Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig

A new biography of Stefan Zweig seeks to establish a balance between invention and authenticity


Stefan Zweig, in recent years, has not so much reprised an earlier reputation in this country as achieved one hitherto denied him beyond his native Austria.

This cannot be merely a testament either to the pioneering Modernism of this uniquely voiced author or to the increased sophistication of a new generation of Anglophone readers.

It has, however, much to do with the plangent poignancy of Anthea Bell's new translations of the unfashionably long short stories (or short novellas) such as The Governess and Confusion and the substantial novel, Beware of Pity. And, of course, with Melissa Ulfane, the tireless publisher of Pushkin Press's flawlessly presented new editions.

Our appetites well and truly whetted, there follows a well-timed biography by German researcher, Oliver Matuschek. Matuschek began by studying Zweig's collections of other authors' works, the sparseness of his own style contrasting with his ample appetite for original musical and literary manuscripts. Only the best were good enough, signed by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, Balzac and Goethe.

Zweig did, of course, compose his own carefully edited memoirs, that he called The World of Yesterday. Like many men of his generation, he chose to exclude what most went into his fiction: the emotional life of the self and others (little mention, for example, of wives and children - or even of the ugly underworld of his yesterday in a Vienna that was a long way from being as idyllic as he described it). He could write: "Whoever lived and worked there felt free of narrow-mindedness and prejudice…" a memory at variance with that of a cartoon rogues' gallery" of scar-faced, drunken and brutal thugs, aggressively armed with hard, heavy sticks… [who] attacked the Jewish, the Catholic, the Slavic and the Italian students".

And he wrote of how he and his university peers were "completely wrapped up in our literary ambitions, and noticed little of the dangerous changes in our homeland".

In short, Zweig was a typically debonair, freethinking, "assimilated" Jew, who wrote a biography of the Christian theologian Erasmus. His first wife (Friderike, in Austria) was Catholic, his second (Lotte, during his London exile) a Jew, but Zweig maintained a lifelong epistolary relationship with Friderike. Indeed, it was she who, in a sense, became the bearer of the Zweig flame following the double suicide of Stefan and Lotte in their final, Brazilian exile. So it was that Zweig's "third life" - or third home - also became his tomb and Friderike at once set about redrafting Zweig's life, eliminating his second wife as much as possible.

Matuschek's version seeks to balance both Friderike's and Stefan's in the light of such detailed discoveries as the manner in which Friderike amended Zweig's letters to make it appear, for example, that he visited New York alone when in fact he had been there with Lotte. He explains rather than explores, offering discrepancies and divergences to the reader as he goes.

Despite the mass of invaluable new information - particularly on Zweig as collector and connoisseur - it is tempting to wonder whether this version is more definitive than any previous one. For how far can the life ever reveal the work as extensively as the work reveals the life? Matuschek is concerned with the life. But perhaps the most ideal achievement of a biography is to return the reader to the subject's own books.

Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at City University, London

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