29 March 2014

Vienna Was Yesterday: Stefan Zweig

I.  If it takes a movie to get people to read Stefan Zweig’s books again (Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel), that’s a good enough reason to make a movie.  In France, the publisher Les Livres de Poche has never let Zweig’s books go out of print, in Great Britain Pushkin Press has re-issued a stream of beautifully presented titles, but in the U.S., New York Review Books has made a half-hearted and lackluster effort to renew interest in Zweig. 
Internationally famous throughout his career, Stefan Zweig’s historical and cultural studies are such as impressive achievement that later practitioners would prefer to forget him, the better to cannibalize them.  [The Struggle With the Demon:  Friedrich Holderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, Friedrich Nietzche (1925) Marie Antoinette: the Portrait of an Average Woman(1932), Erasmus of Rotterdam (1934)]

His elegant prose and his cosmopolitanism do not conform to the contemporary taste for artlessness and self-absorption.  A man of his time, Zweig regarded Freud and his work as “the exemplar of a young man’s dreams.”  [Confusion (1927) traces the reverberations over four decades of a stolen kiss -  by an honored privy councilor from a beautiful young man.]  If this makes you think of Thomas Mann's Death In Venice, you can locate Zweig's literary  position between the Germanr author's sometimes unbending bourgeois sensibility and the amoral stance of the worldly Viennese, Arthur Schnitzler.   In novels and in biography, Zweig's empathetic interest in women was unusual for his time.
Stefan Zweig was born in 1881 to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, with an older brother, Alfred. The textile manufacturer and the socialite left the boys  in the care of a Swiss governess, Hermine Knecht, until they were sent away to grammar school.   Summers were spent with their parents at Marienbad. At home, the boys were cossetted and bored, but they found school equally boring and, more importantly, Stefan came to view the experience as soulless.    For a boy who was neither athletic nor talented at the usual social pursuits of dancing or riding a bicycle (something he never managed to learn), adolescence was painfully long, especially when, by law, the Habsburg Empire set the age of emanicpation at twenty-four.   The adolecsent Zweig collected stamps and autographs, both solitary pursuits.  Excitement came in sighting the conductor Gustav Mahler on a Vienna street.  Zweig was read with keen interest the new young poets Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Zweig graduated from the Maximiliangymnasium in the auspicious year of 1900, leaving with high marks for his essay on German literature, the longest essay submitted in the school's history.  His family had bought Stefan's way out of the required military service at his  birth but the boy volunteered anyway, only to be rejected on grounds of poor health.   He then disappointed his parents by refusing to take his expected place in the family business,  The discussion must have been heated as his father sustained a broken finger from the encounter.

Although he enrolled at the University of Vienna to study philosophy and literature, Zweig poured his enthusiasm into poetry, publishing his first book Silver Strings in 1901.  His close companions at the time were Theodor Herzl, the editor of Neue Freie Presse and Camill Hoffmann, with whom he read French literature in the original and roamed the galleries at the Vienna Museum of Art and History.  

Zwieg completed a dissertation on the philosopher Hippolyte Taine in 1903, but he already knew his talents well enough to write:  “All my thoughts are inspired by objects, events, and persons, and anything purely theoretical or metaphysical is a closed book to me.”   
Zweig’s cosmopolitan dreams of a united Europe were doomed to be blasted to bits by war - not once but twice.  In 1939, when Germany invaded Polland, Zweig would write “Europe is finished, our world destroyed.”  That was the year that Beware of Pity, his finest - and longest -  novel came out. Set in 1913 just before the First World War Zweig  created an unforgettable story in the relationship between a cavalry officer and a wounded young heiress who mistakes his compassion for romantic love.  The dark side of compassion, the comfort that we derive from a feeling divorced from action, was a bourgeois malady that Zweig examined ruthlessly, but in his always graceful prose. One has to think, even without working knowledge of the German Language that Zweig has been well-served by his translators. 
Zweig left Germany in 1934 after Hitler came to power, settling first in England, only to flee again in 1939, this time to New York.  Finally he moved to South America, where there were significant numbers of German-speaking refugees.  His last publication was the short novel The Royal Game, published in Buenos Aires in 1942.  Profoundly pessimistic about the outcoome of the war and the place of his writing in any imaginable future and in  “flight from the hounds,”  Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte Altmann committed suicide at their home in Petropolis, Brazil.  They were found on February 23, 1942, lying with clasped hands, dead from a barbiturate overdose.

"All the streets were paved with culture, where everywhere else they had turned to asphalt."
   - Karl Kraus (1874-1936), journalist and founder of Die Fackel (The Torch)

II. Never take what Kraus wrote at face value.  Still, the author of the stage drama The Last Days Of Mankind (1915-1922) turned a skeptical eye on that culture, from Jugendstil to the Wiener Werkstatte, despite its creators' admiration for his writing.  Illusion functioned as common currency in fin-de-siecle Vienna, the illusion that the Habsburg Empire was more than dessicated shell, the illusion that the dazzling public works like the Ringstrasse were more real than the poverty, overcrowding, disease, and displacement that made of Vienna a virtual Potemkin village.  A local artist, Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando (1877-1954) whose name was ready-made to grace an operetta or a sacher-tort, painted a picture that he titled Austrian customs officials supervise the birth of Venus. 

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), son of a poor goldsmith who became the face of the Vienna Secession, once declared his primary interest to be "other people, mainly women." A large proportion of his thousands of drawings of women are openly erotic nudes. Klimt never married, but was said to have fathered 14 children by various partners, an increase from the eight attributed to him when I studied art history.   The subjects of his sumptuous, painstakingly constructed portraits were almost exclusively women, many from Vienna’s Jewish haute bourgeoisie whose appreciation of avant-garde art was generally far ahead of the rest of Viennese society. 

A  joke about the Viennese Secession Building that had been designed by. Josef Maria Olbrich went like this:

Onlooker: "Are those meant to be owls?"
Secessionist: "Who told you they were meant to be owls?"
Onlooker: "Well I can see they are."
Secessionist" "Then what are you complaining about?"

But the Viennese also took their art very seriously. Even in his own time, Klimt's Sunflower (1907, Belvedere Gallery, Vienna) was the subject of serious speculation - that it might be a coded image of his intimate friend (how intimate?), Emilie Floge, designer of the 'reform dress' for  forward-looking Viennese women.

With the nostalgia that hindsight allows, we may judge the arts of Vienna as beautiful, glorious, gaudy, but to contemporaries they were messages from the front lines of reality.   When  Gustav Mahler, as conductor of the Vienna Opera, wanted to stage Richard Strauss' new work Salome in 1905, the Imperial censors intervened, ruling that the opera was both blasphemous and obscene.   Looking back from the the vantage point of 1930, Robert Musil summed up that time in his 1100 page novel  The Man Without Qualities:

 “The just-buried century in Austria could not be said to have covered itself with glory during its second half.  It had been clever in technology, business, and science, but beyond these focal points of its energy it was stagnant and treacherous as a swamp.  It had painted like the old masters, written like Goethe and Schiiller, and built its houses in the style of the Gothic and the Renaissance.” - quoted from p. 52 as translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins, (1952, 1930).
The world of yesterday, as Zweig titled his autobiography, enchants us with its art, music, and literature but we appreciate it best if we understand its distance from our own.  In The Governess, published in 1911, Zweig makes uses of a story told in his family about his aunt who, on her wedding night,  “suddenly appeared back in her parents' apartment at one in the morning,” to recount her discovery that her new husband “was a madman and a monster.  In all seriousness, he had tried to take her clothes off.”   An eighteen year-old girl, terrified by her wedding night, left in the dark by her parents and by the larger society about intimate relationships and the real meaning of the hypocrisy that surrounds them.  Nixe doesn't look so charming, now does it?

1. Heinrich Kuhn - Governess and child on the hillside, c. 1908, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Gustav Klimt - Sunflower, 1907,  Belvedere Gallery, Vienna.
2.  Gustav Klimt - photogrpah of Enilie Floge in the Litzlberg garden at Lake Attersee, 1906, Getty Archives, Los Angeles.
3. unidentified  photographer - Stefan Zweig, c. 1900, daniel A. Reed collection, State University of New York, fredonia.
4. Carl Moll - Winter in Vienna, Grunwald Center for graphic Arts, Uinversity of California, Los Angeles.
5. Koloman Moser - Nixe (Water Nymph), 1898, from vre Sacrum, Volume 1, 1898, Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna.
6. Elke Rehder - woodcut illustration from The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig, 1982, S. Fischer Verlag, Munich.


Tania said...

Beautiful article, Jane, on this literary giant, regularly in the honor in French translation, indeed. His correspondence with Romain Rolland and with Thomas Mann have just been published in France. Que de livres à lire !

Jane said...

Thank you, Tania. My mother owned several of Zweig's books and that is how I first knew of him. I hope the correspondence is published in English soon. Rolland was a close friend of Zweig and another writer whose work is not easy to find in English these days. A shame. But I think the success of "Grand Budapest Hotel" will get Zweig the attention he has long deserved.