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

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