Stefan Zweig committed suicide in Petropolis, Brazil 70 years ago. The exiled writer was at the height of his popularity, and the suicide was reported on the front page of the New York Times. Why did he do it? Zweig had considerable financial resources, unlike the majority of exiled intellectuals who faced abject poverty in the US or other countries. Zweig's friend Carl Zuckmeyer eked out a living as a sheep farmer in Vermont, but embraced America and became a citizen. His friend Joseph Roth died destitute in Paris. Unlike most of the German and Austrian exiled writers, Zweig's works were widely translated in English and French - Zweig was a global celebrity. Only Franz Werfel rivaled him in terms of fame and fortune.
While Werfel has pretty much faded into obscurity, Stefan Zweig continues to generate an astonishing amount of publishing activity. New translations of Zweig's stories, novellas and biographies, some by some of out best translators like Anthea Bell, continue to appear. This week's New Yorker Magazine has a long essay by Leo Cary on Oliver Matuschek's biography of Zweig - Three Lives (translated from the German by Allan Blunden). Despite - or, perhaps, due to - Zweig's persistent popularity, his literary reputation is fiercely debated. While he was alive, Zweig as derided by Thomas Mann and others as little more than a hack (perhaps this was sour grapes, since Zweig sold many more books). And even in death Zweig engenders strong emotions. The poet and translator Michael Hofmann eviscerated Stefan Zweig in a 2010 review of The World of Yesterday. Translator and blogger Katy Derbyshire recently noted that British authorities refused to place a plaque commemorating Stefan Zweig on the London building where he resided in exile for five years because there was "no critical consensus" concerning his literary legacy. The German reading list at Harvard University listed only one title by Zweig - Die Welt von Gestern - just to provide a "flavor" of the cultural scene in fin de siècle Vienna.
Zweig's critical reception was always problematic since there is a disconnect between his traditional literary style - rooted in the 19th century novella - and the content informed by modern insights into human psychology (funny, the same critics don't have problems with Thomas Mann). Zweig did try - successfully - the longer format of the novel (see my review of Ungeduld des Herzen) , but the novella was his preferred format. Leo Cary writes in the New Yorker piece:
"Zweig called the novella "my beloved but unfortunate format, too long for a newspaper or magazine, too short for a book." But in German literature, which largely missed out on big nineteenth-century novels, it's a genre with a venerable literary pedigree - invented, more or less, by Goethe, and refined by figures like Heinrich von Kleist and Paul Heyse. The novella's pared-down format, its atmosphere of tightly controlled senstaionalism, and its focus on a single, drmamtic turning point suited Zweig's sensibility."
In his novellas Zweig was able to explore modern themes and cultural undercurrents that resonate yet today. His brilliant final work - Schachnovelle - deals with psychological torture and the debilitating effects of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. His 1927 novella Verwirrung der Gefühle was a breakthrough in its straightforward handling of the then taboo subject of homosexuality.
It was Zweig's familiarity with the works of Sigmund Freud - and later, his personal friendship with the great man himself - that makes the psychological dimensions of his fiction so compelling. And it may also provide a clue to Zweig's suicide. Zweig initially resisted, but later came to accept, Freud's concept of Thanatos - the death wish - which in 1942 must have seemed ascendant. Towards the end of Die Welt von Gestern Zweig writes about some of his last conversations with Freud:
Ich hatte in jenen Stunden mit Freud oftmals über das Grauen der hitlerischen Welt und des Krieges gesprochen. Er war als menschlicher Mensch tief erschüttert, aber als Denker keineswegs verwundert über diesen fürchterlichen Ausbruch der Bestialität. Immer habe man ihn, sagte er, einen Pessimisten gescholten, weil er die Übermacht der Kultur über die Triebe geleugnet habe; nun sehe man - freilich maehe es ihn nicht stolz - seine Meinung, dass das Barbarische, dass der elemantare Vernichtungstrieb in der menschlichen Seele unausrottbar sei, auf das entsetzlichste bestätigt.
(I had many conversations with Freud about the horrors of Hitler and the war. He was deeply shaken as a feeling human being, but as a thinker was hardly surprised by this terrible outbreak of bestiality. He noted that people were always accusing him of being a pessimist for not agreeing that culture can trump basic human drives. But now one could see - and he was in no way proud of this - that he was right = that barbarism and the impulse for self-destruction could never be eradicated from the human soul.
Zweig no longer wanted to live in a world where barbarism had destroyed everything that gave meaning to his life.