Category Archives: Zweig, Stefan

The sin of being too readable

Dalrymple writes that Stefan Zweig

occupies more or less the same place in German letters as the literary doctor W. Somerset Maugham in British—that is to say, he is viewed with suspicion by the literati because, although brilliantly intelligent and immensely cultivated, what he wrote was so intensely readable. To be really great, at least nowadays, you have to be difficult to understand.

Zweig’s descent from bliss to torment

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.25.31The main themes of the writings of Stefan Zweig are, Dalrymple explains,

  • the part that passion plays in human life. The need for control and the need for expression are in constant tension; any attempt to resolve the contradictions of our existence by dogmatic reference to a simple doctrine (and, compared with life, all doctrines are simple) will end in monomania and barbarism.
  • the destruction of civilisation by political dogma, exemplified by the wars that destroyed Zweig’s world and led him to suicide.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.27.32Having grown up in a world

where it was possible to live happily as so free an agent, Zweig found himself plunged into a world where it became impossible, where men had to organize to resist evil so that any freedom at all might be enjoyed.

In such a world,

Zweig’s refusal to commit to any collective institution or endeavour appeared feeble and parasitic.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.28.44Early in life,

by cultivating the acquaintance of prostitutes, pimps, and others on the margins of society, he learned about the lower depths, from whose ugly reality his status as a child of the haute bourgeoisie had sheltered him.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.31.29War

smashed the old world that Zweig so esteemed.

He saw the storm clouds gathering over his native Austria earlier than many. But other German exiles criticized him for being insufficiently vociferous in denouncing the Nazis.

Hitler in Vienna

The messenger of misery comes to Vienna

It is true that he joined no anti-Nazi groups and hardly raised his voice against the Nazi horror. As a free man, he did not want the Nazis to be able to dictate his mode of expression—even if it were in opposition to them. The insufficiency of this fastidiousness at such a conjuncture needs little emphasis.

But Zweig felt

that strident denunciation would grant the Nazis a victory of sorts. And—like many intellectuals who overestimate the importance that the intellect plays in history and in life—Zweig viewed the Nazis as beneath contempt. Their doctrine and world outlook being so obviously ridiculous and morally odious, why waste time refuting them?

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.39.37The nearest he came to denouncing the Nazis

was in one of his brilliant historical studies, published in 1936: The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin.

Of course, it was not so easy to dismiss the Nazis.

The contempt of a fastidious aesthete would not defeat them: far sterner measures were necessary. But Zweig, born in the pre-ideological age, did not want to live in a world where the only alternative to one ideology was what he thought would be a counter-ideology.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.54.57Dalrymple doubts that the modern world would have pleased Zweig.

The shrillness of our ideological debates, the emotional shallowness, the vulgarity of our culture, would have appalled him.

To read Zweig

is to learn what, through stupidity and evil, we progressively lost in the twentieth century.

Edenic Vienna

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 07.52.24Dalrymple writes that in The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes

the happiness of living in a cultivated and tolerant cosmopolitan society in which politics were secondary, any wars (like government itself) were small, limited, distant, and unimportant, personal freedom reached its apogee, and everything had the appearance — delusory, of course — of solidity and permanence. People felt they could plan for the future, because money would always retain its value and interest rates would never change. The joy of material progress, evident year after year, was unclouded by the realisation that man remained a wolf to man.

The author of 'Amok' and 'Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles'

The author of ‘Amok’

Hapsburg Vienna, in Zweig’s view,

was deeply civilised because it was politically and militarily impotent.

However, Zweig

evaded the question of how to protect the peaceful sheep from the ravening wolves.

In Zweig’s Vienna,

Zweig père

Zweig père

informal rules and conventions governed people’s lives far more deeply than laws or rights conferred by legislators. He recounts, for example, that his father, though a multimillionaire mill owner easily able to afford it, refused to dine at the Hotel Sacher, since it was the traditional haunt of the Empire’s upper aristocracy. He would have felt it tactless to obtrude where he was not really wanted; and (an almost inconceivable attitude today) he felt no bitterness at not being wanted. His actual freedoms were more than enough for his appetites.

Hotel Sacher

Hotel Sacher

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

Unidos na morte

On February 22, 1942, writes Dalrymple,

two British nationals committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates in their house in Petrópolis. The couple received a state funeral — in Brazil, not in Britain — attended by thousands of mourners.

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