Werfel, Zweig, Yesterday, Tomorrow

For Werfel, the decisive things were the emotional aspect, the romantic idea, the lyrical substance–the power of language. He did have a language of his own! Unlike Stefan Zweig, who is simply an intolerably poor writer. Zweig blows himself up, he inflates ideas that he doesn’t even have. Whereas Werfel is prodigal with his ideas but often doesn’t know how to make anything out of them. He was an infinitely greater natural talent than Musil, but Musil is the infinitely more interesting writer. I think I know what Werfel lacked: he hardly ever questioned himself. He could be a Marxist, he could be an anarchist or a conservative, he could be a Catholic–it was all interchangeable, it all depended on the moment’s whim, idea, emotion. That is where Karl Kraus’s evil eye did, after all, see the truth: while writing was a necessity for Werfel, while he had the urge to express, what he then wrote–the actual message–was totally interchangeable. Werfel pulled himself under, time and again. That was a talent of a great writer who destroyed himself.

Hans Mayer (from Peter Stephan Jungk’s Franz Werfel)

Where to begin? Hans Mayer is an interesting, obscure (at least to me) figure by himself: a quasi-Marxist critic in the line of Lukacs who broke with the orthodoxy before it turned inward on itself; a more plainspoken sort who is still dedicated to analyzing literature in a Marxist context.

While it removes him from the heavily theoretical line of Adorno to Jameson and onward, Mayer was still far more aggressively radical than someone like Irving Howe, a liberal who loved his milieu too much to question its precepts. I like Howe, but many of his essays seem as much relics as their time as Lionel Trilling’s, as compared to Gore Vidal’s literary essays of the same period (50’s and 60’s), which seek out extremes that Howe shunned. Perhaps the closest American analogue for Mayer is Morris Dickstein, a theorist who wants books to work and succeed, who is always subjugating his own essayistic practice to that of those who he prizes most highly: the great writers of fiction. But here, he treats two writers (Werfel and Zweig) whose lives bore them out more than their fiction did.

Yet Mayer damns Werfel and Zweig in this passage for entirely different reasons. Stefan Zweig is dismissed for being a weak thinker, while Werfel is criticized for thinking too much, in too many directions, such that it paralyzed his writing. Both writers met with a good deal more success than Musil, Zweig for a long series of popular biographies, Werfel for all sorts of things, particularly two long but well-written potboilers where, indeed, the lyricism takes over.

But I think he dismisses Zweig too quickly. Zweig was a frail mortal amongst the giants of his age: Broch, Mann, Kraus, Musil, Canetti. His autobiography, The World of Yesterday, differs from Elias Canetti’s memoirs of Vienna in the 20’s, in that Zweig lacks Canetti’s ego. Zweig’s book is suffused with the knowledge that he could not match the minds around him; while he could (and did) meet with popular success, there is never the hint of the visionary about him. His works dispatch small ideas efficiently; his novella The Royal Game is considerably more compact than Nabokov’s The Defense in dealing with the theme of chess-as-obsession. While Werfel throws himself at ideas and produces pages upon pages, Zweig approaches them tentatively and knows when to finish. (Accusations of inflated ideas seem inflated.)

Zweig and Werfel have similar places in my mind; neither of them is on a par with the best of their time, and the works of both have a small spark that keeps them vivid in my memory. Werfel may have been more heat than light, but the heat has not survived. Yet Zweig wrote a humble autobiography in which he looks backward quietly, and called it The World of Yesterday (DIE WELT VON GESTERN), which Werfel could never have done. Yesterday seems to have been all Zweig had at that point; having fled to Brazil from Europe, despondent over the war and unable to envision a new life for himself or for Europe, which he claimed had destroyed itself, he committed suicide.

Werfel, productive to the end, survived the war and two heart attacks. He was planning out several future projects and living the good life in Hollywood when he died in 1945. His endless ideas were at least as good to him as they were to his work.

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