Stefan Zweig: The Journeys of a European
Laurent Seksik’s 2010 novel The Last Days, later adapted into a graphic novel illustrated by Guillaume Sorel, manages to paint a poignant portrait of one of Europe’s most widely-read and acclaimed writers of the early 20th century only by focusing on the last few months before his death. The opening pages see Zweig on an ocean liner to Rio de Janeiro in 1941, years after he left his beloved Vienna before the Nazi occupation, and after having lived for brief spells in London, Bath, and New York. He and his wife Lotte plan on staying in Brazil until the war is over and they can return to their beloved Europe. As much as they both loved Europe, and particularly Berlin and Vienna, they would never return. They committed suicide on 22 February 1942 in Petropolis, Brazil. Despite the fact that the United States had joined the Allied forces a few months earlier and Zweig not having learned of the most brutal and abominable aspect of WWII (the Wannsee Conference was held a mere month before Zweig’s suicide), he appeared to have given up hope on the world and on the Europe that he loved and called home. What Seksik’s work captures so brilliantly is the essence of a writer who wrote passionately about every aspect of the places he visited and loved, and the people who inhabited them – he understands that at the heart of Zweig’s work is not only a love for human emotion at its unabashed expression, but also for a place and culture that fosters and celebrates this humanity. Zweig’s final works, particularly his seminal autobiography The World of Yesterday, show how Europe changed during that period through the lens of someone who felt like he was personally losing something that was part of him.
The final pages of the graphic novel imagine the last moments before the Zweigs commit suicide with breathtaking narrative and visual skill. The panels transition like a camera panning across their empty house in Petropolis, and the speech bubbles over them become off-screen narration while the couple make their final arrangements. These haunting scenes contextualise the tragic ending, and the book on the whole allows you to understand Zweig’s emotional position and his reasons behind that decision.
Between 1934 and his death in 1942, Stefan Zweig had been moving across Europe and the Americas, everywhere seen as a foreigner despite his fame and acclaim. His friends and colleagues, the intellectual milieu of the time, had been swallowed whole by the barbarity of Europe at war with itself, and he saw his beloved home country and the entire continent to unprecedented violence and cruelty. Zweig was most distinctly defined by his humanism and his love for Europe and the culture he grew up into. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who captured the atmosphere and unique aspects of so many cities of the Old Continent with such literary skill and captivating prose as Zweig did in the first four decades of the last century. The characters of his short stories and novellas are always bursting from the seams with emotion, and it is often overwhelming for them and the narrative on the whole.
Zweig was first and foremost interested in the psyche, so by putting his characters in situations of extreme emotional stress he was able to explore a wide range of human behaviour. In Amok, the main character is a German doctor in Indonesia who who becomes dangerously infatuated with a married English woman seeking an abortion, but his erratic behaviour drives her away. She dies during the procedure after enlisting the help of a local healer, and the German doctor is responsible for keeping the pregnancy and abortion secret from her husband and everyone else, eventually committing suicide by drowning along with her coffin. In A Chess Story, the main character is a monarchist who is detained in isolation by the Nazi regime and his only mental escape is a book of famous chess matches, which he initially learn by heart and soon enough he spirals deeper and deeper into his own mind by constantly playing intricate chess matches against himself. In every piece of Zweig’s writing, one aspect of the human condition is emphasized and analysed under extreme conditions. Bringing this element of his writing to the fore, Pushkin Press has collected his shorter fiction in two volumes: Fantastic Nights (Tales of Longing and Liberation) and The Invisible Collection (Tales of Obsession and Desire).
In many ways, Zweig’s fiction stood in opposition to the construction and style of the so-called “idea novel” that rose in popularity during his lifetime, even though he was concerned with similar themes. His characters are not mere vehicles used to express and collide philosophical stances, but rather deeply flawed people whose personalities and emotions are manifested without restraint, despite the undesirable outcomes of their actions. It is this deeply humanistic writing that own him such a massive international readership – the poignancy with which he captured the vulnerability of the human psyche. For such a quintessentially humanist writer cradled in the tradition of such ideals, fostered by the like of Hugo and Goethe, a united and culturally progressive Europe was of paramount importance.
Despite this, one of his fundamental missteps was to be carried away by nostalgia when looking for a solution to the state of affairs post WWI and particularly in the 1930s, with the overall rise of extreme nationalism across the continent, and of course Hitler in Germany. He saw the threat these movements posed to the ideals he held dearest, and in the face of this reality he let pessimism lead him to inaction – a pessimism which eventually spiraled into despair, mourning, and an utter loss of hope. It is then easier, from this vantage point, to see where his characters came from.
The last book Zweig completed, sending it to his publisher just days before his suicide, was the seminal memoir The World of Yesterday. The title alone oozes his fatal nostalgia and mourning for a Europe he thought was lost forever – and the subtitle, Memoirs of a European, underscores this and Zweig’s core literary identity. A writer always too modest and self-conscious to publicly write about himself, in The World of Yesterday Zweig is not driven by confessional or moralistic urges, but rather from a need to document the experienced reality of his generation. As Anthea Bell, the distinguished translator who worked on many of Zweig’s works, notes, the memoir is not a collections of variations on the theme of despair over the loss of Europe. He does gradually lose hope, but during most of his writing he dreams of a post-war Europe that re-embraces its liberal and humanist roots and is more united. And it is precisely in this kind of writing that Zweig’s non-fiction is at its best. The passion of his fictional characters is channeled more directly into a testament to the radical belief in the values that brought about the artistic outpouring that began with the Renaissance.
Beyond his deep love for what Europe represented, Zweig wrote about the physical locations in cities he lived in or visited. Still infused with his sentimental sentimental insights into traveling and culture, the pieces collected in Journeys blend travel writing with a journalistic dedication in creating portraits of places like Avignon, Antwerp, and Salzburg. For each of them, he composes observational commentary with insight informed simultaneously by history, art, and culture.
In “Return to Italy” Zweig paints a nuanced image of Italian culture in 1921. From the perspective of a visitor who is nevertheless perceptive and attentive to his changing surroundings, he observes the small but profound details that signal the transformation Italy went through during the Great War and the short years after it. In “To Travel or be ‘Travelled’” he begins by saying that “stations and ports, these are my passions.” A love letter to traveling and the psychology behind it, the piece was written in 1926, years before his intercontinental travels were not driven by passion or a sense of adventure but by necessity.
The conditions that led to Zweig’s departure from Vienna and eventually Europe all too closely resemble the current climate. The amalgamation of rising xenophobia, Brexit, the rising popularity of the mildly-labelled “alt-right” in France, The Netherlands, Italy, and particularly in Poland and Hungary, would surely inspire the same feeling of despair in Zweig if he were living today. What he writes about in the ending of The World of Yesterday, focused on in Seksik’s portrayal of Zweig, was echoed by many writers and artists who lived to see the full extent of the atrocities of WWII and their consequences in the years after it ended. You could draw a parallel between Zweig and the suicidal professor in Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant 2006 play The Sunset Limited. In an exploration of religion, faith, existentialism, and art between two characters of vastly different backgrounds, the professor reveals that the reason behind his suicide attempt is a disillusionment and subsequent hopelessness over the values he believed in.
The last days of Stefan Zweig were marked by a fatalist despair over loss, but his celebration of what he believed he lost always shone through in his writing the brightest. In the pieces collected in Messages From a Lost World portray the darkest moments of early 20th century Europe, the pieces in Journeys are both a tribute to what he lost and a reminder of the potential of the Old Continent – a reminder of what the great humanist writer stood and wrote for. The landscape has significantly changed in the last century, but it seems like similar forces are threatening similar ideals. For all the wrong reasons, Zweig’s non-fiction books on Europe are, now, more relevant and insightful than ever.
Stefan Zweig’s collection of travel writing, Journeys, is translated and introduced by Will Stone and published by Pushkin Press on 28 March.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.