Conservator of civilisation

Zweig in 1900

Zweig in 1900

The secondhand book dealer’s vital contribution

Dalrymple writes that in Buchmendel (1929), Stefan Zweig

indicates symbolically, and with great force, the destruction of cosmopolitan tolerance by the nationalist madness of the First World War in the fate of a single person.

Buchmendel

is a Jewish peddler of antiquarian books in Vienna. For many years before the outbreak of the war, he carried out his business in a Viennese café. Buchmendel lives for books; he has no other life. He is astonishingly learned, in the offbeat way of secondhand book dealers; every scholar in Vienna (the Vienna, recall, of Brahms, Freud, and Breuer, of Mahler and Klimt, of Schnitzler, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal) consults him on bibliographical matters.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.13.23Buchmendel is otherworldly.

His wants are few, his interest in money minimal. The café owner is happy to have as a customer a man consulted by so many eminent men, even though he consumes little and occupies a table all day. The café owner understands, as does everyone else, that Buchmendel is a contributor to, because he is a conservator of, civilisation, and being a civilised man himself, he is honored to welcome him.

But the war supervenes.

Buchmendel is arrested, because he has written to both London and Paris, asking why he has not received copies of bibliographical reviews. The military censors assume that this correspondence is a code for espionage: they can’t conceive that a man could concern himself with bibliography at such a time. The  authorities discover that Buchmendel, born in Russian Galicia, is not even an Austrian citizen. Interned in a camp for enemy aliens, he waits two years before the authorities realise that he is only what he seems, a book peddler.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.13.04On his release, Vienna has changed.

No longer the centre of an empire, it has become the impoverished capital of a monoglot rump state. Buchmendel’s café has changed hands; the new owner does not understand or welcome Buchmendel and ejects him. Buchmendel’s life has fallen apart, as has the civilisation to which he was a valuable contributor; now homeless, he soon dies of pneumonia.

Zweig makes it clear

that though Buchmendel was eccentric and his life one-dimensional, even stunted, he could offer his unique contribution to Viennese civilisation because no one cared about his nationality. His work and knowledge were vastly more important to his cosmopolitan customers than his membership in a collectivity.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.13.54No man was more sensitive than Zweig

to the destructive effects upon individual liberty of the demands of large or strident collectivities. He would have viewed with horror the cacophony of monomanias — sexual, racial, social, egalitarian — that marks the intellectual life of our societies, each monomaniac demanding legislative restriction on the freedom of others in the name of a supposed greater, collective good. His work was a prolonged (though muted and polite) protest at the balkanisation of our minds and sympathies.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 22.14.50

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Comments

  • Kiljoy  On April 7, 2015 at 13:16

    What a paradoxical world. He’s Jewish, not even an Austrian citizen… has cosmopolitan customers and we, quite rightly I think, are to recognise his value in contrast to the collectivity that in our day is so keen on mass immigration; I mean think of all those Buchmendel’s so eager to contribute to civilisation.

    On the theme of bookish people contributing to and conserving civilisation I’m reminded of the film It’s A Wonderful Life. I think George Bailey’s spirited wife and mother to his children, Mary.

    However, when George is given a tour of the alternative world that would have transpired without him do we discover that Mary has realised her inner ‘Mary Crawford’? Has she had numerous exciting lovers… Bad Boys?

    No, she’s apparently settled for the life of a dowdy librarian; doing her bit to conserve a remnant of civilisation. Lysistrata might have been impressed but it must irritate feminists no end.

  • Vera  On April 11, 2015 at 22:29

    I read this story some years ago. Wasn’t it discovered after the war, when Buchmendel returned, a broken man, that he had been dealing all along in pornography as well as antiquarian books?

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