Stefan Zweig Biography: Chapter Four - Breakthrough
By the time of his graduation from college, Zweig had chosen the path of the writer with certainty. All of his early publications received fantastic reviews by respected writers, and Zweig himself had formed powerful literary relationships. His friend, Verhaeren, continued to encourage him, and Zweig’s new friendship with Hermann Hesse was a source of inspiration, as well. Zweig’s reputation as a writer grew each month. He also received acclaim, and income, from his translations of the poet, Paul Verlaine.
Zweig knew that his career as a writer had begun, but he was perceptive enough to understand that varied experiences made a better writer. He began to expand his circle of friends to include other wordsmiths and intellectuals. He had no end of personalities from which to choose. Vienna, in the early 20th century, was a mecca of intellectualism.
It is also important to note that Vienna was, during this time, the home of Sigmund Freud. The Age of Psychoanalysis had begun. Freud was alive, and his research was very active. He and his students, Carl Jung among them, changed the face of psychology. Those changes were widespread, and had ramifications across the entire spectrum of the humanities, including literature. New schools of literary philosophy rose and fell with the tides, after the advent of psychoanalysis. Stefan Zweig was one of the many who rode the surf. He befriended Freud, and the two shared a correspondence that began with letters, a medium in which Zweig excelled. Zweig also befriended the great poet, Rilke, and the two often visited each other in Paris.
Zweig utilized these various friendships in a variety of ways. First, he expanded his thinking about writing in general. Second, the contacts that he made with great writers and thinkers made it easier for him to publish his own works. Lastly, he expanded his legendary collection of original manuscript pages, and writing memorabilia. He was a shameless collector at this point, and wrote to any and all who could claim a remote title to fame. His favorite piece was a poem handwritten by Johann Goethe.
Zweig published another volume of poetry in 1906, entitled Early Wreaths. His literary friendships paid off, and he chose a new publisher for this volume. Not surprising, the publisher had a catalog of famous writers, including Rilke, and Goethe. Stefan later received an award for this volume of poetry, and that award further secured his reputation. This official recognition also brought with it enemies, ever the price of fame. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a famous poet of the time, thought that Zweig was unqualified for such an honor. He expressed his dislike of Zweig in secret, however. Outwardly, he was warm and friendly with Stefan, even inviting him to lunch on several occasions. Though the two would later share a friendship, it always bore the shadow of envy.
Zweig traveled rather extensively for several years, after his graduation from college, but settled again in Vienna in 1907. Well provided for, he received funds from his family’s textile profits, as well as proceeds from his own publications. He had befriended the sculptor, Rodin, who was currently working on a sculpture of the French writer, Honoré de Balzac. Zweig found the sculptor, and the writer, to be fascinating characters, and he began a biography of Balzac. The work on this volume began a trend that Zweig would later perfect: the writing of insightful and intriguing biographies.
In 1905, at the age of 25, Zweig had begun to create his own following of contemporary writers. He was rapidly becoming an experienced writer himself, and that gravity attracted younger writers to him. He often frequented the Café Beethoven, drinking coffee, and spending his time educating and entertaining the youth around him. The group would meet often, dissolving only at the start of World War I, in 1914. The conversations revolved primarily around art and literature. Zweig made certain that politics remained at the periphery. He was not overly interested in the agenda of the Zionist movement, like his friend, Max Brod. Zweig desired for the Jewish people to be more involved with the world, and never agreed with the idea of establishing a separate, Jewish country. Zweig seemed to use these café meetings as an observation platform. He would later create characters in his stories that contained a piercing psychological depth. He had learned a great deal from the techniques of Freud. Zweig knew that careful observation held the key to the secrets of a man’s mind. On advice from Walther Rathenau, who would later become Germany’s foreign minister, Zweig left these personal writing salons to travel to India.
It was Zweig’s ability to see into the hearts and minds of his characters that best defined his novels and biographies. His travels around Europe, before and after World War I, introduced him to a host of characters: usually famous, but also obscure. Many historians believe, and with strong evidence to support it, that Zweig often used his stories as a way to write a tacit autobiography. At the very least, many of his characters illustrated and explored a major problem that plagued society during those war-torn days of the early 20th century: sexual repression. Zweig’s own autobiography did little to illuminate the dark and hidden places in his own life. If the historians are correct, then an exploration of Zweig’s most popular fiction is the best place to find some intimation of the man himself.
Emile Verhaeren (First published in 1915) Stefan Zweig had a passion for writing biographies, and he wrote many during his lifetime. The trend first began when he was a youth. His great interest in the lives of his favorite authors propelled him to explore those authors’ lives in depth. If he could find written information on each, he would spend hours poring over the information. Often, however, it was just as easy for him to write to the authors themselves. Zweig knew that some of the best biographical material comes from speaking to the subject of the biography directly.
Zweig was a prolific letter writer, and introduced himself to many of the great personalities of the 19th century literati, via his own letters. Often he would send a volume of his own writing with each letter. This allowed him to both introduce himself, and to secure a network of friends and colleagues who had already published. In the pre-digital age, contacts were of profound importance if one wanted a wide dissemination of one’s own work.
Such was the case with his friend, Emile Verhaeren. Zweig cites Verhaeren, a Belgian poet, as having been a formative influence on his life. It then comes as no surprise that Zweig wrote and published a biography on his idol. He paid the man homage, by writing about him, and, at the same time, secured a fruitful friendship with a well-known, literary personality.
The Struggle with the Daemon (First published in 1925) Stefan became fascinated with the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, when he was a young boy in school. Nietzsche, known as a rebel in his own life, appealed to the young Zweig. Stefan felt that his primary education was a stifling environment, designed to destroy all traces of creativity and inspiration from young students. Nietzsche wrote famously on the need to assert one’s own individuality, and the need to topple any tyrannical order. Too new and rebellious, Nietzsche was not on the prescribed reading list of Zweig’s school. Consequently, those students who felt shackled often secretly gravitated to his works.
Stefan’s biography, Struggle with the Daemon, explored Nietzsche’s philosophies in depth. Stefan wrote the history in an attempt to explore what it was about Nietzsche’s work that most fascinated him. He paints Nietzsche as a wild spirit, one who listens to his own inner “daemons,” and who longs to be free. Zweig was a fanatic reader of Goethe, as well, and contrasts and compares the two writers. Goethe, he felt, had the inner daemon that Nietzsche spoke of, but suppressed it. Nietzsche was never afraid to give his own inner daemon control over his actions.
Zweig was rather notorious for being a bit of an intellectual snob. He often felt that those who were illiterate, or uneducated, were unworthy of any intellectual attention. He was often accused of only writing about salt-of-the-earth characters that experienced great suffering. Biographers speculate that this attitude may have arisen naturally, a direct result of Zweig having been brought up in privilege and wealth. It should be noted, however, that other intellectuals who held Nietzsche in high regard often shared a similar attitude toward the uneducated.
Many cite Nietzsche’s writings as the reason Stefan refused to protest during World War II. Zweig wanted to be free, in the sense that he would not allow himself to be locked into any specific action. Zweig considered himself a pacifist, and used his writing to advocate peace during World War I. However, during World War II, while many writers actively protested the atrocities of the Nazis, Zweig steadfastly refused to participate. His desire to be pacifist, and free, often led him to be silent. He approached commentary about the actions of the Nazis in a subtle way. His form of protest was to write, and to continue to publish, despite the desires of the Nazis to silence all dissent.
It is important to remember that the Nazis also venerated the writings of Nietzsche, and twisted his words to terrifying effect. That Zweig, a famous Jewish writer, found much of beauty in Nietzsche’s writings as well, is darkly ironic, at best.
Fear (First Published in 1925) This novella, a literary form that Zweig is acknowledged to have mastered, delves into the psychosexual side of early, 19th century society. The main character, Mrs. Irene, becomes the target of a woman who discovers that Mrs. Irene is involved in an affair. The woman who blackmails her over the scandal puts her through a terrible, psychological, roller coaster. That turmoil, however, is nothing compared to the torture that Mrs. Irene puts herself through.
One of Zweig’s most popular books, and a huge bestseller at the time, Fear speaks to the topics that obsessed society at the time of its publication. The idea that repressed sexuality can eat away at the fabric of one’s sanity is one that Zweig explored in depth. This area of literary exploration became hugely popular, and it should come as no surprise. Zweig’s popularity as a writer occurred not long after the era of Victorianism, and in the light of Freudian psychoanalysis. Delving into the deep, psychosexual issues that motivate and propel individuals was a completely new literary concept. It had become all the rage, and few writers had mastered its use in literature. Zweig had found a niche, and he wrote for it well.
Amok (First published in 1922) This novella is another example of the influence of Sigmund Freud. The title-word of the story was a relatively unknown term, during Zweig’s day, and its etymology refers to severe intoxication. Zweig used the novella to work with psychological repression. Amok’s narrative works with the themes of abortion, obsession, and eventual suicide; each a result of an inability to control one’s own animal urges.
Zweig, often criticized for writing too shallowly, felt that such themes were in desperate need of illumination. He often wrote on several levels, and in several layers. His stories were likened to nesting, Russian dolls. First, he told a story that was engaging, and rather edgy. Abortion and sexual obsession were still avant-garde topics in the early 19th century. Then, he would tell a story within a story. Finally, he gently exposed repressions in his own society, by pointing to such repression in his characters. Zweig used heavy symbolism in his writing. The main character of Amok eventually drowns, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, attached to a coffin. Within the coffin lay the object of his obsession.
Using symbolism to expose and understand deep scars in the psyche was a technique that Freud taught. Freud was very happy to find that many of his own theories and philosophies often appeared in Zweig’s published works.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (First published in 1922) First published as a group of novellas, of which Amok was a part, Letter also deals with sexual repression, and the eventual destruction that such repression brings. The female character in the book tells her story, via a letter, that the narrator finds. She is on her deathbed, and wishes to divest herself of the guilt of her sins.
She fell in love with a wealthy writer who was very amorous with a multitude of women. The writer’s hedonistic lifestyle filled the woman with an uncontrollable passion, and she pursued an affair with the writer. After satisfying her urges, she found herself indigent, and pregnant. The wealthy writer had moved on, and left her to fend for herself. The baby died in the great influenza pandemic, and she herself wrote the letter sick with the disease, close to death.
The novella was incredibly popular, and was one of the works that secured Zweig a position as the most published author of his day. The first film adaptation appeared not long after Zweig’s death in 1942, and the novella itself is widely acknowledged as a shining example of cultural significance.
Beware of Pity (First published in 1939) This was Zweig’s longest book, and one of the few that saw reprints for many years. It is a powerful example of the perfectionism and fastidiousness by which Zweig constructed his writing. The novel went through eleven different drafts. It was endlessly rewritten before Stefan signed off on the final copy. Zweig’s notes for the novel were encyclopedic, and he labored over the final version for many years.
Zweig went to such great effort to produce this one book, but the book itself is deceptively simple. Beware of Pity is a Freudian masterpiece, and best exemplifies the philosophy that Zweig embraced. The characters in the novel face the horrors of their lives in indirect ways. They misunderstand or misdiagnose their own problems to such a degree that their attempts to make sense of their issues are doomed at the outset.
Zweig personified his pacifism and nostalgia for the past with this, his only novel. It decries the dangers of pity itself, but longs for a time when life was less complicated, and untainted with evil. The brutal destruction wrought by two world wars left Zweig adrift. He seemed to fumble for a time when life was easy and beautiful again.
The Post Office Girl (First published in 1982) The Post Office Girl, published posthumously, tells the story of a girl dealing with profound poverty after World War I. A post office worker after the war, the girl visits Switzerland to spend time with a rich aunt. She soon finds herself abandoned by that same aunt, and is forced to return to work. She then becomes involved with a veteran, and the two spend the rest of the novella making one dark mistake after another. Zweig loved to strip away internal illusions, like layers of an onion with a black center. He saw the naïveté of the past, and the denial of one’s psychological dilemmas, as a roadblock to the future. Freud would have been proud.
Zweig’s ability to work with his characters’ complex emotions shines through in this novel. He loved the hidden and unseen parts of the human psyche, especially when those parts exposed a dark side to the human experience. He also used the voice of the veteran in the novel to explore the era of disillusionment and despair that the Great War had announced. Such themes were near to his heart, and with this novel, Zweig presages such writers as T. S. Eliot, who would later appear to decry societal disintegration after World War II.
Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman (First published in 1932) Zweig’s biography of Marie Antoinette was extremely popular, and was an international bestseller after it published. Zweig perfected the form of the biography, and elevated it out of the realm of the dry, dusty, and academic. He painted his characters in vivid color, and worked hard to expose the rich, internal lives of each of his subjects. Zweig spent long hours painstakingly researching the history of the French Revolution, and read all of the letters of the famously executed queen.
Zweig’s focus on the human costs of war made the novel desired reading. The book was read not just by the literati, but also by the common person. Each stratum of human wealth and influence found itself laid bare by Zweig’s purple pen. He used the story of the great revolution in France to illustrate exactly what was wrong with opulent wealth and blindness in the face of suffering and poverty. The biography seemed not so much a history of one specific event, but an on-going history of what occurred in the present. This subtle and deft touch is a hallmark of Zweig’s writing genius.
Chess Story (First published in 1942) Chess Story was the first book of Zweig’s to be published posthumously, after the author’s suicide. It has since increased in popularity and, with Beware of Pity, is often the first book encountered by new readers of Zweig. It has been through several film adaptations and, currently, the novella is on tour in Europe as an opera.
Zweig rarely spoke openly about the Nazi empire that destroyed much of Europe. He always avoided the conversation, and sank deeper into his pacifism, before ending his life. Indeed, even though many admirers state that Zweig was a pacifist, the man’s suicide seems to undermine this notion. At the very least, it points to a grave depression suffered by Zweig that his pacifism could not assuage. He watched his home, and people, suffer under the brutality of the Nazis. Readers may never know the inner turmoil that Zweig felt. However, Chess Story may give a glimpse into the author’s inner struggle.
Inner struggle defines this novella from the start. The main character, a doctor, finds himself completely isolated by the National Socialists — the Nazis. To escape this isolation, he obsessively reads a book on chess, and becomes familiar with the moves of the great Chess Masters. With each reading, he adds the moves to his own mental game, until finally, he finds that his psyche splits into two: White and Black. The influence of Freud on Zweig’s writing is rarely more explicit than it is, here. The splitting of the psyche, into multiple personalities, is textbook insanity. This mental game eventually drives the doctor mad, and he awakens in a sanitorium.
The novella continues as the doctor, having left the asylum, takes a voyage. He discovers a great Chess Master on the boat with him, and the two battle it out on the chessboard. Ultimately, the chess master fails, and is driven to insanity himself. He is unable to compete with the great, mental game that the doctor perfected.
It becomes easy to guess what Zweig intended with the novella, in light of certain historical facts. His home country of Austria was dismantled by two wars. In the first war, thousands of Austrian patriots were sent to concentration camps. In the second, millions of Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. There was a great, dark game afoot. The armies of shadow and light fought for supremacy over the planet. Most importantly, that game did indeed drive many to despair, and insanity. In the face of such horror, it seems that Zweig dealt with that reality as best he could. He wrote about it.
The World of Yesterday (First published in 1943) To know the life of a man, it would make the most sense to turn to his autobiography. Zweig finished writing his life story, both literally and figuratively, in 1942. He mailed the manuscript, typewritten by his wife, the day before both committed suicide in Brazil. The book, rushed to publication, became available to the public in 1943.
The autobiography describes much of Zweig’s career at home and abroad, and the tumultuous years of World War I, in Europe. A steadfast humanist and pacifist, Zweig did not foresee the destruction that the Nazis would wreak on his perfect world. The autobiography discusses his native Austria before the wars, painting it as an idyllic place of beauty, and wealthy naiveté. Austria seemed a type of Eden for Zweig, who had grown up with rare privilege, and he greatly lamented the destruction of that Eden in the ravages of war.
Zweig’s relationship with Sigmund Freud merits a prominent section of his autobiography. It is no surprise, as Zweig was profoundly influenced by the Father of Psychoanalysis, and integrated the philosophies and theories of Freud into his own writings. Zweig spends time in his autobiographical work discussing his own theories of sexuality in Europe. Specifically, he focused on the influences of Christianity, and its role in oppressing female sensuality.
Freud is famous for his explorations of sexuality. He spent most of his career exploring the consequences of sexual repression. Zweig latched onto this theme, and explored it himself in many of his writings. Zweig’s own sexuality, a subject of endless debate over the years, is curiously absent in his autobiography. He does not mention his first wife at all, and his marriage to Lotte Altmann barely merits his attention. For all of his exploration on the vast topic of human sexuality in his own fiction, Zweig does not give his readers a glimpse into his own bedroom.
Zweig was famous for defying the Nazis, even though he was a pacifist. He seemed to prefer an attitude of detached observation rather than open defiance. However, his relationship with the famous German composer, Richard Strauss, led to a confrontation with the highest levels of the Nazi empire. Stefan recounts the story, and his involvement, in his autobiography.
Zweig’s memoir ends with the announcement of the beginning of World War II. This ending, more than anything, frustrated later scholars and biographers. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, hounded by the most evil of modern empires, and Zweig did not leave a detailed, written account of it all. It was left to later researchers to piece together Zweig’s flight from the encroaching Nazi empire and, more importantly, to shine light on how that flight influenced and changed Zweig himself.