Alienated Japanese trying to understand Europe(ans)

Endô Shûsaku’s Ryûgaku (1965) took a long time to reach English (a 1989 translation by Mark Williams as Foreign Studies). Among other things, this confused realization that its second component, “Araki Thomas” preceded Endô’s grisly novel about 17th-century martyrdom of Roman Catholic missionaries and Japanese convers in his 1966 novel Shinmoku (The Silence).


The tale in Foreign Studies focuses on a Japanese man who went to Europe to Rome to study (Catholic) theology and who later returned to Japan, knowing of the Tokugawa persecution of Christians and renounced the faith, urging other converts to save their lives by trampling images of Jesus. To me the case is more one of pragmatism than one of alienation in Europe.

The other two involve Japanese students in France, ca. 1950 and 1965, despairing of ever understanding Europeans (specifically French). “A Summer in Rouen” focuses on Kudo, who is boarded by a French family whose son aspired to become a missionary to Japan. Kudo is dubious about Catholicism spreading in Japan and about taking on the dead son’s missionizing project.

Most of the volume (78 percent) is occupied by the third variation on Japanese in Europe, “An You, Too.” There is no overlap of characters or even sites between the three variations, and I reject Endô’s claim that the book is a novel. I’d accept applying the category to “And You, Too” although it contains long extracts of what the junior faculty member, Tanaka, writes in the way of a thesis on the Marquis de Sade.

Before being stricken by tuberculosis (which also ended Endö’s studies in Lyon), Tanaka visits sites where Sade lived and/or committed crimes, including La Coste in the south of France (the Vaucluse), where he had a chateau that was partly destroyed in 1799. The village is buried under snow on both visits, to the fields of poppies were not in bloom.


(tower of the Chateau Le Coste, my photo)

Tanaka tries to avoid contact with other Japanese in Paris, though he ends up arranging the repatriation of an architecture student living in the same hotel after Sakisaka is diagnosed with tuberculosis. (There is no indication that Tanaka was infected by Sakisaka, though I couldn’t avoid suspecting this). Tanaka is particularly miffed when a junior colleague from the same school, Suganuma, arrives and inflames Tanaka’s concerns about the security of his position back “home,” what appears to be a viper’s nest of academics jockeying for position.

Tanaka is also irritated by what his wife writes him, though feeling sentimental about their son. Tanaka feels that he would never be able to understand/communicate with the French.

In his introduction, Endô stresses that Kudo is not autobiographical, studying in Rouen rather than Lyon as Endô did. Surely the pressures and frustrations of the fictional character were not solely invented. Tanaka resides in the capital a decade and a half later, when there were other Japanese (even if he seeks to avoid associating with them). Endô also says that he had become more optimistic about the possibilities of intercultural communication than he was when he left France. Understanding the life and/or the writings of the Marquis de Sade strikes me as posing difficulties other than being in a foreign language, a very different time for one. What Tanaka writes about the transformation of the libertine into a sort of philosopher of sadomasochism seems plausible, though Tanaka treats Sade more as a saint (conducting pilgrimages to sites where the Marquis suffered and/or made others suffer) than many would (for instance, me).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


A rare Japanese portrayal of Japanese war crimes

“As long as we refuse to admit that inhumanity is completely human, we’ll just be telling pious lies.”  — Romain Gary

I don’t know why Shûsaku Endô’s disturbing 1957 novel (also its first part) was titled The Sea and Poison. There is no real poison and not much sea in the highly fragmented narrative. The focus of the novel is medical experimentation on downed American flyers during the last year (or so) of WWII, when it was clear to anyone not blinkered with imperialist ideology that Japan was going to be defeated. Not that future war crimes trials were envisioned by the nurses and doctors who participated in what they understood to be vivisection. None of them considered that “research” that could not be published was not going to advance medical science or practice. And there is no indication where/in whom the idea of experiments certain to end in the death of POWs first formed. (Probably Dr. Hashimoto who has just botched an important operation.)


I think the shifting perspectives make it unnecessarily difficult to read and Endô provides nothing about how knowledge of what was done reached the ears of the eventual conquerors. For me, that is more interesting than the excruciating details of the murders disguised as “experiments.”

Japanese are famously not motivated by guilt. An argument could be made that shame at questioning authority and breaking from the herd (in this instance a herd committing atrocities) accounts for the participation of Dr. Suguro, an intern at the time who balked inside the surgical theater at what was being done, though unable to speak out against what is being done or to leave. And Dr, Toda, the intern who “took up the slack” shows some signs of harboring guilt about various things that occurred during his youth, including allowing another student to be punished for a crime he committed (along with an unsatisfying adultery and hypocritical embellishments of an essay about what he did during the summer vacation).


Nurses Ueda and Oba are too preoccupied with their personal problems to notice involvement in something untoward (the vivisection atrocity), and the officers who dine on the liver of one of the fresh corpses are not characters with any characteristics other than oafish insensitivity. The lead surgeons who did the deed are not at all rounded characters, either, though Endô draws some of the micropolitics of the hospital outside Fukioka (and not bombed as the city was, heavily).

There is also some representation of Japanese mistreatment of conquered Manchurians, including unconcern about rape.

And Endô used the name Sugoro again for the autiobiographical protagonist of Scandal (1986).

The rare confrontation of Japanese war crimes won The Sea an Poison the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, which attracted a lot of attention to the author, whose Catholicism and engagement with the West (two years in Lyon exploring French Catholic writers) surely contributed to his being the most-translated and best-known in the West of the third generation of Japanese novelists.There was a 1986 screen adaptation starring Okuda Eiji, Ken Watanabe and Tamura Takahiro.

I cannot forebear mentioning that the introduction by translator Michael Gallagher is exceedingly unhelpful, barely mentioning the book being introduced while nattering about other Endô works, especially The Silence (recently filmed by Martin Scorsese).

For a Japanese account of the mistreatment of a downed American flyer (by villagers) see Oe’s Prize Stock. I have recently posted several analyses of war-justified atrocities, They Would Never Hurt a Fly and Understanding Evil.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The most recent collection of essays by Josip Novakovich

Having caught up with the most recent collection of short stories by the Croatian-American-Canadian master Josip Novakovich (1956), Heritage of Smoke, I realized I had missed a collection of his essays, the provocatively titled Shopping for a Better Country. The country in which he was born, Yugoslavia, no longer exists. His hometown Daruvar, was significantly damaged by Serbian/Slavonian military/paramilitary forces during the early 1990s. Novakovich had been going to college in the Serbian city of Novi Stad before going (legally at both ends) to the US in 1976, gradually choosing English… and raising American kids.


He traveled back to Croatia, as well as teaching in Moscow and Berlin. He took up a position at Concordia University, an Anglophone university in Montréal in 2009. He does not write about Canada or the decision to move there in Shopping, nor much about his third of a century in the US.

The book includes pieces on Vukovar, North Africa, Hungary, Berlin, Russian customs (which refused to allow his son’s cello—or either of the bows for it—back out of the country), and writers’ tombs (in Prague and Paris. There is a very moving, lengthy essay about his mother (Ruth) and her death, a more abstract (and shorter) one on fathers. Having grown up a Baptist in a communist country, and as someone with mixed ancestry (in the most Czech town in Croatia) Novakovich is keenly aware of the tyranny of the majority and attuned to the censorious of small town ethnocentrism in which people seek ways to isolate and ostracize anyone who is different from the majority.

(Vukovar water tower, Oct. 2017 photo by SM)

I found “Why I Can’t Write Erotica” especially insightful about the straitjacket heterosexual male writers now try to write in. “Two Croatias” also communicates much about how Croatians are (mis)perceived. Being a fellow lover of trains, I am saddened by the demise of the Balkan Express (and the Orient Express). And I have seen the still raw damages of Vukovar a decade after the visit about which Novakovich wrote herein. I don’t agree with him about “friendship addiction,” though he has much of interest to say about male competitiveness in his essay on the subject. And the memoir of childhood coughing was unsettling, especially since I was coughing while reading it (though I doubt from tuberculosis).

The book does not proceed in chronological order through the author’s life, or, indeed, in any particular order I can detect. I guess that means the whole is less than the sum of the parts, but many of the parts are masterful and there is much (fairly dark) humor throughout the volume along with recordings of pain, particularly ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia — not exculpating the Croatian fascists’ treatment of Serbs during the Second World War or either Croatian or Serbian war criminals in the wars for independence of Croatia and Bosnia. Kosovo (and Macedonia) don’t figure here, not that there is any lack of atrocities in earlier conflicts!



©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Cornell/Simon Wilson Schiele book

I think that the Taschen Verlag 25th anniversary book on the Expressionist Austrian (sometimes Viennese) painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provides sumptuous reproductions of Schiele paintings and drawings. The smaller (both in page size (8 1.2” x 11”) and in number of pages (80)) volume from Cornell University Press, first published in 1980, provides a better textual introduction, written by Simon Wilson. The Cornell book is also organized topically (by the subject matter of the art) but begins with a solid biographical overview.


Schiele’s father was pensioned off by the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Rail Company (for mental instability) in 1902 and died in 1905. Egon Schiele was accepted as a student in the Vienna Art Academy in 1906 and was soon influenced by the renegade Secession art, particularly that of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who immediately recognized Schiele’s talent (on being asked to trade drawings, the older and established if avant-garde painter remarked that Schiele was a better draftsman than he was).

Though Schiele’s style diverged from that of Klimt and other Secession artists, the flattening of figures and unconcern about backdrops persisted, and Schiele remained a dutiful quasi-son, who became head of the Secession when Klimt died in 1918, soon followed by Schiele’s 6-month pregnant wife Edith, and three years later (still in advance of the Armistice ending WWI) by his own death, casualties of the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic in which at least a third of the world’s population died (including an estimated twenty million in Europe).

Wilson attempts to distinguish self-portraits expressive of metaphysical Angst (anguish) from self-portraits expressive of sexual Angst. I guess that the paintings (watercolor, gouache, oil) in which Schiele showed caricatures of himself holding his engorged penis or in the throes of orgasm or covering his genitalia to fashion a pseudo-vagina between his hands are “sexual Angst,” but the exaggeration of body hair (and pubic hair, which was always rendered with great care in his female nudes, too) and provocative semi-dress seem to me also to have a sexual charge. Moreover the top of the 1911 “Composition with Three Male Figures” (p. 26/below) strikes me as flirtatious rather than angst-ridden (I’d readily grant that the other two look saddened).


Neither author provides an explanation of the very recurrent separation between two pairs of fingers (I find spreading fingers easy, as is holding the inner two together or the outer two, but find it impossible to hold two pairs except by arranging them on a flat surface first… so I consider the pose of hands unnatural). Photographs in the Taschen volume show that the artist had long fingers, but do not document the arrangement of them he so often painted.


In his portraits of others as well as in his self-portraits, Schiele rendered large, prominent hands with long fingers, right up to his not quite finished final large portrait of Albert von Gütertlow, seated and holding up his hands as if they are alien to him. (Being in the collection of the Minneapolis Art Institute, this is the painting by Schiele that first intrigues me, before I got to Vienna, where most of his work still is, particularly in the [Rudolph] Leopold Museum.)

Wilson explains that the young Secessionist painter was introduced to the earlier Expressionist work of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh in 1909 by art critic Arthur Roessler, who admired worked by Schiele displayed at the Vienna Kunstchau. Without breaking with Klimt or mimicking the techniques of Munch or van Gogh, Schiele shifted to more Expressionist work soon thereafter. Schiele also obtained a sexual outlet other than his hands, living in Kumau with his 17-year-old muse/model Wally Neuzil (whom he would later dump and marry Edith Harms in 1915; she had earlier posed for Klimt).

In the last year or so of his short life, Schiele seems to have moved into a third, less angst-ridden stage and even provided some backdrops for his portraits, including the Albert von Gütertlow. Had he lived even to the Anschluss (when he would have been all of 48), who knows what a trove of masterworks he might have produced! (According to Wilson, Schiele’s work was mostly neglected until the 1960s.)

Back to the book, though biographical sources on Schiele seem slim (he was too busy painting? He did write poetry, however…), Wilson provides a good introduction to the life, traumas, and context of Schiele’s art. His text is more informative, less technical than Reinhard Steiner’s in the Taschen Schiele book.

The superiority of the latter is that the plates are all in color. Fortunately, so is the reproduction of the portrait of Albert von Gütertlow that was my introduction to Schiele’s art. But others in which color is prominent are reproduced in black and white. This is particularly regrettable for “Red Nude” (p. 37): not only is a color in the title, but the text discusses what is red in it (Schiele was not Franz Marc, the whole body was not rendered in red!). The portrait of Friedrika Beer (p. 73) is another especially unfortunate instance. Some (the 1915 portrait of a demure Edith, the 1915, poster of Schiele as St. Sebastian, the great 1918 “Family” with the nude artist behind a woman (not Edith) behind a clothed toddler) are reproduced in color in the Taschen book.

I am glad that I have both books (though it took years of owning them to read their texts and compare their contents!). For textual introduction the Wilson/Cornell one is significantly superior, for reproductions of the art the Steiner/Taschen one is. Neither is expensive (nor is either thick…) The Cornell book is also organized topically (by the subject matter of the art) but begins with a solid biographical overview.

2014,2017, Ste0hen O. Murray

Taschen’s/ Steiner’s Egon Schiele

Long ago  I  was intirgued by a 1918 portrait  Viennese) painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918: he survived army service during WWI and perished in the Spanish flu) painted of his friend Paris von Gütersloh that the Minneapolis Art Institute has (pictured below).


Having been reading about Vienna and points down the Danube from it, it decided to read the Taschen Verlag 25th anniversary book.. Like most buyers of most art books, I bought the book for the pictures. Taschen has a well-deserved good reputation for the quality of its reproductions of art. Unlike in my other Schiele book, published by Cornell University Press, the Taschen one has no black-and-white reproductions of art done in color. And the pages are 12″x10″ so there are no postage-stamp-sized reproductions.


There are some not large photographs included in the two-page chronology. Schiele does not look as wild or as tormented in the photographs as in his many self-portraits. From familiarity with his drawings and paintings of himself, I would not recognize him in any but one of the photographs (one with out-of-control hair).

I discovered that a smaller Schiele book that I also had was a 1991 version of the same text with the same illustrations (and promptly gave it away). Though I have no hesitation in recommending the Taschen book as an introduction to Schiele’s art (that is, the illustrations), I thought that the text by Reinhard Steiner was difficult, assuming more familiarity with the art of the late-19th and early-20th century than some readers intrigued by seeing this or that Schiele in a museum might have. The text by Simon Wilson in the university press (Cornell) book is better as an introduction, assuming less knowledge of the context, and is somewhat more biographical (though both books are organized into chapters by topic (kind of painting) rather than chronological).

Steiner begins with a discussion of Schiele’s self-portraits, then picks up the early engagement with Kilt and Viennese symbolism (Schiele became the leading younger painter in the Secessionist group and became its head when Klimt died, which was only a few months before Schiele did). The division between “The Figure as Signifier” (the next chapter) and “The Visionary and Symbolic Work” (the one following that) is strained in that however exaggerated (expressionist) and decorative (Secessionist) Schiele’s compositions were, they were always figurative and very often nude (or semi-nude with uncovered genitalia). The landscapes are less familiar to me, though I find them striking. They are the subject of the final chapter.

The illustrations are referenced in the text (and overwhelm it IMO). I thought Steiner was particularly good in explaining the 1912 jailing of the artist (not for posing children nude, but for allowing children to see his nude drawings and paintings). Schiele was convicted to a three-day sentence (having already been in jail a month awaiting trial) and one of his drawings was burned by the judge. Though outraged that an Artist could be so persecuted by the State, Schiele made a number of drawings and paintings of his martyred imprisoned self and the contents of his cell.

The amount of art Schiele produced in a ten-year career (of rising fame and patronage) is astounding, especially in that he was in the army for nearly three years of it. The shift from Symbolism to Expressionism in 1910 is not as clear in this volume as it might be, but there is a lot of art on display and some things about the life of the artist. A bargain at the list price of $14.99.

©2012, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A dogged old Austrian Jew and her lawyer fighting the Nazi successor Austrian state

Having just rewatched Helen Mirren as “Elizabeth I,” for which she won many awards, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe, “Woman in Gold” showed her range. With a flawless Viennese accent, as Maria Altmann, Mirren was still a somewhat coquettish old woman with hauteur mixed with insecurity. The unlikely success of her legal struggle to regain Klimt’s portrait of her aunt is intercut with the Anschluss and a harrowing escape from Vienna, her father having stayed on after his brother (the widower of Adele) fled before the Nazis (Hitler himself) was welcomed into Vienna. The cinematic chases was an embellishment, but she and her husband did get their guard to accompany them (to a dentist rather than to an apothecary) and two people were taken away before their delayed plane flew them to Köln.


I’m curious about the diamond necklace in the painting, which Maria’s uncle gave her as a wedding present and which was part of the loot taken by Hermann Goering. His wife wore it in public, but I haven’t been able to find out what happened to it after that, or why Maria did not try to recover it.

The Austrian government fought restitution of the iconic (1903-07) portrait of Adele Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the picture has, since 2006, been on display in NY, (in the Neue Gallerie, having been bought by Ronald Lauder for $135 million. (Klimt’s second (1912) portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, sold for $88 million is on long-term loan to MOMA, so also can be seen in NYC).


I didn’t recognize Moritz Bleibtreu with a beard as Klimt, but recognized Jonathan Pryce (whom I just saw as Cardinal/Chancellor Wolsley in “Wolf Hall”) as Chief Justice Rehnquist and Maureen McGovern as the first US judge to allow a lawsuit against the Austrian government to go forward. Both had juicy cameos. And I guessed correctly that Max Irons (who plays Maria’s husband, Fritz) was the son of Jeremy (also just seen as Leicster in “Elizabeth I”).

As much as I like Mirren, I thought the parts of the film set in the 1920s and 30s were better than the predictable (for movie contests, the outcome was not at all certain for this David and this Goliath!) recent illumination of the court cases.


© 2015, Stephen O. Murray

Internalizing hatred for one’s “kind”

Having read parts of the 1935-44 journal of surviging in Belgrade that Mihail Sebastian (né, Iosif Mendel Hechter, 1907-45) makes it even more difficult to regard his 1934 De două mii de ani, just translated by Philip O Ceallaigh as For Two Thousand Years, as a novel. The narrative voice is the same, and the lack of plot or even much narrative continuity makes 2000 feel more like a journal than a novel.


It’s not that nothing happens, particularly early on, in 1923 when violence against Jewish students is routine at the University of Bucharest and the narrator is under the spell of a young lecturer on economic history (with a penchant for proto-fascist promotion of Romanian “blood” and the dangers of corruption by Jews), Ghiţă Blidaru, based on Nae Ionescu who wrote a rabidly anti-Semitic foreword to the first edition of the book. It is this teacher who convinced the narrator to leave the liberal arts program and become an architect. (This is fiction; Sebastian became a lawyer, not an architect.)

The narrator goes on to help build an oil well/refinery and, after two years of study in Paris, returns to build a villa with a terrace above the Danube. Anti-Semitism is back on the rise in Romania. It is surprising that Sebastian survived the holocaust and WWII—only to be run down by a truck on the way to the first class he was going to teach, on Balzac, in 1945. The diary of fascist times was not published until 1996, when it was “greeted” with renewed bursts of anti-Semitism in Romania.

The novel was not published in English until 2016. (The diary was published in the UK in 2001, in the US in 2012.) Its interest is more for documentation of Romanian fascism and of the psychopathology of self-hatred than as a novel, even a novel of consciousness. It was published in association with the US Holocaust Museum.

I think there is too little Bildung for it to be a Bildgunsroman: rather than growth, it documents flight from very pain-giving reality, following attempts by the narrator(/author) to understand the virulent hatred for Jews.

“I was expecting signs in the street—and there was nothing in the street but confusion, the fog of stupidity, intoxication. So I took refuge in intellectual problems, which cast no light, but gave me consolation.” (109)

“It was difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened. Scattered minor occurrences, gestures of no great account, the making of casual little threats. An argument in a gram today, a newspaper article tomorrow, a broken window after that. These things seem random, unconnected, frivolous. Then, one finr morning, you feel unable to breathe.” (209)

… And this was published in 1934. Things were going to get far worse, especially during the Iron Guard pogroms! (The reader knows this, though the author back then did not.)

For me, the most interesting character is an itinerant seller of books in Yiddish, Abraham Sulitzer, who has a passionate speech about Yiddish as a living language (nor a corrupt dialect of German, nor the attempted reincarnation of Hebrew outside synagogues):

“real Yiddish is a living, breathing language. Millions of Jews speak it, millions live through it. For these millions are printed the books uou see, for those million Yiddish is written, translations are made into Yiddish, and Jewish theater ir performed. It is a complete world, a complete people with itw own elite…. There are Yiddish novelists, poets, critics and essayists… The edgy, gritty urban realism of the ghetto and the mysticism of the synagogue unite in this folk-culture of the Jewish neighborhood.” (83)


The narrator is convinced Jews are assimilating into national cultures, including Romanian. He rejects Zionism and Marxism, each having a representative advocate among his agemates (Sami Winkler and S.T. Haim, respectively). Most of the book is very talky. I doubt I would have read even the first part if I had had something else to read with me, though I finished the book later, at home.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray



Stefan Zweig’s memoir of vanished worlds


The memoir, The World of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern), completed the day before his suicide by Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), does not seem to me to be leading up to suicide (with his younger, second wife, Lotte). Like the (later) memoirs of Paul Bowles, Without Stopping, The World of Yesterday is a startlingly impersonal memoir. It really is about the worlds (in Vienna, Paris, Innsbruck, London) in which Zweig lived and increasingly prospered, not about what he felt. Each of his two wives gets only a cursory mention. The man who achieved great fame and fortune writing about sexual passion does not even hint at any sexual passions of his own. The one passion that is detailed is one for acquiring memorabilia of those he revered, including Beethoven’s desk (and indeed the furnishings of the flat in which he died), a Michelangelo sketch, and the first page of a Mozart aria. These treasures were mostly left behind in London, which Zweig expected to be conquered by the Nazis (these are now in the British Library).


He did get himself and a lot of his stuff out of Austria in 1934, well before the Anschluss of 12 March 1938. And before being treated as an enemy alien in Britian, he moved on to the New World (Ossington, New York; Pertópolis, Brazil) in 1940. Exile did not agree with him, though there was much of Viennese culture (the backbiting, the educational system) that he also disliked. He seems to have been happiest in Belgium and France before they were engulfed by the First World War. He particularly revered the forgotten Francophone Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916), Bohemian-Austrian lyrical poet Rainer Marie Rilke (1875-1926), and his French brother in pacifism, Romain Rolland (1866-1944; author of the ten-volume Jean-Christophe, Nobel Prize 1915). Both Zweig and Rolland revered Sigmund Freud (1856-1919) , whom Zweig saw more in London than earlier in Vienna.

Zweig praises the early work of Hugo von Hoffmannstahl (1874-1929) without noting the contempt in which Hoffmanstahl held Zweig’s work. Zweig succeeded Hoffmannstahl as librettist of choice of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Strauss insisted on Zweig’s name remaining on the opera Fredenstag premiered in Munich in 1938 (and performed before Hitler in Vienna on 10 June 1939). Zweig recorded his appreciation for Strauss’s support when no work by a Jew was permitted in the Reich.

Zweig had resisted Zionism (though his first patron was the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl [1860-1904] and other –isms other than pacifism. His refusals, including of war with the Nazis, irritated most everyone, including Thomas Mann and Hannah Arendt (who was in a Zionist phase in 1942 and misrepresented what was in his memoir in a vicious review of it). His memoir certainly did not scant the forebodings he felt about the Nazis, even before they gained power in Germany. And he criticized even his own limited involvement in the folly that was the First World War (he had a job in the archives of the Austrian Ministry of War).


The memoir is remarkably self-effacing, praising many other writers (“If we admire more, and more intensely than others, we shall ourselves grow richer than those timid ones who content themselves with choice morsels of life ,” he wrote. “The more a man admires, the more he possesses”,) and not reveling in his widespread popularity (the most translated of German writers between the war, more than Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, or Sigmund Freud). “I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life” he wrote early on in World, and he treats his trajectory primarily as a vantage-point into the vanished Hapsburg world, pre-WWI Paris, and the chaos of inflations, etc. between the world wars (living in Innsbruck).

There is nothing about the process of Zweig’s voluminous writing or the sources of ideas for his fictions.

The end of the book is quite upbeat, not at all despairing (as its author must have been to take his own life and that of his younger wife):

“In the last resort, every shadow is also the child of ight, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their life.”

Though it has an index, the University of Nebraska edition of Anthea Bell’s very limpid, not-at-all Germanic translation irritatingly lack a table of contents.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Stefan Zweig’s chess story

The novella Schachnovelle (which means ”The Royal Game,” a label for chess), the last fiction written by once internationally renowned and best-selling Austrian Jewish biographer and novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) has been reprinted in English as The Chess Game by the New York Review Books. Zweig had gotten out of his beloved Vienna in 1934, shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany and before Austria was annexed in the Third Reich. In 1940 he and his new wife (heretofore secretary) the much younger Lotte Altmann moved on to New York City and then to Petropolis in Brazil, where they committed suicide (by veronal (a barbiturate) overdose) on February 23, 1942.


The Royal Game/Chess Story is the only fiction by Zweig to include any notice of the Nazi reign of terror. Its victim in the book, Dr. B., is not Jewish but is a banker like Zweig’s mother’s family, and a royalist, though it is not clear to me whether of the Hapsburgs (in Austria) or Hohenzollern (Prussian-German) royal house deposed by defeat in the First World War. His family has also discreetly managed to get many of the assets of Roman Catholic institutions beyond reach of Nazi expropriation.


Though not physically brutalized by the Gestapo — more interested in finding and seizing wealth than in punishing those loyal to vanished empires, Dr. B. was driven crazy by being kept in solitary confinement when not being interrogated. He managed to steal a book that laid out 150 classic chess matches and honed his chess skills by repeating them over and over and then starting to play himself: a black self and a white self that could not know what the other was thinking in the way of chess strategy (schizogenesis).

Dr. B. does not appear until nearly midway through the book. He tells his story to a curious traveler on the same slow boat to South America as the narrator, who had been trying to meet and assess the reigning world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, a Slavic peasant who was illiterate and slow-witted, but had a talent for chess. (Czentovic is a kind of idiot savant and, perhaps, a metaphor for mindless battling of Hitler’s army, except that he is Slavic rather than “Aryan.)

A rich American chess aficionado named McConnor (a Scottish engineer who had gotten rich in California) wants to see a grand mater in action and for a fee of $250 (that’s 1941 dollars!) engages the master to play multiple simultaneous games. There is only one chessboard on the ship and Czentovic instead plays a committee. He is about to win a second game, when a bystander (Dr. B) starts offering advise that brings the game to a draw.

Dr. B has not physically played chess since he was a schoolboy, decades earlier, and does not know how he will perform in public (though he has impressed. Czentovic and the kibitzers as a sort of chess-playing ventriloquist). Thinking each side’s moves many moves in advance, Czentrovic taking the full allotment of ten minutes before each move (even the first one in the second game) is torture for Dr. B.

Herman Hesse was dismayed that only the pain and suffering of his 1927 novel Steppenwolf seemed to be noticed by readers, not the hope of redemption in the book. It seems to me the same despondent reading of Chess Story has been prevalent, in part in the shadow of the despair with the destruction of his civilization that drove Zweig to suicide after sending off the manuscript. (Why I am reading writers in German of much fame between the world wars now, I don’t know. The times here seemed more analogous to the late-1930s and early-1940s to me during the mid-2000s, when I was reading many stories about collaboration.)

The NYR edition includes an appreciative introduction by the distinguished Yale University historian (born in Berlin in 1923, got out in 1939), Peter Gay (The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Enlightenment; plus Mozart, Weimar Culture, Schnitzler’s Century, My German Question, and many books) I think it reveals too much of the plot of the slender volume and should be read after rather than before Zweig’s text, though the first part about Zweig provides a good introduction to the author, whose works revived by New York Review books so far include Confusion, The Post-Office Girl, Journey into the Past and Beware of Pity.


©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Stefan Zweig’s Amok

If I did not know that it was Stefan Zweig’s second best-known novella, “Amok” (1922, the title story of a collection subtitled “Novellas of a Passion”), I’d think that it had been written by W. Somerset Maugham. It is set in Maugham territory both in terms of geography (colonial southeast Asia, the Dutch colony of Indonesia) and in terms of its theme of hopelessly doomed love.


The narration is more Conrad than Maugham, the story of a Leipzig physician who took up an appointment in the sticks and never traveled to Batavia (now Jakarta). One fine (or not so fine, sultry, tropical) day in 1912, a chic woman from the capital (the first white woman he has seen in years) sought him out. She was in need of an abortion before her husband returned from abroad. She offers him enough money to skip out of his colonial service contract and compensate him for his lost pension, but is not willing to ask him to do it FOR her. Or to bed him, when he rashly suggests that.

 She storms out of his clinic, returns to the capital, and has a botched abortion. When the physician gets to see her, she is dying and all he can do is ease her death and provide a death certificate with a false cause of death. He books passage on the ship (Oceania) that is taking the coffin (and the widower husband) back to Europe, determined to keep her secret (from any possible autopsy there). He keeps to his cabin during the day, but tells his story to the narrator sitting smoking on deck some nights.

Both the woman and the physician (neither is named, nor is the narrator) act very extremely, though neither “runs amok” in the original Malay sense of unmotivated attacks by the one “running amok.”

(There was a 1934 French film adaptation and a 1945 Mexican one, neither of which I have seen.)


I don’t know if Zweig’s style in German is “pedestrian.” In English the revival of his work has been aided by translator Anthea Bell. I don’t know why Bell rendered the halting speech the peasant cook nicknamed “Leporella” in Cockney.

The story strikes me as a variant on the even more famous “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” with another affluent Viennese oblivious to the passionate devotion of a woman, a hardworking unworldly servant who may have removed the irritation of a neurotic wife, making it look like suicide (though he glimpses the possibility, there is no proof).

©2014, Stephen O. Murray