FICTION MARCH 24, 2011
by Stefan Zweig
New York Review of Books, 136 pp., $14
IN 1981, IN AN INTRODUCTION to a book of stories by Stefan Zweig, John Fowles noted that “Zweig has suffered, since his death in 1942, a darker eclipse than any other famous writer of this century.” Ten years into a new century, the situation is unchanged. Can it really be that in 1942 Zweig was, as Fowles asserts, “arguably the most widely read and translated serious author in the world”? Today, even in German-language literature courses, Zweig is largely ignored in favor of others, from Thomas Mann to Herman Hesse and Robert Walser, writers as radically different from one another as each of them is from Zweig.
Literary fashions are fickle, of course. The taste for the novel of ideas, once largely associated with Mann, has notably diminished. The lugubrious emotionalism of nineteenth-century writers such as Theodor Fontane, or of a much more recent Italian novelist such as Elsa Morante, once widely admired, now seems out of reach. Though certain writers are rediscovered, brought back from the dead, most of those who are lost remain gone, all but forgotten.
Stefan Zweig was not only an enormously popular writer, but also an intuitive and skillful prose stylist. He wrote a great deal, and much of what he wrote has about it an undeniable dash and conviction. The author of best-selling biographies and works in several different genres, his literary reputation rested chiefly on a series of stories and novellas, including three of the most famous such works in the German language: The Royal Game, The Burning Secret, and Letter From An Unknown Woman. Each of those works has about it an infectious urgency. Each seems frequently overheated. Characters fear, with good reason, that their minds are “falling into disarray” as the result of unbearable pressures they do not know how to banish. They are subject to perpetual “astonishment,” or discover in themselves or others “some inexplicable magic power,” an “alluring enigma,” or an insidious guilt so comprehensive as to wreck all sense of meaning. Again and again Zweig’s characters grapple with premonitions of destiny. When they manage somehow not to fall heavily into the thorns and vicissitudes of life, they writhe in fear of failure or in the prospect of immitigable suffering.
Given the wide circulation of Zweig’s writing over many years, in this country as elsewhere, it is surprising that we should now have a characteristic novella published for the first time in America. The cover of the New York Review edition of Journey Into the Past describes it as “a poignant examination of the angst of nostalgia and the fragility of love,” and the language of that description itself aptly reflects the flavor of the fiction. In his introduction to this edition, Andre Aciman notes a quality that he admires in Zweig’s writing: the sense we have that “the story almost writes itself, from beginning to end.” This writer, apparently, “didn’t spend nights searching for the mot juste; the mot juste simply came…. In his work there is not one trace of difficulty overcome.”
Though it is not clear—not to this reader, at any rate—how anyone would come by such an impression, we are likely to be convinced, as we read one of Zweig’s fictions, that he knows what he is after, that he suffers from no misgivings about the adequacy of his language to express the states of feeling that he wishes to evoke. There is no hand-wringing in this writer about the betrayal of thought or emotion by words that have become dull with use, and no self-conscious recoil from his formulaic devices. But to claim that Zweig never had to search for the mot juste, or that a Zweig story seems to write itself, is to say more than is warranted. Self-confidence in a writer is not inevitably a sign that he has experienced no difficulties on his way to an impeccably integrated and coherent surface.
More dubious is Aciman’s assertion that we find in Zweig “an unmistakable lightness of touch,” and that “the irony is seldom overblown, the drama never overstretched,” the “psychology … mischievously subtle.” Only in The Royal Game does Zweig sustain the tension that builds inexorably from one stage of the work to another without succumbing to deliberately heightening effects that bespeak calculation and the will to dramatic intensification. Zweig himself referred to the work as his “chess nouvelle,” and the novelist John Fowles described it as the “story of a man who outwits the Gestapo and manages, though scarred, to go on living.” In this work, the references to “insatiable madness” or to the “thoroughly pathological form of mental overstrain” seem fully in keeping with the mood of the piece and with the realities of the circumstance patiently evoked. Elsewhere in Zweig’s fiction we are more apt to feel the strain of an emotion not fully mastered, an extremity of feeling pressing for expression but not handled with the sense of proportion or the “lightness of touch” Aciman extols.
Zweig was, as Aciman correctly puts it, “a cosmopolite, a prototypically Pan-European emancipated Jew.” Born in 1881 into a comfortable Viennese family, he spoke many languages and enlisted early in the circle of artists and intellectuals for whom the creed of a united Europe was an abiding concern. He traveled a great deal, and as early as 1921, during a visit to Italy, he noted the menace of Fascism. After 1938, he could no longer publish in the German-speaking world, and suffered greatly, along with many others, through the fall of France in 1940 and the onset of world war. Though he was a man with the reputation of a bon vivant who boasted an extraordinary range of friendships, Zweig succumbed to a severe and abiding depression, and in February 1942, with his second wife, he committed suicide in a rented house in Petropolis, Brazil.
Though no one would think to describe him as a writer of political fictions, Zweig was alert to developments in the world and frequently noted that class and money shaped the attitudes and the expectations of people who thought themselves immune to such factors. “For the first time he realized there were details about life he hadn’t thought about,” we read in The Burning Secret, and though the reflection there belongs to a child, it is much like other such recognitions in Zweig’s adult characters, who are confronted with surprising intimations of the real world they had managed for a time not to acknowledge.
In this newly issued novella, which covers eighty modest pages and fourteen thousand words, Zweig is up to the usual things that readers of his earlier fiction will expect. Aciman rightly notes the presence of “sepulchral obsessions” and “the confusion of sentiments,” the “near-libidinal urge to penetrate the darker chambers of the heart.” The language is characteristically fevered, even where there is, in the characters, an inclination to moderation. The words that the lovers write to one another in letters are “blurred by kisses and tears.” Seized by “somber” questions, the protagonist is alert to “black waves [rising] in his blood.” The lovers of the novella indulge a species of love-making “in a constant state of wild, ecstatic frenzy.” A love that dare not show itself keeps “blazing up” in the madly excitable inebriates, and the man in this couple experiences what is called “the radiant noon of his life.” There is nothing subtle here, and nothing held back. If anything, Zweig’s writing betrays what was once called the expressive fallacy, whereby the tenor of the prose is made to take on the full, florid coloring—and distortion—of the exacerbated emotional state endured by the characters.
This is not to suggest that the overwrought passages of the writing are ludicrous or off-putting, but they do impart to Zweig’s writing a somewhat worked-up quality of obsession or monomania. The intensifiers and the exclamatory flourishes are not essentially stylistic gestures or flights of inspired poeticism. They bespeak no higher purpose, no panting after a spiritual dimension otherwise unavailable in the more quotidian reaches of descriptive or psychological language. We do not read Zweig for the thrilling accelerations and decelerations of intensity that we admire in a writer such as Saul Bellow. Zweig is not an expressionist committed to theatricality or to extreme antitheses and ejaculations. He is a writer whose commanding instincts point him in the direction of melodrama and seething, often subterranean emotions. He is always nervously alert to the inexpressibly muffled but urgent sentiment, to the passion too dangerous or obscure to call by any elementary name.
Journey Into the Past extends from the years before the World War I into the 1930s, when the lovers at the center of the story arrive in Heidelberg and witness a growing mob of Nazi youth bearing swastikas and “marching with athletic firmness … four abreast … goose-stepping along.” Though the work as a whole is intimate in focus, there is throughout a sense of larger forces against which individual hearts cannot effectually contend. Even in the hotel bedroom the lovers are aware of “the unseen traces of other guests,” which cause them to feel awkward, uneasy, out of place. The jubilant mob scene outside, which propels the lovers into the hotel, is an important factor in their growing unease, but it is by no means sufficient to account for what has happened to them throughout the course of a life marked by disappointment. The regret that haunts these people will not be resolved or banished by an easy recourse to explanations that feature “circumstance” or politics.
For Zweig’s lovers had it in their own hands, many years before, to defy the conditions that drove them apart. Nine years earlier, when the woman’s much older husband was still alive, she and her lover had convulsively decided upon one another, only to stop short of a final decisive commitment. “Once again he controlled his ardor,” we read. The two denied themselves fulfillment, determined to put off the consummation of their attachment. Though the woman had said, at one heated moment, that “I couldn’t do it here, in my own house, in his own house,” her words hardly seem persuasive, given the extent of their all-but-consummated gropings and gaspings and stammerings and “Bacchanalian frenzy.” No, it is not modesty or scruple that drives these lovers apart, no more than the external conditions of the time that cause the man to accept a job at the far end of the earth, in Mexico, armed only with the prospect of some later return to the waiting, desirous arms of his beloved.
It is tempting, of course, to read Zweig’s novella as a story of repression, of the price in blasted hopes exacted by a civilization at the end of its proverbial tether but still strong enough to constrain and to baffle its more refined acolytes. In the letters that the woman writes to her lover in the early stages of their separation, her handwriting “was upright, her words calm, betraying passion but in disciplined form.” But Zweig does not emphasize the matter of repression in this tale, and he does not deplore, or wish us to deplore, the betrayal of genuine attachment and feeling by the unnatural constraint exercised by an unduly “disciplined” soul. Neither of the lovers is convicted of fearfulness or timidity or hypocrisy. The woman’s reiterated “Not now! Not here!”, which rises to her lips in the first flush of their infatuation and then again nine years later at the time of their reunion, is an expression of some obscure failure or ambivalence that cannot be adequately explained by anything Zweig provides.
Aciman does his best to explain the mystery by alluding to the uncanny, informing aspect of “an ancient interdiction,” but again this hardly seems adequate to get at the sources of a failure that entails so great a weight of disappointment and heartache. Neither can the observation—Aciman’s observation—that “time has happened to them” satisfy our desire to grasp the constitutive elements of a deferral so terrible as to prompt Zweig to speak of his lovers “wanting to come back to life but unable.”
In the end Zweig’s little book has only small poignancies. If the characters are, at last, “specters searching for their past” and “mere shadows,” they are not, for all the occasional telling gestures with which Zweig deftly endows them, fully embodied beings. Compare them with Tolstoy’s almost-lovers in Anna Karenina, with Koznyshev and Varenka who go mushroom hunting and cannot bring themselves to utter the words that will deliver them to one another, and you see, unmistakably, the difference between a work content to dwell in an ether of muted might-have-beens and an infinitely more robust fiction determined, even with two relatively minor characters, to penetrate to the depths of the unconscious and to examine the ways of the will. Zweig was, at his best, a delicate and discerning anatomist of failed connections, but he was rather too satisfied with his own limitations to press for a satisfactory expression of the unspeakable.
Robert Boyers is editor of Salmagundi and director of The New York State Summer Writers Institute.