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Tag: stefan zweig

Stefan Zweig

Paul Raymont reacted to Michael Hofmann’s incredibly nasty attack on Stefan Zweig by resolving to read more Zweig. I don’t particularly want to defend Zweig, but going after his suicide note was really a bit much:

Zweig left a suicide note which, like most of what he wrote, is so smooth and mannerly and somehow machined – actually more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note – that one feels the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it, and the sense that he doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide).

It makes my attack on Michael Haneke look like a paean to his work. But I don’t think Hofmann’s assessment is too far off. I was easier on Zweig five years ago, but now I’m inclined to dismiss most of his work. What gets me is not his writing style or pretensions, but the shallow psychologizing that infects his fiction, a crude caricature of what Broch, Mann, and especially Musil were trying to achieve concurrently (and with only partial success; Musil is the only one who I would rate on that front, and even he runs into deep trouble at spots). But even among the second-rate writers, I rank him below Werfel and Schnitzler because of his lack of originality. The more from that period (or elsewhere) that I read, the less Zweig seems to offer. And what I said before still holds true: the best book I’ve read by him is his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which is the work of a man surrounded by his literary superiors and quite aware of it. Contra Hofmann, who finds it smug and obnoxious, I think the autobiography does have a fair chunk of humility to it, with the smugness being a defensive posture.

So while Hofmann is busy thrashing Zweig for a multitude of sins personal and literary, the real problems get buried. Where Hofmann sees him as fake and commercial, I just see him as bland and conventional. Successful milquetoast writers do tend to annoy those with more fiery dispositions, but I think Zweig is too inoffensive to get to me. I feel the same way, though, about Hofmann’s beloved Joseph Roth (who, incidentally, had the poor taste to be friends with Zweig), the least innovative of the Germanic modernist writers. Still, the Zweig revival baffles me, though I’m less baffled when I see that Clive James is a Zweig fan. (Actually, it sounds like James wants to be Zweig.)

I notice, however, that Zweig has already had his posthumous revenge: Anthea Bell’s translation of Zweig’s Burning Secret has won the Schlegel-Tieck translation prize. The runner-up is Hofmann’s translation of Fred Wander.

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.

Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen

There’s a huge drop-off in big novels of ideas in the Germanic areas post-World War II. Mann, Broch, Musil, Schnitzler, Doblin, Stefan Zweig, and Joseph Roth all oriented themselves around fairly articulable ideologies, some more complex than others. Post-war, there are phantasmagorias like Gunter Grass’s and overwrought character studies like Boll’s, but very little that compares to something like The Magic Mountain. Even Doctor Faustus seems like it’s avoiding the issue.

Wolfgang Koeppen, at least in Death in Rome, sounds the death-knell for the old guard. The ideas are as good as Broch on an off-day, and are better than than Zweig. Koeppen just doesn’t spend as much time on his ideas. The three main characters–a larger-than-life evil Nazi bastard named Judejahn, his son Adolf, who is a priest-in-training, and his nephew, a modern composer–all only have one remotely validated emotion, which is disgust. After making a point about local politics, modern composition, the priesthood, schooling, or any other relevant topic, Koeppen immediately buries it under negative images and recriminations. Koeppen takes pains to paint the three’s only moments of virtue as ones of total inaction.

While they and their fellow Germans aren’t doing anything, for three-quarters of the book, Koeppen’s lyricism sustains a sublime, frozen-in-amber quality, as they all walk through historical Rome. Koeppen is expert at displaying the unmoored thoughts of the most morally culpable people imaginable, Judejahn for being a monster like something out of The Night Porter, and his scions for having anything to do with his legacy. It’s when something does happen that the book falls apart, since no plot can live up to the transcendent monstrousness that Koeppen deals in.

The ideas, very negative ones, do come through, but are dispatched far more quickly than usual, since the characters are so terminal. That isn’t to say that tje ideas are so different than what went before. Like Broch circa The Sleepwalkers, Death in Rome has a vaguely conservative bent. Aside from the characters, its hatred is directed to Nietzsche and Hegel, who removed simple morality/religion/ethics and replaced it with high-minded, poisonous ideas. But Broch had no problem writing a verbose treatise about the breakdown of decency. Koeppen seems to say that the rationalistic style of Broch, Mann, and the rest is an abscess spawned by amoral philosophers, and that it must be dispatched.

This makes Death in Rome intentionally self-defeating, its message being that the big rational style must go underground in German literature. And so it has. But it also suggests that there is still a continuity of content: the rational arguments live on in disguised and more chaotic form in Grass, Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, and many others. So instead of there being such a clean break of content, it’s more a change of style. Koeppen would never write something like this, from near the end of The Sleepwalkers:

Of course the question is not whether Hegel’s interpetation of history has been overthrown by the World War; that had been done already by the stars in their courses; for a reality that had grown autonomous through a development extending over four hundred years would have ceased in any circumstances to be capable of submitting any longer to a deductive system.

The Sleepwalkers, Broch, pp. 559-560.

But Koeppen would agree with the main point, which is that theories of the end of history lead to amoral chaos.

If Koeppen is acknowledging that the change is in style rather than substance, he’s far more pessimistic and nihilistic than he appears. He is condemning any future German culture without knowing what it is. He anticipates and transcends many of Grass’s more particular arguments about German memory decades later.

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