, compelling anti-sentimentality that still packs a punch. Indeed, even in its not-quite-completed state, the book stands out as one of Zweig's most vibrantly alive and desperate tales. The story follows the fortunes of a poor, provincial post-office worker who gets a taste of the high-life visiting a wealthy aunt at an opulent, Alpine hotel. At first overwhelmed with self-consciousness about her bumbling social inadequacies she soon surrenders to a romance that leads to her expulsion from the realm of privilege. With the return to the meanness of her former existence, she becomes consumed with a growing nihilism. When she meets up with a war veteran suffering from his own corrosive disillusionment, the two begin to hatch a plot for breaking free of their misery at all costs.
The Impromptu Study of a Handicraft

On a beautiful spring day in Paris in 1931, the narrator of this tale finds himself bursting with sensitivity to the world around him. In this state, he experiences a piqued curiosity about every passerby, quavering on high alert for an interesting subject of study. Before long he spots a man whom he realizes is a detective, and relishes the thought that the watcher is now watched--the detective, detected. But as the narrator follows this man on his passage through the streets, he gradually realizes that rather than an enforcer of the law, the man is actually a pickpocket--and that he himself is no longer just an observer, but is actually becoming an accessory to the man's crimes.

Both Zweig's friends and detractors made reference to his taste for voyeurism, and one of his more scurrilous pals suggested that Zweig had spent a period of time as a young man exposing himself to innocents, haunting the bosky paths around Vienna's main zoo awaiting the chance to leap out and flash the right young maiden. That story may well be a fantasy--either on the part of Zweig's friend or of Zweig himself. However, it's clear that Zweig was fascinated by the moment at which observation of another person blends into a much more risky need to be seen. Sometimes this merging translates into violent self-exposure, sometimes into loss of self. Either way, Zweig's stories almost always end up asking the same question: what is it in our psychologies that draws us to spy or eavesdrop on other lives? How does this urge implicate us in what we hear--and make us fair game for the peering eyes of others? "Even as I was endeavoring to understand him," Zweig's narrator muses, while studying the thief, "so there must be something within him which marched with my own secret desires."

George Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World [Other Press, $27.95]. He will appear in conversation at LIVE from The New York Public Library on May 6th.