After the long night - the dawn

By the 1920s, Stefan Zweig was one of the most successful authors in the world. But after his tragic death in 1942, his fame just faded away. It's time to rediscover his bittersweet tales of desire, loathing and obsession, says C J Schüler
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The Independent Culture

By the late 1920s, Stefan Zweig's novellas and short stories had made him one of the most successful authors in the world. His books could be found on the shelves of every educated German-speaking family; I still have a three-volume set of his stories that belonged to my grandfather. Their human appeal transcended cultural boundaries; they were translated into 30 languages, and made into films in Germany, France, the United States and even the Soviet Union.

His elegant, melancholy anecdotes of doomed lovers and lives ruined by war, poverty or obsession - usually recounted in chance meetings in cafés or on trains - are as fresh and appealing as when they were written 70 or 80 years ago. Yet after the war, his reputation all but evaporated, and for many years he was remembered in this country, if at all, as Richard Strauss's librettist. His popularity endured only in France, where his books can be bought at airport and station bookstalls and his stories are regularly adapted for TV.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Pushkin Press, his work is once again being made available. This small, independent press was founded by Melissa Ulfane in 1997 to bring European literature in translation to a wider English-speaking readership. Its impressive list boasts such forgotten treasures as the turn-of-the-century Dutch novelist Louis Couperus and Ernst Weiss, the Czech writer and friend of Kafka, alongside classics such as Edith Wharton and Henry James, and cutting-edge French fiction from Simon Liberati and Florian Zeller.

This week, Pushkin is publishing Zweig's novella Twilight, paired with a shorter tale, Moonbeam Alley. The first is based on the real life of Jeanne de Plémont, Marquise de Prie, a grande horizontale of the reign of Louis XV, who wields immense influence at the court of Versailles until she is banished to her country estate. Tormented by loneliness and the loss of power, she invites her Parisian friends to a final spectacular entertainment that will culminate in her death.

In Moonbeam Alley, a traveller returning to Germany is delayed in a French port. In the sailors' quarter, a voice singing a familiar aria draws him to a seedy brothel, where a sordid tale of love, loathing and humiliation is gradually revealed to him.

Ulfane became captivated by Zweig's stories as a teenager, and a spell as an editorial assistant at Cassells, Zweig's original UK publisher, gave her the opportunity to explore more of his work. Later, as an independent film-maker dividing her time between London and Paris, she became aware of the discrepancy between Zweig's reputation in the two countries, and was determined to remedy the situation.

The first of Pushkin Press's elegant, pocket-sized editions of Zweig appeared in 1998, pairing The Invisible Collection with Buchmendel, two tales of obsessive connoisseurship that fascinated Ulfane because of her own involvement in the art world. Since then, Pushkin Press has published Zweig's novellas Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, Fantastic Night and The Royal Game, and his novel, Beware of Pity, to critical acclaim, reviving his reputation as a major writer of the 20th century.

Some of the stories are republished in the fine original translations by Eden and Cedar Paul. With Confusion, however, this presented a problem, because Zweig's frank depiction of the homosexual underworld of Berlin was considerably toned down for an English readership. For this and several other stories, new English versions have been commissioned from Anthea Bell, the celebrated translator of WG Sebald's Austerlitz.

Zweig is the most adult of writers; civilised, urbane, but never jaded or cynical; a realist who none the less believed in the possibility - the necessity - of empathy. His easy, relaxed tone gradually draws the reader into revelations of frightening intimacy and intensity. A friend and admirer of Freud, he portrays men and women in the throes of life-changing crises with great psychological insight. Zweig's sexual frankness can come as a surprise. He is neither prudish nor sensationalistic; there is no sense of a wilful desire to break taboos, as in D H Lawrence or Henry Miller, but simply a matter-of-fact acceptance of the way people live.

Born in 1881 to a prosperous, assimilated and secular Austrian-Jewish family, Zweig was the archetype of the Old European, for whom the continent, from Paris to Budapest, was his drawing room. He first gained a reputation as a poet and translator, and then as a biographer who applied the new insights of psychoanalysis to characters as diverse as Marie Antoinette, Erasmus, Mary Queen of Scots and Casanova.

He cultivated the friendship of the leading writers and artists of his day: Rodin, Pirandello, Maxim Gorky, the reclusive Rilke, Albert Schweizer, Arturo Toscanini. In a Zurich café in 1917, he met a young Irishman "with a little brown beard, with keen eyes behind strikingly thick lenses", who gave him a copy of his latest work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In London, 20 years later, he took Salvador Dali to meet and sketch the dying Sigmund Freud.

Zweig began collecting manuscripts of the great writers and composers at the age of 15, when he accosted Brahms on a street corner and asked for his autograph. As his means and his knowledge grew, he sought out manuscripts that he believed shed light on the creative process. Much of his collection - including manuscripts by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler - is now in the British Library's archives.

We catch a glimpse of the privileged life of the young writer in his novella Letter From an Unknown Woman - and an unflattering self-portrait it is. A shy teenaged girl falls in love with a worldly, successful author who moves in to the flat opposite. Busy with his rare books, his fine paintings, his literary friendships and a stream of glamorous women, he scarcely notices her. She moves away, marries, but can't forget him, and eventually engineers a meeting. A brief affair follows, during which she conceives a child. When they meet again, he fails to recognise her. Beside the deathbed of their son, she writes him a letter...

This haunting tale has been filmed many times, most notably by Max Ophuls in 1948, and most recently by the Chinese director Jinglei Xu (2004), who finds an equivalent for old Vienna in pre-revolutionary Beijing.

In his wonderful memoir The World of Yesterday, Zweig looks back at the Austro-Hungarian Empire with mingled affection and exasperation. Hide-bound, inefficient and riddled with snobbery, it was also tolerant, cosmopolitan, and set the highest value on the arts. The First World War tore this comfortable world apart. Although he was declared unfit for active service, a trip to the eastern front in an administrative capacity convinced Zweig of the futility of war, and he became a pacifist.

Ostracised by former friends, he was obliged to leave for Switzerland. With the French novelist and essayist Romain Rolland, he attempted to set up a union of writers to promote international co-operation. In the climate of the times, the project was doomed, but it was an important precursor of the international PEN Club, of which Zweig became an early member.

After the war, he settled in a 17th-century hunting lodge on the outskirts of Salzburg, married Friederike von Winternitz, and began writing the stories that made him an international bestseller.

But again, the political situation darkened. From his home, Zweig could see across the border to Berchtesgaden, Hitler's mountain retreat, and at night, trucks full of Hitler Youth would cross into Austria to drum up support. In May 1933, Zweig's books, along with those of other Jewish writers, were publicly burnt by the Nazis. The opera he had written with Strauss was banned, and earned the elderly composer a terrifying dressing-down from Goebbels. Though Austria was not yet under Nazi rule, Zweig knew it was time to get out. Moving to Britain, he settled in Bath and took British citizenship. His wife chose to stay in Austria and, after their divorce, Zweig married Charlotte (Lotte) Altmann, a German émigré who had become his secretary.

It was during these years of exile that he wrote his only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, which explores the tensions between the rigid code of honour of the pre-war Austrian officer class and the demands of human feeling. The tragic dénouement is triggered when the narrator is unable to send a vital telegram because, unknown to him, the lines are jammed with news of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The framing narrative, set in the edgy days of the Munich agreement, makes explicit the connection between the failure of empathy in the personal sphere and the wider political catastrophe then engulfing Europe.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Zweig and Lotte sailed for Brazil, where they settled near Rio de Janeiro. Here he wrote his last, chilling fiction, The Royal Game. On a liner bound for Buenos Aires, a boorish chess grandmaster is challenged by a diffident stranger, a Viennese lawyer held in solitary confinement by the Gestapo with nothing but a chess manual to preserve his sanity...

After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, the Axis powers appeared invincible. "My spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself," Zweig wrote, "I think it better to conclude in good time and in upright bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the greatest good on earth. I salute my friends! May it be granted to them to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before." He and Lotte then took an overdose of barbiturates and lay down on their bed, hand in hand, to die.

Within a year, the course of the war had turned in the Allies' favour. It is a moot point, however, whether Zweig would have regarded the revelation of the full horror of the Holocaust and the brutal partition of Europe by the Iron Curtain as a dawn worth waiting for. Unlike other Western intellectuals who had visited the Soviet Union, he had no illusions about the regime that was to swallow half the continent.

Now, as the barbed wire comes down and Europe shakes off its grim past, this most European of writers is coming into his own again, and still has a great deal to tell us about how to live together as men and women with desires and sorrows, ambitions and responsibilities.

English readers who are already hooked can take comfort in the fact that there are more of Zweig's compelling stories to come. Next year, Pushkin will publish Amok, a powerful tale of obsessive love in the tropics, which Romain Rolland described as "an inferno of passion at the bottom of which, illuminated by the flames of the abyss, writhes the essential being, the hidden life".

Zweig's stories, says Melissa Ulfane, "make you look at yourself in a different way, at other people in a different way, at life in a different way. I believe that's what books are about, and I want everyone to be able to share it."

'Twilight'/'Moonbeam Alley' is published by Pushkin (£10). To order a copy (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to them at PO Box 60, Helston, TR13 0TP

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