Stefan Zweig Biography: Chapter Three - Early Works
Stefan first entered primary school in 1887, when he was six years old. It was the first time that his social circle opened to include more than just his immediate family, and nanny. Records indicate that he was a good student, but not particularly exceptional. As Stefan learned to read, he began to escape into the world of literature. As an adult, he later remarked that books, specifically adventures, became a way for him to leave the confines of wealth, and privilege.
Stefan spoke about his primary education on many occasions. He wrote about it, loosely disguised, in his fiction as well. Essentially, he hated those years. He found primary school to be just another form of constriction. The endless hours of repetition, and flavorless learning, left him with yet another longing to be free. He greatly desired to learn about modern writers, but was unable to do so. The school taught only ancient, dusty masters. Zweig began to read such writers as Whitman and Nietzsche in secret. He also began to collect.
At first, Stefan collected stamps. This quickly transformed into a passion for collecting literary memorabilia. Specifically, he first became a collector of writers’ autographs. He and his friends would stalk the streets outside of Vienna’s theatres, in an attempt to catch famous actors, and playwrights. It became something of a competition to secure the “best” autographs of the time. As Stefan grew a bit older, though, this passion changed slightly. Rather than chase down the autographs of his favorite literary icons, he began to write to each of his favorite authors. Zweig’s hobby, a way for him to escape the confines of his wealthy family, became an almost compulsory activity. He literally wrote thousands of letters during his life, and amassed quite a collection of autographed texts. Some of the more famous items in his collection, writings autographed by Beethoven or William Blake, were later donated to museums, where they remain to this day.
Zweig was a prolific letter writer during his life, and that activity had its genesis in those early days of his childhood. After the long hours of school, he would forsake sleep, and spent additional long hours composing his letters. He began to write each letter in purple ink, a color that later became iconic for him. He continued to write in purple for most of his life, composing whole stories, and novels, in the color.
Zweig’s interest in artists of all types, but especially writers, shaped him in numerous ways. Foremost, it sealed his interest in the craft of writing itself. It was all that he could think about. Initially, he wrote to his favorite authors to secure their autographs. Then he wrote to the authors in an attempt to befriend each. Finally, he wrote the letters to impress his favorite writers. Stefan later realized that the best way to make an impression on a writer was to become a great writer. If Stefan found a correspondent who was willing to write back and forth, he would often respond with poetry, or florid prose, to impress them.
When not writing to secure physical objects for his collection, Zweig buried himself in literature. He read, and studied, countless volumes of poetry, prose, and the histories of great writers. He dove into current literary magazines, and newspaper articles. He became an amateur scholar of every aspect of literature. He especially enjoyed poetry, and modern poetry best. He became a fan of the great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who, at that time, was in his prime.
Stefan decided, during his youth, that he himself would become a great writer. He worked tirelessly to achieve this. Anything he wrote, poetry or prose, would go through an almost-obsessive number of drafts. He wrote, rewrote, and edited to a fanatical degree. It quickly became apparent that this would be his lifelong profession. He was rumored to have fought with his father about the choice. Moritz, of course, wanted his son take his place in the textile empire. Stefan would have none of it, however. Fortunately, Stefan was the second son. He could leave the textile business to his brother, Alfred, and he was free to pursue his passion for writing.
Stefan enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1900. He was happy to leave his primary education, having had a distinct dislike for it. At the young age of 19, Zweig was ready to begin learning the deeper philosophy of the writer’s craft. He spent the summer of 1900 preparing for the transition.
After having spent so many years living in the luxurious prison of his parents’ home, Stefan was given permission to move out on his own. He, and his brother, secured a small, one room apartment in Vienna. They stocked it with the provisions they would need. The two brothers shared the room for several years, although Stefan moved around several times. They were never far from their parents’ home, however, and often stopped in to visit their parents, or to enjoy a family dinner.
Stefan took with him his ever-growing collection of autographs. This source of inspiration would eventually lead to one of the greatest collections of manuscripts in all of Europe. He studied philosophy while at the university, and the history of literature. Stefan himself paints these years as unremarkable in his autobiography. What is remarkable, though, is that the author who would come to dominate the literary landscape during his lifetime, published his seminal works during these early college years.
There are writers who find their college experience to be transformative, and fascinating. Many writers view those days through a romantic lens. Zweig was not one of them. Stefan was very happy to leave his college days behind him. He felt a bit stifled, and later wrote that the process of writing his final dissertation was torturous. Although his father had become ill, Stefan left the management of the textile empire to his brother, Alfred. The two brothers parted ways, each to their separate destinies.
During Stefan’s last few months at the University of Vienna, he wrestled with the completion of his dissertation. He also wandered the avenues of the city. During these wanderings, he cemented his friendship with Max Brod. Brod was a writer as well, but he later became more famous as the biographer of Franz Kafka. Brod famously denied the author’s wishes, after Kafka’s death, and published Kafka’s papers and stories. Kafka, himself, had ordered his papers burned after his death, rather than published. Zweig had again befriended another great author, albeit one who had not yet blossomed.
Zweig also secured the friendship of another writer at this time: Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer. The two spent a great deal of time studying together during their final exams. Kolbenheyer would later secure a position of honor with the Nazi empire. Zweig suffered tremendous persecution from the Nazis, but Kolbenheyer saw his star rise with the Third Reich. It would later become an ironic friendship, to say the least.
Alongside Kolbenheyer, Zweig achieved a Doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1904. Stefan completed his dissertation on the French historian, Hippolyte Taine, and finally left the school to enter the world at large. He was now free to pursue his dream of becoming a famous writer.