Stefan Zweig, cultural cosmopolitan.

Stefan Zweig, cultural cosmopolitan.

Stefan Zweig, cultural cosmopolitan.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
April 20 2007 7:13 AM

Stefan Zweig

The incarnation of humanism.

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The question remains of whether Zweig had valued that gathering too much. Never a man for being alone in the cafe, he had staked everything on the artistic community and the mutual consideration that he supposed to prevail automatically within it. To the bitter end, Zweig believed that the natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities was one of affectionate respect: a professional solidarity.

He would have been horrified to find that Thomas Mann thought of him as a mediocrity. It would have been one horror too much; but, unlike the other horrors, it had not been invented by Hitler out of thin air. That Mann had uttered such an opinion was the simple truth. But we should not put too sinister a construction on a snide remark. Mann was never at ease with the idea that some other German writer might sell more books than he did in the world market. The natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities is one of tension, suspicion, rivalry, and, all too often, enmity. Only a catastrophe can bring about, among its survivors, any degree of the automatic mutual regard that Zweig dreamed of so fondly. A great deal of creativity arises from conflict between the creators, and it tends to be annulled when they are driven to make peace by supervening circumstances.


For understandable reasons, Zweig wished the world otherwise. He was always looking for concrete, tangible realizations of a coherence that can exist nowhere except in the spirit. His celebrated collection of autograph manuscripts, which was on display in the Salzburg house, brought the great artists of the past together: another gathering on the terrace.

Typically, upon arrival in his last new country, Zweig wrote a book about it: Brasilien, Land der Zukunft (Brazil: Land of the Future). Quoting freely from the Portuguese, the book is a stunning tribute to his powers of almost instantaneous assimilation. But it also testifies to his corrosive grief. He tries to persuade himself that a land without a past might be a new start for civilization. The real theme, however, has all to do with what he has lost. In Rio de Janeiro, the terrace was almost empty, and in Petrópolis, where he took his own life, there was no terrace at all. I have been there and seen it; and it can be a beautiful place, when the purple quarezmas bloom against the green forest; but it isn't long before you starve for company.

Nevertheless, his suicide in January 1942 will always be a bit of a mystery. It seems not quite to fit the circumstances: America was in the war, and there was no reason to think that he would not have resumed his glittering international position when the war was over. But we could be dealing with a disposition of mind. Despite his success and his huge range of prominent friends, he had been on the verge of despair for most of his life. He had wanted a depoliticized world, and it was obvious that the war had had the opposite effect: It had shattered the foundations of society, but it had also reinforced politics to the point where nobody was exempt. By 1928, when Germany was enjoying an economic recovery that might have perpetuated the Weimar Republic if the Depression had not sealed democracy's fate, Zweig had reasons to modify his pessimism. But it deepened because the political divisions in Europe were deepening too. From the start of his waking life, Zweig had staked everything on the concept of a coherent European humanist heritage. After the Nazis got in, there was nowhere for his pessimism to go except further into despair.

Franz Werfel said truly that Zweig was equipped to live in the countries of exile before there was an exile. He was multilingual, he was famous all over the world, his manners were perfect, and there was nowhere that his stream of royalties did not reach. But his personal success meant little to him outside the ambit of its original context. His final breakdown can be seen well under way in the diary that he kept early in World War II. On Page 410, we see that he was already carrying a phial of poison at the time of Dunkirk. On Page 464, "der Epoch der Sicherheit vorbei ist" (the epoch of security is over). The word vorbei keeps cropping up. "It is over. Europe finished, our world destroyed. Now we are truly homeless."

By "we" Zweig didn't mean just the Jews, a category in which he was reluctant to believe until he found out the hard way that Hitler did. Zweig meant everyone who had lived for the arts, for scholarship, and for humanism. He was wrong, of course. But that was the way Zweig felt, even as it became clear that the forces of destruction would not win the war. He thought that they had already won the war that mattered. We who grew up in the aftermath have a right to say that his resignation was premature, but we would be very foolish to slight its sincerity. Our united Europe of today will be doing very well if it can restore the qualities of which he was the living representative, and that led him to destroy himself because he thought they were irretrievably vorbei. The price of studying the heritage that produced him is to be steadily invaded by the suspicion that he might have been right. Reader beware.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.