Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 18
For Stefan Zweig, the first and second world wars destroyed an entire way of life, one kept alive in his subtle, striking, page-turning storiesChris Power
Thursday 11 June 2009 11.18 BST
Despite being one of the most famous writers in the world during the 1920s and 30s, Stefan Zweig's reputation faded considerably – and almost totally in English-speaking countries – following the second world war. Over the past few years, however, his star has once more been in the ascendant. That many of his stories are in print again is thanks, in this country at least, to Pushkin Press, whose stewardship of European literature in translation is one of the more praiseworthy publishing endeavours of the past decade. The primary reasons why Zweig's stories are so worthy of reclamation from obscurity are straightforward and compelling: the stories are imbued with tremendous psychological acuity; they are as page-turning as they are subtle; and the profound moral sense which underpins them never tips over into moralising.
To fully understand Zweig, who was a non-practising Jew, it is necessary to be aware of the value he placed on his identity as a European and as a citizen of the world, as opposed to of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Born into a wealthy Viennese family in 1881, Zweig wrote in his posthumously published memoir, The World of Yesterday (1943), that his parents regarded their environment "as if it had been a house of stone". "Today, now that the great storm has long since smashed it, we finally know that that world of security was naught but a castle of dreams."
By far the most effective and striking part of Zweig's fictional oeuvre is precisely to do with this disappearance of the old world and its cultural values, and with the war that destroyed them. It might be thought that harking back to the "good old days" of the Austro-Hungarian empire makes Zweig a decadent but, as Paul Bailey has noted, "Zweig puts decadence in perspective, neither revelling in its attractiveness not castigating its more squalid aspects. It is his aesthetic purpose to sound the human note, and to do so in such a disarming manner as to shame the reader who has already made facile judgements." Additionally, Zweig was a committed pacifist and worked throughout the first world war to disseminate his beliefs, combining in this mission with the French writer Romain Rolland.
Zweig's story Compulsion (1920), one of his finest, concerns Ferdinand, an artist who has fled to Switzerland to avoid enlistment. When his call-up orders eventually find him, he feels unaccountably obliged to comply, much to his wife's disgust. Zweig writes: "He felt that somehow or other his name had hooked him from behind to haul him back into that bloodstained thicket, that something he didn't know, although it knew him, was not about to let him go." The tension generated by Ferdinand's conflicted sense of duty, pacifist beliefs and love for his wife is extraordinarily powerful.
Several more of his stories unfold beneath the war's ominous shadow. Fantastic Night (1922) purports to be the memoir of a baron who has fallen at the battle of Rawa-Ruska in 1914; in the unfinished Wondrak, written during the war, a Bohemian mother's obsessive love for her son pits her against the Imperial authorities; Incident On Lake Geneva (1936) sees an isolated Russian soldier drown while trying to return to his family; Jacob Mendel, the titular bibliophilic genius of Buchmendel, is a political innocent whose life is heartbreakingly ruined when he is suspected of being a spy.
In each of these stories, innocence, promise or the pacifist's moral standpoint are either snuffed out or gravely threatened. Zweig variously describes the war as Europe's "fit of drunkenness", "this foolish prank played by diplomats and generals left to their own devices", "a strange and pitiless force treading a whole world underfoot", and the reason for "those little crosses ... that now cover the continent of Europe from end to end".
It is commonly held to be the case that Zweig, having fled mainland Europe for Britain as his books were burned at Berlin University before moving to Brazil, killed himself alongside his wife in 1942 due to the news of Japan's advances in the far east. I am persuaded, however, by Clive James's opinion that this final act was of a piece with Zweig's disconsolate grief for a vanished world; that although "he already knew that the Nazis weren't going to win the war ... [he] thought they had already won the war that mattered."
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger