Stefan Zweig - a reputation regained

Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular authors of his time, killed himself in February 1942, at the age of 60. He took poison. So did his wife, Lotte.

They were in exile in the Brazilian town of Petropolis. Zweig’s neatly handwritten suicide note is stored at the National Library of Israel. It’s a poignant reflection on his years of wandering since leaving Austria in 1934.

Zweig had nothing but gratitude to Brazilians for their hospitality, yet he reflected that “the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself”.

The course of the Second World War had turned by that point, but nothing could be the same again. Zweig’s library at his home in Salzburg had been razed by the Nazis. His exile and suicide were a microcosm of the fate of the victims of their barbarism, in its ferocious antisemitism and its philistinism.

Zweig’s reputation as a novelist, biographer and essayist declined precipitously in the decades after the war — except in France, where translations of his work have never been out of print.

He is, once again, acquiring a prestige among English-speaking readers. It is not before time. Zweig is an exemplar of the Jewish middle-European polymaths of the interwar years. He is a small part of this country’s history, too, having lived for a time in exile in Bath and had taken British citizenship.

He sought to recreate the culture of his time and place. An excellent new book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World ,by George Prochnik, traces his journey — which, as a Viennese intellectual of his time, encompassed many coffee houses and chess boards around Europe.

Zweig was a master of the miniature. He excelled at the novella. His first was published in 1902 but his success came some years later, after the First World War.

It derived from his being a highly accessible writer at a time when the more obscure experiments in modernism deterred some readers, and from an acute psychological insight. Even today, there are snobbish critics who condemn Zweig for being melodramatic. I prefer to say that he is direct.

His novella, Chess, is a terrifying depiction of the descent into insanity. His greatest work, the full-length novel, Beware of Pity, depicts the tragic and involuntary exploitation of a young disabled woman by a cavalry officer.

Handsome new English editions of Zweig’s work have been published in recent years to critical acclaim by Pushkin Press. (I should disclose that the translator, Anthea Bell, is my mother.)

Those who have seen the recent film Grand Budapest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes, may have noticed the closing credit that it was “inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig”.

Prochnik’s book superbly illuminates the nature of Zweig’s Jewish identity. For Zweig was a Jew and a European. The two were inextricable. As a young man, he became close to Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.

Yet Zweig came to distance himself from Zionism. He believed that Jews had a universal ethical mission in contrast to “this time of nationalist madness.”

More than 70 years since his tragic end, Zweig is gaining admirers among a new generation. He was a great exponent of the Jewish humanist ideal.

And, as he did not foresee, the creation of a Jewish state provided a refuge for some of his own archives, even while it was tragically too late to save so many of his compatriots.

Last updated: 10:33am, May 9 2014