Pushkin Press, £20, 387pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig, By Oliver Matuschek, trans. Allan Blunden

 

What is the task of a biographer when his subject has already penned memoirs? Perhaps it lies in composing a counterpoint to what they have omitted from their carefully manicured versions. Where famous men of the 20th century are concerned, the autobiographies tend to concur on the importance of the professional over the private, even (unless the author happens to be a politician) over the political.

That, at least, is the case with the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose The World of Yesterday was most interestingly concerned with explaining his career than the personal impact of the turbulence of his times. Or perhaps his experience as a persecuted Jew under Nazism paradoxically caused him to avoid tackling questions of identity and focus on his public persona. Perhaps, too, he hoped that by penning an official version he could also be definitive. In the opening to his biography of Honoré Balzac, he defended the value of the written record against gossip: "Unfortunately, in this unfriendly world of ours, there is a spiteful and snooping enmity between dry documents and the flourishing legends that surround writers".

Zweig was also a biographer – of Mary Stuart and Marie-Antoinette, as well as of Magellan and Balzac (women who rose above being victims of circumstance, and men who found their own path through literature and the world) as well as standing among the most inventive fiction writers of his time. Working in a format unbeloved of publishers, the novella, Zweig used the genre to combine the delicate dissection of a single emotional strand with a punchy finality. Here, perhaps, is the counterpart to the memoirs of an important man: the wives and the womanising he avoids in writing of himself are revealed in the female characters of The Governess, Beware of Pity and Confusion.

The relation between art and life is not the aspect that most concerns Oliver Matuschek. The emphasis in his biography is on what remains unrecounted in the art, with the recurrent objects of that life as milestones on the way. Three Lives, mapping Zweig's early life in Austria, his exile in Britain, and his last years in the Americas, first appeared at the Deutsches Historisches Museum as an exhibition of texts, letters and the collection of musical scores, poems and other memorabilia of the "great creatives" whom Zweig pursued.

From the age of 15, Zweig was writing to contemporary authors, ostensibly for their autographs but increasingly explicitly to establish a correspondence that might become worthy to sit alongside the letters of Goethe or the score of Schubert's "An Die Musik". He wrote at Beethoven's desk, which he somehow managed to extricate from Salzburg to Bath, where he settled in exile with his first wife, Friderike, and her two daughters. From there his immense popularity brought speaking tours to the US and Argentina, and to his final home in Brazil, where he committed suicide together with his second wife, Lotte, following the fall of Singapore in 1942.

In his scrupulous pursuit of the "dry documents" of Zweig's triple lives, Matuschek gives us an honest and warts-and-all portrait of the man. The documents include not only Zweig's personal memorabilia but a range of correspondences, from fights with Austrian revenue officials insistent of taxing Jews out of all their savings, to generous bequests to those in need, via Jewish and Catholic charities. There are accounts too of more self-seeking behaviour, such as Alma Mahler's of Zweig hounding her ailing husband. If this portrait leads us beyond the Three Lives to a fourth, and to meet the writer again in the terrific new series of translations by Anthea Bell, its success will be accomplished.

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at City University

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn