Stefan Zweig's vision, and his disillusion.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 11 2010 10:33 AM

The Master of Passionate Excesses

Stefan Zweig probed the darkest emotions with exquisite deftness … and then gave up.

Stefan Zweig.
Stefan Zweig

The word that keeps coming back is fluent. Stefan Zweig was born fluent. Fluent in everything. Everything seemed to come easily to him. Born in 1881 into a very wealthy, open-minded Viennese Jewish family, he lived well and traveled widely; published at a very early age; finished his dissertation at an equally pre­cocious age; acquired unparalleled international fame as a biographer, novelist, playwright, es­sayist, and librettist; and had a roster of friends and acquaintances so exhaustive that it is diffi­cult to think of any European worthy of notice in the early decades of the past century whose biography would not at one point or another invoke the name of Stefan Zweig.

He appears everywhere, knows everyone, and is translated into more languages than any of his contempo­raries. Just about everything he put his mind to is stamped with the telltale ease, polish, and effortless grace of people whose success, liter­ary and otherwise, seemed given from the day they were born or picked up a pen. He never quarreled with his tools; his tools were happy to oblige. He didn't spend nights searching for the mot juste; the mot juste simply came. Agony was not his style. In his work there is not one trace of difficulty overcome. Difficulty never came. There is—and one spots it from the very first sentence in almost everything he wrote—an unmistakable lightness of touch that makes him at once solemn and sociable, humble and pa­trician, scholar and raconteur.

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The irony is sel­dom overblown, the drama never overstretched, and the psychology, for all its unsparing, dis­quieting probes into "spiritual upheavals … unknown and unsuspected," remains spot-on and mischievously subtle. You won't hear the lumpish footfalls of over-the-top sorrow or pick up the false accents of fin de siècle melancholia. Zweig is firm and fluent. Everything in its time, everything just right, never a false move, not one sleight of hand. The story almost writes itself, from beginning to end. He'll stop either when he has nothing more to say or when it's no longer safe or necessary to go any further.

Though similarities to E.T.A. Hoffmann and Guy de Mau­passant—as well as to Somerset Maugham, Arthur Schnitzler, and Alberto Moravia—are tempting, in Zweig we are in the brooding, highly urbane Central Euro­pean universe where sepulchral obsessions and the shady regions of the soul can only be glimpsed and not examined, much less ex­plained, and where redemption is seldom given or earned. He is the master of hidden impulses, of passionate excesses, of l'amour fou, of desires that run amok, and of "the confusion of senti­ments," which is the title of one of his novellas—or, as he writes in that same novella, of "the unimaginable depths of human emotion." Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Paul Verlaine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and, of course, that other free-thinking Viennese Jew Sigmund Freud—these are the voices to whom Zweig, as a scholar and biographer, had already de­voted many pages and whose timbre both underscores the penumbral cast of his fictional universe and explains his near-libidinal urge to penetrate the darker chambers of the heart.

Odd psychological states have a positively disquieting power over me; I find track­ing down the reasons for them deeply intriguing, and the mere presence of unu­sual characters can kindle a passionate desire in me to know more about them, a desire not much less strong than a wom­an's wish to acquire some possession.

Stefan Zweig was a cosmopolite, a prototypi­cally Pan-European emancipated Jew, who managed to shed all belief systems with the exception of pacifism. To this day he remains, paradoxically enough, Europe's most grace­fully defeated and disabused optimist. As of the early 1920s, he had picked up the menac­ing rumbles in Adolf Hitler's failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. By 1933 he showed suffi­cient prescience to see that life was no longer viable for Jews in the German-speaking world and soon moved to England.

And yet, for all his foresight, he too wished to trust Neville Chamber­lain's assurances that Germany would not seek another war. Like all those who watched the gathering storm, he couldn't bring himself to heed what was being shouted each time the Führer spoke. Distressed by the war in Europe, he moved to the United States, then settled in a villa in Brazil, where, in 1942—inexplicably—he and his second wife took their own lives. Their bodies were found lying fully clothed in bed; they were holding hands. His was not Walter Benjamin's suicide, nor the suicide of so many who were hunted down and whose panic before arrest, deportation, and slaughter drove them to seek the quicker exit.

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