Tag Archives: Stefan Zweig

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

Seduced and abandoned twice

Viennese Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (18881-1942) was the most-translated and best-selling author who wrote in German between the world wars (outselling the works by Noble Prize-winners Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse). His 1922 novella Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an Unknown Woman) is his best-known work of fiction, not least in that it was brought to the screen in English (by German-born Jewish director Max Ophüls in 1948) and again in Chinese (directed by Xu Jinglei in 2004; and again in Mongolian, a version I have not seen and a 1975 Russian opera I have neither seen nor heard).


Returning to Vienna from a holiday, a rich 41-year-old writer in Vienna finds a packet that includes a long letter from a woman. She tells him that if he receives her letter, she is dead. She tells him that as a young teenager she lived with her widowed and poor mother across the hall from the writer’s apartment an silently stalked him. Her mother remarried and took her off to Innsbruck, but she returned on her own when she was 18.

Putting herself in his path, he picks her up without recognizing he has ever seen her before. I don’t think one can say he seduces someone so eager to be intimate with him. Of course, she is pregnant and he does not give her any thought when he leaves on another trip.

She loses her job and becomes a courtesan (kept by rich men rather than available like a prostitute is). At a nightclub she sees the writer again, is picked up by him again, spends another night with him. Again, he does not recognize ever having seen her before. And assuming she is a prostitute, he tries to give the woman in love with him money for their night of amour.

The son she had by him dies in the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and before she also expires she writes the letter to be sent if she dies.


I think that Howard Koch’s screenplay improved on Zweig, despite having to tiptoe around the Hollywood Production Code. Turning the writer into a concert pianist of renown (played by the suave Louis Jourdan, and given Zweig’s first name, Stefan) also gives Lisa (Joan Fontaine in her best performance) something to listen to from the hallway, and good reason to leave Vienna frequently to give concerts elsewhere (Milan in the case of leaving after unknowingly impregnating her).

Koch had to give her a job (dress model rather than courtesan) and a husband, but since she dies, I guess it was permissible for her to be knocked up. The melodrama of a duel added to the ending seems unnecessary to me (Stefan is going off to it at the end, results unknown to the viewer).

The perfect casting of the leads and the famed Ophüls fluid camerawork make this, for me, an instance of a movie better than the book on which it is based (other examples include “Gone with the Wing” and Dosteovesky’s “The Double”).


©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Confused feelings in Weimar Berlin

The Stefan Zweig revival in English (I don’t think there was need of one in German) fueled by new (in this case 2009 of a 1927 novella) translations published by New York Review Books (before the biography in English published this year and release of Wes Anderson’s movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) included Anthea Bell’s translation of ‘Verwirrung der Gefühle’ as ‘Confusion.’ In his informative (not to mention opinionated) introduction, George Prochnik writes that the title is blander than the German, that ‘Verwirrung der Gefühle’ might better be rendered as “Emotional Maelstrom.” He also suggests that the novella is less about confusion than about “metastasizing confusions.”


Well, the recollections are straightforwardly told, and the secret looming unbeknownst to the narrator at the time (perhaps forty years earlier) is not as surprising to 21st-century readers as it may have been to readers in the 1920s. (Actually, I guessed wrong, but “in the ballpark”). After being shipped off to a provincial college from a life of debauchery when he was supposed to be a student in Berlin, Roland falls under the spell of lectures and conversations by an aged professor who has published very little.

After moving into the same apartment building, Roland coaxes the professor with writing block to dictate to him, taking down what the professor says in shorthand. Roland also takes meals with the professor and the professor’s younger wife. He does not understand the obvious strain in their marriage until the whole historical context of the Globe Theater has been gotten down.


The kind of rapture about ideas makes the recollections closer to Herman Hesse (Steppenwolf, Demian) than to Heinrich Mann (creator of the aged professor played by Emil Janning besotted by Marlene Dietrich in the movie version, “The Blue Angel”). The exaltation of developing ideas may have some connection to German Romanticism of the 19th century (“I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock of it drew me closer. Without knowing that I was moving, hypnotically attracted by a force stronger than curiosity, and with the dragging footsteps of a sleepwalker I made my way as if by magic into that charmed circle”), but not a direct influence to anything in Shakespeare that was discussed during Zweig’s lifetime (1881-1942).

Though the book is short (150 pages including some blank ones and large top and bottom margins), I think it develops rather slowly, before the final rush of “shocking” revelations about “incurable inclinations” and periodic disappearances to a city (perhaps, The City, Berlin, the underworld of which Roland had some experience before his mind was awakened to intellectual pursuits) and “the sewers of the heart.” The finale is an interesting document about conceptions and attitudes of the long-ago time (before the First, let alone the Second World War). The tale strikes me as a bit overdramatic (compared to the English-language analog of sorts, Stephan Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but “the past is another country: they do things differently there”, as K. P. Hartley famously proclaimed. Nonetheless, a (post-)modern reader can grasp the aching longing for one’s own long-lost youth that both the narrator and his long-ago professor instantiate herein.

BTW, Confusion was included in Le Monde’s hundred books of the 20th century. The complete list is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Monde%27s_100_Books_of_the_Century.

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

War-enforced separation and diffidence providing obstacles to cross-class amour

According to André Aciman’s introduction to the New York Review publication, the first in English, of Journey Into the Past, its author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was translated into more languages than any of his contemporaries (Freud? Mann?). A part of the novella to which Aciman (Out of Egypt) provides way-too-long an introduction-in fact a complete retelling-was published in German in 1929. A manuscript was found and published in German during the 1970s, but in English only last November.

The novella reminds me of “Brief Encounter,” though that script by Noël Coward (expanding his play “Still Life”) for David Lean’s 1945 tearjerker movies takes place entirely in a British railway station and involves a middle-class woman (Celia Johnson) and a physician (Trevor Howard) of roughly the same age, both of them married. One resemblance is that the man is going off to another continent.

Zweig’s pair differ in age (the woman is older) and their status difference is the opposite (the woman’s is much higher). They spend no time in train stations, though the flashbacks occur while they are in a train between Frankfurt and Heidelberg. The POV is that of the man, Ludwig, a chemist from a very poor family who became the in-house assistant to an unwell industrialist. The wife is very sensitive to the young man’s pride, and they fall in love, though he did not become fully aware of that until the eve of his departure to Mexico to oversee supply of some unspecified metal vital to the company.

There is not hint that the industrialist sent away a rival or had any awareness of their mutual attraction. As the job in Mexico is successfully accomplished, Europe plunges into war (WWI) and Ludwig not only cannot return, but cannot even communicate by letter with his beloved.
journey past.jpeg
I don’t want to emulate Aciman in plot-spoiling, but there are obstacles other than the class ones (which have been lessened by Ludwig’s Mexican success) to ecstatic, delayed reunion. (WWI ran August 1914- November 1918, and if Ludwig left in 1912, nine years would place the return to where he had lived in Frankfurt in 1923. Zweig did not offer any explanation of why the return wasn’t in 1919.)

For all the shared regret for the long separation-blamed on geopolitical interference-diffidence remains. (She feels old now and believes that “when a woman’s hair turns grey, she has no more to wish for, no more to give”) Ludwig remembers (not quite correctly) a couplet from Verlaine:

In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast
Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.

The regret-filled lovers are not specters, hair dye existed during the 1920s (not that Ludwig is put off by the grey of his beloved’s hair), and the past could be prologue.

The black-and-white movie-like 82-page novella is framed by substantial texts about Zweig and it. Award-winning translator Anthea Bell’s afterword should have been first and Aciman need not have told the whole story.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray