On February 22, 1942, two British nationals committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates in their house in Petropolis, Brazil. The photograph of them on their deathbed is one of the most heartrending I know, the woman holding the man’s hand and resting her head gently on his shoulder. The couple received a state funeral—in Brazil, not in Britain—attended by thousands of mourners. The man was Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew who for many years had been one of the most famous writers in German, his works translated into 50 languages. The woman was Lotte Altmann, his secretary and second wife.

Although Zweig had taken refuge in Britain and become a British passport holder, his work never won much appreciation in his adopted country, or for that matter in any English-speaking country, and such little fame as he achieved there has now evaporated. Even among highly literate English speakers, he stands nearly forgotten; even good bookstores in Britain, America, and Australia rarely stock his titles.

It is different in France. There, his biographical, critical, and historical studies, as well as his novellas and novel, have stayed in print (except during the occupation); mass-market editions of them are on sale almost everywhere, even at airports. Biographical and literary-critical studies of him appear regularly, and he enjoys almost universal regard as one of the twentieth century’s great writers. In this, at least, I think the French have it right.

Two main themes pervade Zweig’s writings. The first is the part that passion plays in human life. If reason, as Hume says, is and should be the slave of the passions, how can we control and reconcile our passions so that we may live decently together in society? And if, as Zweig’s work suggests, the need for control and the need for expression are in constant tension, there is no abstract or perfect solution to man’s existential plight. 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 thus end in monomania and barbarism. And that reality informs Zweig’s second preoccupation: the destruction of civilization by political dogma—as exemplified by the two world wars that destroyed Zweig’s world and led him ultimately to commit suicide.

Zweig was born in 1881 into a rich bourgeois Viennese Jewish family, completely assimilated to Austro-German culture. His life charted a long descent from bliss to torment. In his memoir (The World of Yesterday), written at 60, when he was an exile in Brazil without documentation to aid his recollections, 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 realization that man remained a wolf to man: moral progress seemed as natural as material progress.

Hapsburg Vienna, in Zweig’s view, was deeply civilized because it was politically and militarily impotent:

There was hardly a city in Europe where the aspiration to culture was more passionate than in Vienna. It was precisely because, after so many centuries, the monarchy, Austria itself, no longer knew either political ambition or military success, that patriotic pride was so strongly attached to the achievement of artistic supremacy. The Habsburg Empire, which had once dominated Europe, had long been despoiled of its most important and prosperous Provinces, German and Italian, Flemish and Wallonian; but the capital remained intact in its ancient splendour, the seat of the court, preserver of a millennial tradition.

The contrast between Vienna’s cultural and intellectual splendor and its political decadence no doubt inspired Zweig’s lifelong pacifism. He contrasted the Viennese ideal with the aggressive German or Wilhelmine one:

[O]ne lived an easy and carefree life in this old city of Vienna, and our neighbours to the north, the Germans, looked down with something of spite and envy, and something of disdain, on us Danubians who, instead of showing ourselves to be hardworking and serious, and obedient to a rigid order, peacefully enjoyed our lives, eating well, taking pleasure in festivals and the theatre, and moreover making excellent music. Instead of those German “values” that eventually spoiled and envenomed the life of all other peoples, instead of that avidity to dominate others, instead of always being in the lead, in Vienna we liked to chat amicably, took pleasure in family reunions, and let everyone take part, without envy, in a spirit of friendly complaisance, that was perhaps even a little too loose. “Live and let live,” said the old Viennese proverb, a maxim that even today seems more human to me than any categorical imperative. . . .

Such, in Zweig’s experience, was the prelapsarian Vienna of Emperor Franz Josef, a man with little culture but also with little ambition other than keeping intact his ramshackle, polyglot empire (which existed with no justification beyond its immemorial existence). The emperor had no desire to intrude into the daily life of his subjects, which had not yet become deeply politicized, as it would during the twentieth century.

Yet the personal freedom of Hapsburg Vienna, great as it was—perhaps greater than any we know today—rested upon no deep philosophical basis but instead upon informal psychological and cultural traits that had developed organically over time. In the crucible of cataclysm, these proved weak protections. Here was a contradiction that Zweig preferred not to think about, let alone resolve: true freedom, he believed, required informality, yet informality offered no protection against the enemies of freedom. Like all pacifists, Zweig evaded the question of how to protect the peaceful sheep from the ravening wolves, no doubt in the unrealistic hope that the wolves would one day discover the advantages of vegetarianism.

In Zweig’s Edenic Vienna, informal rules and conventions governed people’s lives far more deeply than laws or rights conferred by legislators: Zweig 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. What more could a man reasonably desire?

Zweig became a close friend of Freud’s and published a study of him in a three-part book entitled The Healers (the other parts focusing on Franz Anton Mesmer and Mary Baker Eddy, a slightly ironic juxtaposition that Freud didn’t find appealing). But Zweig admired his father in a completely pre-Freudian way and even modeled himself after him. A self-made man, Zweig’s father was always modest, dignified, and unhurried, able to succeed so brilliantly because he lived in times propitious to men of his (good) character:

[His] prudence in the expansion of his business, maintained in spite of the temptations offered by favourable opportunities, was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the times. It corresponded, moreover, with my father’s natural reserve, his lack of greed. He had adopted the credo of his epoch: “safety first”; it appeared to him more important to have a “solid” business—still a favoured expression in those days—supplied with its own capital, than to expand it vastly by resorting to bank credits or mortgages. It was a matter of pride for him that, in all his life, no one had ever seen his name on a letter of credit or a loan, and that he had always been in credit at his bank—naturally the most solid of all banks, Rothschild.

The key to Zweig’s own character reveals itself in a passage in which he extols his father and then describes himself:

Although he was infinitely superior to the majority of his colleagues, in his manners, social graces and culture—he played the piano very well, wrote with elegance and clarity, spoke French and English—he refused all public distinctions and honorary posts, and . . . never sought or accepted any title or honour, although, as a great industrialist, he was often offered them. Never having asked for anything, never having had to say “please” or “thank you,” his secret pride was more to him than any outward sign of distinction. . . . Because of the same secret pride, I have myself always declined any honorific distinction, I have accepted no decoration, title, or presidency of an association, I have never belonged to an academy, a committee, or a prize-giving jury; the simple fact of sitting at an official table is to me a torture, and the thought alone of having to ask for something, even on behalf of someone else, is enough to dry my mouth out before I have said a single word . . . it is my father in me and his secret pride that make me shrink [from the limelight] . . . for it is to my father that I owe the only good of which I feel certain, the feeling of inner freedom.

Zweig never suggested that his personal ideal was a social one: that no one should ever sit at an official table or accept membership in an academy. But having grown up in a world where it was possible to live happily as so free an agent, he 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 endeavor appeared feeble and parasitic.

That said, however, his very lack of commitment, the very indefinition of his own personality, allowed him to enter the worlds of others in his fiction from the inside, and even more important, to convey those worlds to his readers so that they could enter them too. If he had been other than he was, his work would have lacked its peculiarly empathic quality.

Literature and high culture obsessed Zweig from an early age. At 19, he published his first serious article, in the literary supplement of the Neue Freie Presse, Vienna’s newspaper of record (then edited by the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl), as well as his first collection of poems. But he soon realized that he was too young to have anything to say, and he traveled to Berlin and Paris in search of experience. In his travels, he met many of the young men who would become the most important writers of their age. And 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. He spent several years translating into German the modernist Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren, self-effacing literary work of the kind that he recommended to any young person aspiring to become a writer but not yet mature enough to create anything original.

The Great War, of course, smashed to smithereens the old world that Zweig so esteemed. But Zweig clung fast to his prewar ideals, in a climate increasingly hostile to them. Repeatedly his work extols the worth of personal freedom and denies that abstract ideas can guide a man through life’s dilemmas. Zweig retained his fear of joining any association or group, however laudable its ends; he never wanted to face the choice of upholding a “party line” against the dictates of his conscience. He was not devoid of general principles, of course: no man other than a psychopath could be. But a preference for kindness over cruelty, say, does not get anyone very far in considering particular cases, which requires reflection as to what kindness actually consists of in concrete situations. Sometimes accused of sentimentality, he was both explic-itly anti-sentimental and an anti-rigorist in morals.

His one full-length novel, Beware of Pity, explores the disastrous consequences that flow from sentimental and insincere pity. In this novel, set immediately before World War I, a handsome young cavalryman (the narrator) is posted to a provincial Hungarian town. There, he meets the crippled daughter of Herr von Kekesfalva, an ennobled Jewish peddler who has made an immense fortune. By his well-meaning but shallow expressions of sympathy for her, the cavalryman arouses hopes of a different kind of relationship, false hopes that he does nothing to dispel until too late, and disappointment leads the young woman to suicide. With brilliant clarity, Zweig traces the consequences of well-meaning emotional dishonesty—consequences far worse than what would have followed an initial callousness.

Zweig was master of the novella (which helps explain his lack of success in the Anglophone world: English-language publishers assumed that this literary form was uneconomic to print, despite its profitability in other countries, where Zweig sold by the million). He could capture huge historical shifts in a short compass, in plain yet evocative language. In Buchmendel, for example, he indicates symbolically, and with great force, the destruction of cosmopolitan tolerance by the nationalist madness of World War I 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. (Zweig himself possessed one of the world’s greatest private collections of literary and musical manuscripts until the coming of the Nazis forced him to dispose of it.)

Buchmendel 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, civilization, and being a civilized man himself, he is honored to welcome him. But then the war supervenes. Buchmendel does not notice it; he carries on as if nothing has happened. He is arrested, because he has written to both London and Paris, the capitals of the enemy countries, 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 government 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 realize that he is only what he seems, a book peddler.

On his release, Vienna has changed. No longer the center 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 civilization 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 civilization 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. No 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 balkanization of our minds and sympathies.

In the realm of personal morality, Zweig appealed for subtlety and sympathy rather than for the unbending application of simple moral rules. He recognized the claims both of social convention and of personal inclination, and no man better evoked the power of passion to overwhelm the scruples of even the most highly principled person. In other words, he accepted the religious view (without himself being religious) that Man is a fallen creature, who cannot perfect himself but ought to try to do so. For example, in his novella Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, he tells the story of a woman so swept up by passion that, for 24 hours, she lives more intensely than in the rest of her life put together.

The book opens with a quotation from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” (though “Auguries of Imperfectibility” might be more apt):

Every night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.

The story takes place in a pension on the Riviera, just before the First World War. Suddenly, an untoward event shatters the little society’s calm:

Madame Henriette, whose husband [a rich bourgeois French manufacturer] had been playing dominoes with his friend from Namur as usual, had not come back from her evening walk on the terrace by the beach, and it was feared she had suffered an accident. The normally ponderous, slow-moving manufacturer kept charging down the beach like a bull, and when he called “Henriette! Henriette!” into the night, his voice breaking with fear, the sound conveyed something of the terror and the primaeval nature of a gigantic animal wounded to death. The waiters and pageboys ran up and down the stairs in agitation, all the guests were woken and the police were called. The fat man, however, trampled and stumbled his way through all this, waistcoat unbuttoned, sobbing and shrieking as he pointlessly shouted the name “Henriette! Henriette!” into the darkness. By now the children were awake upstairs, and stood at the window in their night dresses, calling down for their mother. Their father hurried upstairs to comfort them. And then something so terrible happened that it almost defies retelling. . . . Suddenly the big, heavy man came down the creaking stairs with a changed look on his face, very weary. . . . He had a letter in his hand. “Call them all back!” he told the hotel major-domo, in a barely audible voice. “Call everyone in again. There’s no need. My wife has left me.”

A little later, “we heard the sound of his ponderous massive body dropping heavily into an armchair, and then a wild, animal sobbing, the weeping of a man who had never wept before. . . . Suddenly, one by one, as if put to shame by so shattering an emotional outburst, we crept back to our rooms, while that stricken specimen of mankind shook and sobbed alone . . . in the dark as the building slowly laid itself to rest, whispering, muttering, murmuring and sighing.”

Zweig’s sympathy for the deserted husband is palpable, and he makes us feel it. The novella is by no means an ideological anti-marriage, anti-bourgeois tract. But Zweig’s sympathy also extends to Henriette, the man’s wife. The following day, the guests of the pension have a vigorous debate about Henriette’s conduct. The narrator opines that Henriette, who acted foolishly, will almost certainly soon regret her action bitterly and be miserable. She is therefore worthy of compassion as well as condemnation: after all, if her marriage were happy, if there had not been hidden depths, she wouldn’t have behaved as she did.

The narrator’s understanding of Henriette’s conduct attracts the attention of Mrs. C., an aristocratic Englishwoman of perfect manners, now approaching old age. She takes him aside and tells him her own story, explaining why she, too, is unwilling to condemn Henriette in conventional terms, though she does not suggest that the adulteress has behaved well. Many years before, Mrs. C. says, after the death of her husband, to whom she had been happily married, she had traveled to Monte Carlo, where, in the casino, she had noticed a handsome young Polish nobleman, an inveterate gambler, who evidently gambled the last of his money away and left the casino with the aim of committing suicide. She followed him, to rescue him; one thing led to another, and she found herself, uncharacteristically, spending a passionate night with him in a hotel.

The following day, she and her young nobleman take an exhilarating drive in the country, where they enter a little Catholic chapel. He swears that he will give up gambling forever (it is a beautiful moment), and Mrs. C., now passionately in love, gives him a sum of money equal to what he has stolen from his own family to gamble with—a theft that, if discovered, will disgrace him forever. Instead of taking the train back to Poland, however, he returns to the casino, where that night she sees him gamble the money away again, in the process insulting his benefactress.

Mrs. C. has lavished her passion on a worthless man, and Zweig is certainly not suggesting that she behaved well or is a model that others should imitate. But the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of; and never to acknowledge that fact, never to make allowances for it, would be inhuman, just as always giving in to passion also makes us inhuman.

Zweig implies that only the reticent and self-controlled can feel genuine passion and emotion. Mrs. C.’s passion is so great precisely because she is normally a self-contained Englishwoman who had “that peculiarly English ability to end a conversation firmly but without brusque discourtesy.” The nearer emotional life approaches to hysteria, to continual outward show, the less genuine it becomes. Feeling becomes equated with vehemence of expression, so that insincerity becomes permanent. Zweig would have dismissed our modern emotional incontinence as a sign not of honesty but of an increasing inability or unwillingness truly to feel.

Zweig saw the storm clouds gathering over his native Austria earlier than many. He bought a flat in London in 1934, realizing that the Nazis would not leave Austria in peace. By 1936, he accepted that he was a permanent exile. But other German exiles criticized him for being insufficiently vociferous in denouncing the Nazis. Some even accused him of trying to reach an accommodation with them to preserve his German income intact—a nonsensical charge: his books were among the first that the Nazis burned.

But 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—in his own case, since he did not speak for others—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?

The nearest he came to denouncing the Nazis was in one of his brilliant historical studies (his accuracy always won praise from professional historians), published in 1936: The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin. Castellio was a French humanist and scholar, more or less forgotten until Zweig resurrected his memory. In a book entitled Treatise of Heretics, Castellio denounced Calvin’s totalitarian suppression of free opinion in sixteenth-century Geneva in the name of a theological doctrine. In the book, the parallels between Calvin’s Geneva and Hitler’s Germany are unmistakable, though Zweig, true to his literary method, lets the reader draw them for himself. For example, Calvin not only burned books but drew strength from his initial expulsion from Geneva after his first, failed, attempt to dominate the city, just as Hitler drew strength from his imprisonment after the beer-hall putsch, his first, failed, attempt to reach power in Germany.

Zweig saw himself in the role of Castellio:

In wars of ideas, the best combatants are not those who thrust themselves lightly but passionately into battle, but those who hesitate a long time before committing themselves, and whose decision matures slowly. It is only once all possibilities of understanding have been exhausted, and the struggle is unavoidable, that they enter the fight with a heavy heart. But it is precisely they who are then the firmest, the most resolute. Such was the case with Castellio. As a real humanist, he wasn’t a born fighter. Conciliation suited his peaceful and profoundly religious temperament better. Like his predecessor, Erasmus, he knew the extent to which all earthly and divine truth was multiple, susceptible to many interpretations. . . . But if his prudence taught him tolerance of all opinions, and he preferred to remain silent than involve himself too quickly in quarrels that did not concern him, his ability to doubt and his constant questioning did not make him a cold sceptic.

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. When Zweig committed suicide in Brazil, in despair at the news from Europe, and cut off from all he valued or any hope of ever again having an audience in his native language, Thomas Mann, among others, criticized him sharply. Zweig’s suicide, Mann said, was “a dereliction of his duty, an egotistical disdain of his contemporaries,” that would give comfort to “the enemy.”

That Zweig’s death would give much comfort to the Nazis seems doubtful to me, but Mann was alluding to every man’s duty to do whatever he could, be it ever so little, to defeat the barbarism that threatened civilization. That Zweig was egotistical was true (though an odd accusation, coming from Mann): he did not want to live in a world where the price of freedom was submergence in a vast collective effort whose outcome he regarded, in the event wrongly, as uncertain.

We can find the key to Zweig’s suicide, I think, in the life of Castellio. True, Castellio’s belief in free inquiry triumphed over Calvin’s narrow theocratic ideas long after his death (more than two centuries, in fact), but during their lifetimes, Calvin won all along the line, and Castellio escaped execution only because illness “snatched him from Calvin’s claws.” Suicide was the illness that snatched Zweig from Hitler’s claws, or the claws of the world that Hitler made. He thought that Nazism, would win—not forever, but for long enough, and that he would never again have, or be allowed, an audience for his books. He thus no longer had a raison d’être.

In the event, Hitler was defeated, only three years after Zweig’s death. Freedom returned, at least to the West. But I doubt that the modern world would have pleased Zweig very much. 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. What we have gained, of course, we take for granted.

Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images


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