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The Cosmopolitan Apocalypse of Stefan Zweig
by George Prochnik

He wore alligator shoes and wrote with violet ink. When he was a young man at the start of the 20th Century, living in his first bachelor apartment in Vienna, he enjoyed serving guests liquors sprinkled with gold leaf in rooms that were buried in books and painted a deep red that one friend described as the color of the blood of 4000 beheaded Saxons. Rich, handsome, a dreamy sensualist who chain-smoked Virginia cigars and once had an essay he penned about Handel printed entirely on silk, Stefan Zweig was the quintessential dandy cosmopolite.

Zweig was also a staggeringly hard-working, prolific and successful author who wrote dozens of novellas and short stories, a giant shelf full of fat biographies, plays, poems, libretti, historical studies, scores of articles and countless speeches. (Not to mention more than 10,000 letters.) By the mid-1920s, Zweig was the most widely translated writer in the world. Virtually everything he published-even works he himself thought were sure to bomb, such as a biography of Joseph Fouche , the reptilian chief minister of Napoleon's police-became overnight bestsellers. As an author, Stefan Zweig had a kind of Midas touch. But he was invariably modest about his literary gifts and spoke of his writing career as a kind of accident that resulted from his having happened to be born in a city (Vienna) at a time (the end of the 19th Century) when books, music and art were worshipped with religious fervor. Not long after he got out of school, a sports craze began to take over among young people, and had he himself been born a few years later, Zweig argued, he would have been one of the gang chasing a football up and down the playing fields.

Maybe. If so, one suspects he would have a spent a lot of time hiding under the bleachers, peeping out at the action over a volume of Rilke. It's a poignant observation nonetheless, because Zweig saw the rising devotion to sport and neglect of art as helping to fuel Europe's growing militarism. Zweig's conviction that young people were chameleons who caught their passions like viral infections from the surrounding environment gave enthusiasts of beauty like himself a special responsibility.

Zweig once declared that he had no interest whatever in being a literary celebrity. Rather than writerly fame, he announced after the First World War that he wanted to become a "moral authority." He threw himself into the causes of pacifism and pan-European humanism. He preached cross-cultural tolerance at international conferences and helped struggling young poets from the working classes find their voices. Zweig hosted endless gatherings of the luminaries of his age on the terrace of the home he bought in Salzburg after the Armistice. He led countless salon-like discussions in the cafes of Austria, Germany, France and Italy at which the future of Europe was ardently debated. But he could make light of this high-minded mission as well. "When I think back to the years between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three and try to recall what I was doing back then, it seems to me that I spent the whole time traveling around the world, sitting in cafes and dallying with women," Zweig later reminisced. "Try as I might I cannot remember ever doing any work or ever learning anything."

Whatever else, Stefan Zweig was a social animal who made a point of knowing everyone. He counted not only Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Arturo Toscanini and Joseph Roth among his good friends but also major industrialists like Walter Rathenau and revolutionaries like Maxim Gorky. His acquaintances ranged from Albert Einstein to Auguste Rodin, and the leading American suffragette and social worker Jane Addams. Many people spoke of Zweig having a "genius for friendship." One companion, observing him hosting a party, remarked that Zweig moved between his guests like the god Mercury, a feline dancer, "a being of instinct and flair with a taste for the hunt converted and turned toward the seeking of human contacts."

Zweig could also be peevish, impatient, hysterical, perverse and oblivious. When a door shut too loudly while he was working, the color drained from his face-which was long and handsome, with an aquiline nose, toothbrush moustache and nearly opaque black eyes. His look became so intense people shrank back and cowered. Noise tortured him. He would wring his hands when church bells clanged, and blew up when anyone turned on a gramophone. For all his manic socializing, he thought of himself as an introvert. Zweig fled town to get away from well-wishers on his birthday-or whenever domestic life began to oppress him.

Friends called him the "Flying Dutchman." He gave the impression that he always had a half-packed suitcase waiting in the next room-ready to bolt the moment claustrophobia struck. Though music was one of his great loves, he could almost never even sit through an entire concert. Nothing made him more restless than the very peace he always claimed to be seeking. He was always on the move, between capitals, hidden hotels, and glamorous watering holes. The Riviera and the Alps. The Old World and the New. But until the Nazi take over Austria in 1938, Zweig always circled back to his native city, Vienna. Haunting his favorite establishment, the Hotel Regina, a few blocks from where he was born, and only a few steps from the site where the last emperor, Franz Joseph, had once been stabbed in the neck by a Hungarian nationalist, only to be saved by the stiff fabric of his ceremonial high collar.

One moment Zweig called the metropolis of his birth a superlatively cultured city, full of merriment, "free of all confinement and prejudice." The next moment, he labeled Vienna "an accursed city in horrible decay, rotting instead of dying." Zweig would surely have agreed with the assessment of a fictional character in a novel by his friend Joseph Roth who remarked that those who grew up at the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been spoiled. "They had become feckless, almost laughably feckless, children of this capital city and court residence, the praises of which had much too often been sung, and which sat like some brilliant and seductive spider at the heart of the mighty black and yellow web, ceaselessly drawing power, energy and brilliance from the surrounding Crown Lands." Yet for all his ambivalence, Zweig described the day that Hitler took over the city as the worst moment of his life. And, arguably, he never recovered from this loss. The city's impossible, self-indulgent ambiguities were his own, after all. Zweig's friend Klaus Mann, the son of the famous novelist Thomas, remarked that Zweig was definitively Austrian. "Only Vienna produced that peculiar style of behavior," Mann wrote, "French suavity with a touch of German pensiveness and a faint tinge of Oriental eccentricity."

Everyone who came into contact with Zweig, found him evocatively archetypal of something. Indeed, as an affluent, assimilated Jew and unassimilated Romantic cynic, Zweig incarnated the corruptions and enchantments of his Central European habitat to the hilt. The brilliance. The passion. The weird combination of obsessive secretiveness and brash self-exposure. The confidence, confusion, and angst-ridden conviction that the world was cracking apart. The satirist Karl Kraus once described Vienna as a laboratory for the apocalypse. Even when he wasn't physically at home in the city, Zweig was always at the center of what might be called the Viennese experiment into human nature-a mix of utopian fantasy, acid contempt, nightmare brooding and erotic reverie. Zweig stood there watching this spectacle in his impeccably tailored English suits. Holding a pen in one hand. Shaking a delicate crystal test-tube in the other, and hoping it wouldn't explode in his hand.

The blast came with Hitler's election, and the last eight years of Stefan Zweig's life, beginning in 1934 when he preemptively exiled himself from Austria and headed first for London, then Manhattan, then the suburban town of Ossining, then Rio and finally Petropolis, became an accelerating free-fall. Zweig had always been an ecstatic traveler. But now he felt hunted everywhere he went. He careened from country to country, crashing against multiplying bureaucratic obstacles where in the past he'd always glided through life. For all his money and vast social network, Zweig could not find his place in the New World. His reaction to the United States recalls that of Sigmund Freud who once quipped, "America is a mistake. A giant mistake it is true, but a mistake nonetheless."

And though Zweig fell in love with Rio, which he escaped to after he could no longer bear his disoriented floundering around the U.S., Brazil was finally just too remote from everything he'd ever known for Zweig to rediscover a sense of home there. In February, 1942, not long after his sixtieth birthday, he and wife, Lotte, who was twenty-seven years his junior, took an overdose of Veronal in a humble bungalow on the edge of a jungle in the mountains above Rio. His suicide letter has a strangely jaunty ring, closing on a note of restless bravado: "I hold it better to conclude in good time and with erect bearing a life for which intellectual labour was always the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on this earth," he wrote. "I salute all my friends! May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before."


Stefan Zweig once compared the growth of Vienna to a tree that adds ring upon ring-noting as well that the city had a way of melding into its exquisite pastoral surroundings so fluidly that you could hardly tell where city left off and nature began. At the peak of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the last quarter of the 19th century, Vienna's principal boulevard, the Ringstrasse, which was built on the site of the city's old fortifications, and enclosed the core of the Inner City with a wide belt of palatial apartment blocks and grand public buildings, took on a magnificence rivalling that of Paris. Zweig was born at the heart of this wealthy enclave in an imposing apartment building studded with giant caryatids and bristling with ornamental flourishes. The bombast of the structure and many of its neighbors has a poignant backstory. For the creation of the Ringstrasse marked the enfranchisement of Austria's liberal middle class, with a strong Jewish presence-a demographic whose rise had been personally supported by the Emperor Franz Ferdinand. The grandeur of these homes was meant to announce an arrival from which there would be never be a retreat. Zweig's parents, whose fortune came from banking and textile factories, were perfectly representative of Vienna's newly ascendant families. They were Central European bourgeoisie who felt that their time had at last come after centuries in which the Catholic Church, archaic economic strictures, and old aristocratic privilege dominated the Empire. Men like Zweig's father, Moritz, felt their rights as citizens of the Empire would henceforth continually expand to encompass greater prospects.

This era, in which a sense of inviolable security pervaded his family's milieu, is "The World of Yesterday" that Zweig eulogized in his memoir of that name, mostly composed in the summer of 1941 in a grim little house with sharp gables like witch hats up the Hudson River from New York City, a mile above Sing Sing Prison. "Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency," Zweig wrote from there, "and the State itself was the chief guarantor of this stability...No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason."

Even then, Zweig acknowledged, a degree of wilful denial of underlying tensions between the Empire's ethnic groups and social classes was necessary to keep up the pretense of ideal, static calm. But given the revelations of humanity's capacity for bestial atrocities exposed by the Nazis, Zweig asserted that he, for one, would rather hold onto his delusions. It was at the least, he wrote, "a noble and wonderful delusion that our fathers served, more humane and fruitful than today's slogans." Why give up a fantasy world if reality is a nightmare?

By the time he'd gone into exile in America, the trajectory of Zweig's actual life seemed to defy imagination and plausibility both. "I was born in 1881," he declared, in his preface to The World of Yesterday, "in a great and mighty empire, in the monarchy of the Habsburgs. But do not look for it on the map; it has been swept away without trace. I grew up in Vienna, the two-thousand-year-old supernational metropolis, and was forced to leave it like a criminal before it was degraded to a German provincial city. My literary work, in the language in which I wrote it, was burned to ashes in the same land where my books made friends of millions of readers. And so I belong nowhere, and am everywhere a stranger." Long before Zweig took his draught of poison, he insisted that Europe itself had committed suicide. His predicament resonated with that of the butt of a joke told among the refugees: A prosperous, Jewish-looking gentleman was spotted in a travel agency in Bremen just before all hell broke loose. He was standing before a huge globe, apparently unsure where to emigrate. The man moved his finger round and round the globe, pausing for a moment on Australia, remaining a little longer above South Africa, revolving on to Shanghai, then spinning all the way around again. At last he shoved the globe away in misery and begged the clerk, "Look here, haven't you got anything else?"

Part of the problem for Zweig when things began to go south-as he was ever quick to acknowledge-was that life had been rather splendidly delicious for an awfully long time. After he killed himself, people who didn't know him well found a mystery in his suicide. How could someone who still had money, fame and the high-placed connections that made the acquisition of visas and other traveling papers so much easier than was the case for most of exiles, have decided to chuck in the towel? Some people felt betrayed-as though Zweig were validating the wicked jibe by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, who labeled the refugee writers "cadavers on leave." But however much Zweig might still have had after escaping Hitler, his sense of what had been left behind and lost forever far outweighed his remaining advantages. The death and imprisonment of so many dear friends. The loss of his 10,000 book library. The destruction, above all, of a way of life that Zweig rightly intuited would not return, even though he felt confident that the Nazis themselves would ultimately be defeated. Zweig's sense that the world that gave form and meaning to his whole character had been eradicated, even though he himself still walked the earth, led him to repeatedly quote a famous line from an early Austrian playwright. "I am like the corpse who follows his own funeral," Zweig wrote. Elsewhere, he cited Keats' despairing remark that he was "leading a posthumous existence."


For all that Zweig's memoir nostalgically valorized the placid, bourgeois universe his parents inhabited in Vienna's Inner City, when he was actually growing up there he couldn't wait to cut loose. That stuffy realm of big furniture, small government officials and heavy-set industrial magnates felt smothering. Zweig had hardly enrolled in Vienna University before-feeling himself still too enveloped in the bourgeois values of his family's social world-he finagled a half-baked year abroad in Berlin. Once there, instead of attending the philosophy classes he was meant to be taking, Zweig bounded off to soak in the atmosphere of the city's most notorious dives. He rubbed shoulders with drug addicts, swindlers and the sexual avant-garde. The worse someone's reputation was, Zweig later reminisced, the more he wanted to know him or her. His attraction to people who lived dangerously-whose only real passion was for maximizing the intensity of life in the moment-remained with him the whole of his life and became the core subject matter of his oeuvre.

Zweig wrote about men running berserk after demon lovers through the tropics, unraveling inside casinos, hunting dreams after dark through the parks of Vienna; of women who jeopardized a lifetime of respectability to follow the flame of a fleeting passion-or who devoted their whole lives to a passion that ought to have been momentary. Of men and women who commit a crime just to see how it feels. Of men, women, and children who spied on one another's erotic lives obsessively, until surveillance became the true form of their sexuality. Of orgasmic confessions, and ecstatic secrets. Of people who sacrificed everything for one cosmic instant of unity with everything. And of people who would rather immolate than surrender a single illusion.

Zweig's great theme was humanity's doomed hunt for freedom. Berlin gave him his first taste of real personal liberation. And it was, ironically, also from Berlin that Zweig's freedom began to be sucked away, after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany there. The first two-thirds of Zweig's life, from 1881 to roughly 1929, could be mapped on an arc marked "Freedom Desired" at its starting point and "Freedom Gained" at the peak.

The First World War interrupted that arc. He hated the geographical restrictions that came with the conflict. After the Armistice, Vienna felt poisoned by guilt and mutual loathing. So Zweig decamped to Salzburg, where he purchased a big yellow house that had once been an Archbishop's hunting lodge, on a forested hill that looked down on the city. For all his endless travels, he managed, at a desk that had once belonged to Beethoven, to write dozens of books at this address. Sporting lederhosen, keeping spaniels and hosting endless visitors, Zweig played country squire just over the border from the German village where Hitler's vacation house, "The Bird's Nest," was perched. Through binoculars you can actually see the site of Zweig's haven for European humanists from Hitler's mountain retreat. After 1933, Zweig's arc sharply dropped, and his last years would have to be labeled "Freedom Lost."

Nothing made Zweig wax more nostalgic for Europe before the First War as the marvel of being able to cross frontiers in that period without carrying any documents at all. Streaking through the countries of the continent on trains that sped across borders as smoothly as a knife slit through layer-cake. Even after the First World War, Zweig's money and celebrity stature gave him the access to enjoy the last gasp of that European idyll. He savored a perpetual sense of doors opening, walls dissolving; trains, ships, autos, planes slipping from station to harbor to highway to runway. He relished the ability to share with friends and lovers a taste of this endless open-sesame. Barriers and borders fell before the magic password of his literary reputation.

This sense of physical freedom went hand-in-glove with Zweig's sense that he was free to be a shape-shifter in his psychological character. He enjoyed quoting Nietzsche's line, "Every genius wears a mask." To friends and adversaries alike, Zweig came off as elusive and multifaceted. In a satirical volume published in 1920, Zweig was caricatured as "The Steffzweig": "an artificial product created on the occasion of a Vienna poets' congress from the feathers, skin, hair, etc. of every possible European animal."

Nowhere did Zweig project his complex weave of ambiguities more suggestively than in his sexual identity. Once his fame began to take off in the first years of the 20th Century, erotic opportunity became an omnipresent fact of his life. The fact that Zweig was always moving between cities to give readings and see friends made the pursuit of sensual pleasure all the easier. His money and dancer's grace didn't hurt the chase either.

He recorded innumerable happy little flings in his journal. The revolving affairs kept on coming after his first marriage, to Friderike von Winternitz, at the end of the First War. (He kept her scrupulously, perhaps even sadistically, well informed about each new conquest.) But there is also at times a strangely pedantic tone to his diary notes about these frolicky escapades. Of one encounter with a girl he met in the Paris Metro, Zweig noted in his journal that she came back to his room "without anything serious happening. I'm not greedy in these affairs, only curious." He often seems to write more in the voice of an experimental researcher into the psychological aftershock of amorous adventure than in the spirit of a life-affirming bon vivant.

Some friends saw Zweig as the ultimate voyeur, who could rarely enter all the way into any kind of spree. Instead, he hovered on the sidelines, watching with a piercing, birdlike gaze while others indulged. A playwright pal remarked of Zweig that he "loved women, revered women, liked talking about women, but he rather avoided them in the flesh." Another comrade, a rascally Italian writer by the name of Benno Geiger, reported that as a young man Zweig had the alarming habit of sneaking off to hide in the shrubbery that lined the paths around Vienna's main zoo until young girls came skipping by, whereupon Zweig would leap out and flash them. Geiger claimed that when he went off on these hunts, Zweig carried a note from Sigmund Freud identifying him as a psychoanalytic patient, in the hopes that this would work as a get-out-of-jail free card should he ever be nabbed in the act of exposing himself.

Though this story may well be just scandalmongering, there's no question but that Zweig's intimate relations with women were convoluted and mysterious. He had an extraordinary sensitivity to the interior lives of the female characters in his fiction. No one was better attuned to the ways that male obtuseness failed to acknowledge the rich, multidimensional yearnings, vulnerabilities and grace of the feminine imagination. But off the page Zweig was notoriously at a dead loss about what to do with the women in his life. He was always sympathetic to the females who shared his existence. He was also-at least until he met the woman who would become his second wife, Lotte Altmann, after going into exile at the age of fifty-three- almost always coolly evasive.

By contrast, his passionate friendships with men were full on and unabashed. Hints of homosexual trysts crop up in his diary. Rumors of visits to gigolos in Brazil in the last years of his life persist to this day. In one novella, Confusion, Zweig wrote among the earliest explicit and deeply compassionate treatments of torturous homosexual desire in 20th Century European literature.

Whatever the true nature of Stefan Zweig's desire-regardless of the particular epicurean balance of landscape details, cultural opportunity, and refinements of comfort that made him feel at home-Zweig exemplified the European ideal of civilized tolerance. In this sense, his bodily pleasures, hunger for art, and boundless curiosity about all varieties of behavior were of a piece. Voltaire's motto, "Nothing human is alien to me," could have been Zweig's own.

Exile became a fatal condition to Zweig when he began to feel trapped in the official identity stamped into his passport and traveling papers. Even as early as 1919, Zweig wrote an essay entitled Bureauphobie in which he described the panicky nausea that overwhelmed him at the mere prospect of having to walk into any bureaucratic setting to apply for a document. Imagine how he must have felt after the start of the Second World War, when encounters with officialdom proliferated beyond measure and every kind of travel required an expanding portfolio of identity cards, visas, invitations and certificates. The more proof of who he was he had to carry around with him, the less Zweig felt like himself-or for that matter like a human being at all.


Today, when governmental surveillance and the official documentation of every aspect of existence are once again multiplying so aggressively that many people feel their core individuality to be threatened, Stefan Zweig's impassioned pursuit of personal freedom seems more relevant than ever. His anguished experience of exile has lessons for us all about the values of civilization that we should be fighting to save in our own time. His model of ultra-stylish cosmopolitanism should still inspire us to raise our glasses and embrace our own capacities to be seductive, worldly aficionados of the strange and beautiful.

For all the extraordinary fame that Stefan Zweig enjoyed globally in the first part of the 20th Century, in America today Zweig is almost totally unknown. In England he enjoys only slightly more recognition. On the Continent-and particularly in France where his novellas are regularly reissued and become bestsellers all over again-the situation is different. But Zweig's deeply suggestive writing-with its extraordinary panorama of feverish, monomaniac protagonists-is ripe for rediscovery in the English-speaking world as well.

Many of his books offer strikingly fast-paced, psychologically acute portraits of the extremes of human emotion. His narrators have a remarkable facility for nesting stories within stories, and subtle confessions within acts of concealment. It's not coincidental that Zweig courted Freud's friendship assiduously and wrote the first combination biographical study and theoretical introduction to the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud's insights into the ways that people's frustrated, poorly understood desires play out destructively everywhere, from the bedroom to the chambers of political power, helped to drive Zweig's writerly vision. All Zweig's work can be viewed as a plea for greater appreciation of-and tolerance for the varieties of human nature. In his stories and books Zweig tried to depict as many types of human character as he could, at their moments of most intense existence, in the faith that the more we admire beyond ourselves, the richer our own humanity becomes. "Only assent, acceptance, affection, and enthusiasm can place us in a real relationship with things," he declared in one essay.

It's also not chance that Zweig's books have always provided such fertile material for cinematic adaptation. The crisp, erotic sophistication of his narratives-their rapidly unfolding dramatic plots and finely drawn, intriguing characters-read with a driving energy we're more likely these days to associate with the the experience of watching movies than of reading books. (In the United States, Zweig's bestselling biography of Marie Antoinette became the basis for one of the most lavish MGM productions of the 1930s. The 1938 W.S. Van Dyke biopic starring Norma Shearer was also one of the most lucrative films of the era.) Zweig himself attributed his success to his radical impatience. He couldn't bear wading through the dull bits of even the most hallowed literary masterpieces, so he mercilessly whittled down his books-delighting in the sight of them growing ever leaner and faster. Zweig even proposed to his publisher the release of a series of classics with all the slow passages stripped out so that readers could fly through them at the breakneck pace of modernity. The great works of literature would thereby be infused with new life and cultural relevance he argued, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek. Zweig's sharp eye for the qualities of plot and character that made a story jump off the page, even while it put him at odds with some of the authors of massive literary works in his age, only add to his contemporary relevance.

Both in his streamlined writing, and his endlessly complicated, fascinating personal character, Stefan Zweig merits a fresh look. What we discover in exploring his imagination and harrowing personal story, as he became more and more the victim of giant, faceless bureaucracies even while he struggled to reveal and celebrate all the quirks of true individuality, may teach us more about our own unfulfilled desires than we could ever anticipate.

George Prochnik is the author of the forthcoming book, THE IMPOSSIBLE EXILE: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (Other Press Hardcover; On Sale: May 6, 2014), and Editor at Large of Cabinet Magazine.


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