Stefan Zweig Biography: Chapter Five - The Celebrity of Stefan Zweig
This list of Stefan Zweig’s famous friends and acquaintances is very long. During his life, he was one of the most recognized personalities on the planet. As such, he hobnobbed with the “A list” of the time. His parties were legendary, and he spared no expense to insure that his guests spoke about the affairs for weeks after. Zweig was hounded by journalists and photographers wherever he went, and the paparazzi of the day sought him out endlessly. Even today, Zweig enjoys the attention of some famous personalities. His reputation, though greatly diminished in the United States and England, has flagged little in Europe, as a whole. He is especially popular in France. Not entirely forgotten in England, however, the biographer Flora Fraser, and the singer, Neil Tennant, are avid fans of Zweig’s writing. Even the English actor, Colin Firth, spoke at length about his love affair with the books of Stefan Zweig.
The Roaring 20s launched Zweig into international fame. Though he had already established himself as a literary force, the sale of his novels reached new heights during the flapper years. He visited the United States several times before the start of World War I, in 1914. During each of these visits, he continued to meet the famous personalities of the day, and to establish himself as a writer.
In 1911, on one such visit, he described in his journals the prosperity and abundance that he felt the United States had to offer. He had always wanted to test the theory that anyone, regardless of station or nationality, could find opportunity in the “new world.” After touring Canada, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, he stopped for a long visit in New York.
Zweig found that the city, although European in appearance, was far different than he expected. He asked a porter to help him find the grave of the poet, Walt Whitman, an idol from Zweig’s youth. In his native Europe, the location of the graves of such famous literary personalities would be a well-known fact. Zweig was rather surprised to find that, not only did the porter not know the location of the grave, he had no idea who Walt Whitman was.
Zweig applied for several jobs around the city, knowing that he did not have the citizenship papers needed to secure such work legally. Within a very short time, Zweig had several offers for employment. He decided then that the stories he had heard about America were true. Even without citizenship, an immigrant could find work. He later wrote about his travels and experiences on the North American continent in several prominent newspapers. Those articles, delivered on time, and frequently, continued to make Zweig a household name.
During that same trip, Zweig was surprised to find several of his books in an American bookshop. He was pleased that, already, his work circulated in these lands across the ocean. Satisfied, he returned home on a steamer. Zweig would discover, yet again, an opportunity to meet someone famous during this trip home. These opportunities, a staple for Zweig, continued to fuel his rise to celebrity status.
On the journey to America, Zweig had met the composer, Ferruccio Busoni. They established a friendly rapport, and Zweig was delighted to find that Busoni was traveling back to Europe with him on the same steamer. The ship the two boarded was abuzz with excitement. An entire section of the deck had been cordoned off for another famous passenger: Gustav Mahler. The aging Mahler, a very famous Austrian composer, returned home with his wife and family. He was deathly ill, and his family desperately wanted him to rest, while he avoided contact with the public.
Zweig, relentless, pursued the composer throughout the journey, and even sent an offer of help to Mahler’s wife. She accepted, but when the steamer reached its destination, Zweig’s help was nowhere to be found. Instead, he stole glimpses of the sick composer, perhaps to add to the mental collection of personalities he had met. Mahler died shortly thereafter, and a greedy public devoured any intimation written about the composer’s last days. Zweig capitalized on this, and wrote about the experience, perhaps skewing it slightly to appear as if he were more involved with the situation than he was in reality. Zweig steadily acquired fame, whether by his own creative works, or by his proximity to someone who had already achieved renown.
Zweig became ill himself, not long after he returned home. He spent several weeks recovering from an operation. The effects of the anesthesia were particularly bad, and he found himself unable to sleep at night. He spent much of this time writing when he could, adding to his volume of work. The scar from the operation would later serve to hamper Zweig in other ways. It rendered him unqualified for the military draft, and the writer avoided the battlefield of World War I. His parents, prominent and wealthy, had already paid to have him removed from the draft lists. Zweig, however, wanted to fight, and tried to enlist. He was unable to do so because of the surgery scar.
After the operation, as Zweig continued to rest and gather his strength, he pursued his collection of literary manuscripts. He found, to his great delight, that a neighbor of his, in the apartment building, had a personal relationship with another of Zweig’s idols: Johann Goethe. He established a friendship with the neighbor, and was able to secure more writing paraphernalia for his growing collection.
Zweig decided, not long after his operation, that he wished more financial freedom to travel, and explore. His parents had paid Zweig’s monthly expenses to date, but he asked his father to give him a larger sum of money. Moriz agreed, and the sum came from the portion of the family fortune that Zweig would eventually inherit. Zweig invested the money to good effect, and found complete freedom from all monetary constraints.
He soon befriended an up-and-coming photographer, Franz Xaver Setzer. Zweig allowed himself to be photographed by Setzer, perhaps unaware that Setzer was fated to become one of the most important photographers of his era. Again, Zweig had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. He came from a wealthy family and could seek out such people easily, it is true, but Zweig always seemed to gravitate toward those who were, or would soon become, very famous.
Setzer’s studio quickly became an active place. He photographed some of the greatest personalities in Vienna, of which there were many. Photographs from that time include those of Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt became one of the most famous actors and theatre directors of his time. His theories concerning theatre, and theatre production, established a school of thought that continues to be studied to this day. Zweig had already befriended Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, but his introduction to Reinhardt, and others involved with theatre, would later lead him to work with the great composer, Richard Strauss.
Austria, on the advent of World War I, was filled with famous personalities. It was during this time that Zweig became a close correspondent and friend to Sigmund Freud. Freud would influence the writings of Zweig far more than any other thinker would. The friendship began, as so many did, with Zweig sending a letter of introduction. With the letter, he sent copies of his published work. Freud responded almost immediately, acknowledging Zweig’s talent, asking him to send more of his writing.
Freud was most interested in the intimate, private lives of his subjects, and Zweig’s own interest in the psyche of his characters appealed to the psychiatrist. Zweig had begun to write in a way that was very new for his time. Rather than amusing stories that barely touched on the private lives of the characters, or tales reconstituted from older myths, Zweig dove deep into the minds of his protagonists. He stripped away the layers of illusion and repression that often cloaked the inner-lives of the Viennese. To do so, he focused, laser-like, not so much on what happened to his characters, but on how those characters reacted to their circumstances.
Freud was enchanted with Zweig almost immediately, and the two began a long and fruitful friendship. Biographers and scholars later speculated that Zweig was also a patient of Freud, though there is little evidence to support this theory. It certainly would not have been strange, however. Zweig respected the doctor a great deal. He would have sought Freud out if he felt he needed therapy. In addition, if Freud had asked Zweig to sit for a psychoanalytic session, it is unlikely that Zweig would have refused him.
Although Zweig was obsessed with exploring the private lives of his own characters, there is very little that he wrote about his own private life. Scholars have theorized endlessly about comparisons that could be made to Zweig’s written characters. Many of those characters fight internal social impulses, sexual desires, and repressions that spring from childhood. All of this material is a rich minefield for any psychoanalyst. However, it is important to remember that, although Zweig may have injected elements of his own personality into some of his characters, it is unfair to say that those characters are simply thin sketches of Zweig. The writings, and their writer, are separate, until the writer admits otherwise.
Zweig was an accomplished and skilled writer, but his early work is often concerned with the preservation and circulation of the writings of others. He spent a great deal of time and effort to insure that the work of his mentor and friend, Emile Verhaeren, remained available and accessible. Zweig translated much of Verhaeren’s poetry into German, as well as many of Verhaeren’s plays, and tried to organize a reading of the Swiss poet’s work. Although he faced many obstacles, Zweig was successful, and he accompanied his friend on a whirlwind tour of Germany in 1911. The readings generated new interest in Vaerhaeren, and Vaerhaeren’s reputation was secure.
Zweig concerned himself with his own writing as well, during this time. He had already established relationships with several publishers, and he worked tirelessly on his own publications. Zweig was never content to allow others to manage his resources, or his own publicity, and he always remained at the helm of his own public relations machine. This included correspondence on an epic scale. He sent hundreds of letters to the wealthy, the connected, and the literary. Each letter, of course, contained a humble sample of his writing that he politely asked be reviewed. This business model worked very well, and Zweig achieved astounding fame in Vienna as a writer, critic, and scholar, before World War I began.