History of Literature

Stefan Zweig


Stefan Zweig



Stefan Zweig


Austrian biographer, essayist, short story writer, and cosmopolitan, who advocated the idea of an united Europe under one government. Stefan Zweig achieved fame with his vivid and psychoanalytically-oriented biographies of historical characters. Among his best-known works is BAUMEISTER DER WELT (1936, translated as Master Builders), a collection of his biographical studies. Zweig was a prolific writer. In the 1930s he was one of the most widely translated authors in the world. His extensive travels led him to India, Africa, North and Central America, and Russia. Zweig's friends included Maksim Gorky, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, and Arturo Toscanini.

Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna, the son of Moritz Zweig, a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer, and Ida (Brettauer) Zweig, the daughter of an Italian banker family. However, religion did not play a central role in his education. "My mother and father were Jewish only through accident of birth," Zweig said later in an interview. His early life Zweig devoted to aesthetic matters. Although his essays were accepted by the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, literary editor of the Neue Freie Presse, Zweig was not attracted to Herzl's Jewish nationalism. Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany. By 1904 he had earned a doctorate from Vienna University – his dissertation dealt with Hippolyte Taine. Before settling in Salzburg in 1913, Zweig traveled widely. In 1914 he married Friderike Maria Burger von Winternitz (1882-1971), who had started to send him fan mail already in 1901. She became also a writer; they were together for more than twenty years. Friderike had two daughters from her previous marriage.

Zweig's first work, SILBERNE SAITEN, a collection of poems, appeared in 1901. His antiwar play, JEREMIAH, which he wrote in 1917 while still in the army, was produced in Switzerland. The Biblical play was inspired by World War I. In New York it was performed in 1939. Zweig's other early plays include TERSITES (1907), a tragedy written in blank-verse, and DAS HAUSE AM MEER (1912), which dramatized the American Revolutionary War.

In Salzburg, a city of 17th- and 18th-century houses, Zweig lived for nearly twenty years, also traveling a good deal. During World War I, he worked in the archives of the Austrian War Office. When his pacifist views alarmed authorities, he had to move to Zürich. Berlin and especially its nightlife of the Twenties appalled Zweig: "Along the entire Kurfürstendamm powdered and rouged young men sauntered and they were not all professionals; every high school boy wanted to earn some money and in the dimly lit bars one might see government official and men of the world of finance tenderly courting drunken sailors without any shame."

Zweig gained first fame as a poet and translator, and then as a biographer, short-story writer, and novelist. His collection of autographs and manuscripts of writers and artists grew into a unique personal collection, which achieved international renown; it has been viewed as an integral part of Zweig's literary oeuvre. In one of his stories, 'Buchmendel' (1929) Zweig portrayed a Galician bookseller, whose customer, Jakob Mendel, "knew nothing about the world, for all the phenomena of existence only began to be real for him when they were moulded into letters, gathered in a book and, as it were, sterilized. He did not read even these books, however, for their meaning, for their intellectual and narrative content: it was only their names, their prices, their physical appearance, and their title-pages, that attracted his passion." The narrator's ambivalence towards Mendel has been interpreted as a kind of self-criticism – Zweig was aware of his own tendency to "conceive culture as a glass bead game of the the spirit." (The 'Jewish Question' in German Literature 1749-1939 by Ritchie Robertson, 2002)

Zweig was interested in the teachings of Sigmund Freud, which influenced also his biographies, and translated works from such authors as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Émile Verhaeren. Among Zweig's works from the 1920s are a study of Friedrich Nietzsche in Master Builders (1925), STERNSTUNDEN DER MENSCHHEIT (1928), a biography of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), and short story collection Conflicts (1925). Zweig's essays include portraits of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Heinrich von Kleist. In Casanova, whom Zweig dismissed as "a mere pretender in the world of letters", he admired his ability to make friends with emperors and kings, and secure immortality. The essay was published in DREI DICHTER IHRES LEBENS (1928, Adepts in Self-Portraiture). Erasmus, the famous Duch humanist, Zweig considered his spirirual ancestor ("the most eloquent advocate of the humanist ideal of friendship towards the world and the spirit"), and portrayed him in TRIUMPH UND TRAGIK DES ERASMUS ROTTERDAM (1934, Erasmus of Rotterdam). Luther represented the opposite of Erasmus, "the revolutionary; driven by the demonic energies lurking in the German people". With his views about Germany's "national spirit" Zweig was not alone – the book was published a few years after the Nazis had seized power.

During the years at Salzburg, Zweig began to suspect that Hitler's persecution of Jews was directed at him personally. He never recovered from this paranoia. EINE BLASSBLAUE FRAUENSCHRIFT (1941), set in prewar Vienna, showed how anti-Semitism had spread into all levels of the state apparatus. The protagonist, an influential government official and an opportunist, is morally too weak to change anything in his life or restore his integrity. DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU (1935), an opera for which Zweig wrote the libretto and Richard Strauss composed the music, was banned by the Nazis and Zweig was driven into exile. Ironically, before their comedy was performed in Dresden, Stauss said to Zweig: "If you just could see and hear how good our work is, you would drop all race worries and political misgivings with which you, incomprehensibly to me, unnecessarily weight down your artist's mind..."

Zweig immigrated first to England to do research work for the book on Mary, Queen of Scots. He also visited Freud, whom he had met already in the 1920s. UNGEDULD DES HERZENS (1938), a black love story, shows Zweig's familiarity with the psychoanalytical idea of the sense of guilt. Anton Hofmiller, the narrator, is drawn into the life of a young, crippled girl. Hofmiller responds to her need to be loved with feelings of guilt and pity, eventually defects her and she commits suicide.

In 1938 Zweig became a British citizen, and in 1940, after a successful lecture tour in South America, he settled in Brazil. Zweig had divorced Friderike in 1938 and the next year married Charlotte Altmann, his secretary from 1933; she was twenty-seven years his junior. In Brazil: A Land of the Future (1941) Zweig examined the history, economy, culture of the country, and depicted his impressions of the cities. Quoting Amerigo Vespucci, he describes how the first European seamen saw the new land: "If paradise on earth exists anywhere in the world, it cannot lie very far from here!"

The fall of Singapore in 1942 made Zweig fear that Nazism would eventually conquer the world. Disillusioned and isolated, Zweig committed suicide with his wife near Rio de Janeiro on February 23, 1942. Brazil's populist dictator, Getulio Vargas, ordered that the burial expenses should be paid by the state. Zweig's nostalgic but rather impersonal memoirs of the "Golden Age of Security", The World of Yesterday, was published posthumously in 1943. The work did not have any reference to his marriage, but it nevertheless condemned puritanical attitudes and sexual hypocrisy. Like Joseph Roth in Radetzkymarsch (1932), Zweig could not accept cultural values of his day, but did not idealize the prewar Hapsburg Empire. "Even in the abyss of despair in which today, half-blinded, we grope about with distorted and broken souls, I look again and again to those old star patterns that shone over my childhood, and comfort myself with the inherited confidence that this collapse will appear, in days to come, as a mere interval in the eternal rhythm of the onward and onward."

The Royal Game, also published in 1943, used two games of chess to illustrate the psychology of Nazism. Mirko Czentovic, a semiliterate son of a Danube boatman, "incapable of writing any sentence in any language without making spelling mistakes", travels on a ship from Europe to South America. However, he is the world chess champion. He wins the first game, but the second against Dr. B., a Viennese lawyer and refuge, occupies the central part of the story. Dr. B. has started to play chess with himself in solitary confinement, when he was arrested by Gestapo. During his game against Czentovic he breaks down. "But are we not already guilty of an insulting limitation in calling chess a game? Isn't it also a science, and art, hovering between these two categories like Muhammad's coffin hovered between heaven and earth?" As in Vladimir Nabokov's novel The Defense (1930), chess becomes an allegory of alienation, in which people, estranged from life, move like characters on a giant chessboard.

In World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 4. (1996) Zweig wrote, that "my main interest in writing has always been the psychological representation of personalities and their lives and this was also the reason which prompted me to write various essays and biographical studies of well-known personalities". The popularity of Zweig's biographies has gradually declined and his humanism, based on the values of the late nineteenth-century Viennese liberalism, has been an easy target for criticism. However, his work still offer inspiring insights into the lives of great historical figures and are good sources for further investigation. Several of Zweig's stories have been filmed – the best-know is perhaps Letter From an Unknown Woman, directed by Max Ophüls (1947), starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan.





Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig was a prolific novelist, biographer, translator, and world traveler. A notable pacifist, he fled his native Austria in 1934 to London and then Brazil where, disillusioned by the rise of fascism, he and his wife committed suicide. Amok is a short, intense story of a troubled doctor who loses his mind in the tropics. It is narrated by a worldly passenger who meets the mysterious doctor on board a ship returning to Europe from Calcutta. The doctor is in desperate need of human contact and has a chilling secret to confess. Written as reported speech that, like the colonial setting, recalls Joseph Conrad, it is a gripping tale of passion, moral duty, and uncontrollable unconscious forces.
The doctor has been forced to travel to Asia following a misdemeanor committed at a German hospital, where he was in thrall to a beautiful but domineering woman. Having set off full of romantic ideals of bringing civilization to the indigenous people, he finds himself isolated in a remote station, and his condition slowly deteriorates as the tropical torpor and solitude become too much for him. He becomes estranged from his European self and utterly dispirited. When an English lady arrives at his station requesting an abortion, he is provoked by her arrogance and domineering manner to such an extent that he loses control of his conscious will. At first he struggles to gain the upper hand in a veiled sado-masochistic scenario, but when she laughs in his face he can do nothing but pursue her in a manic attempt to appease his infatuation.
A Freudian exploration of the power of the unconscious and latent sexuality, Amok is a finely wrought story full of psychological insight. As such, it is an ideal introduction to Stefan Zweig's impressive body of work.



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