The Last Waltz

STEFAN ZWEIG was a popular writer from the outset of his career. He instinctively wrote the kind of thing that appeals to a lot of people: a reliable entertainer. Not a line-for-line, impeccable stylist (one reads much of Zweig mentally crossing out adjectives), not a hundred-watt intellectual writer (though a fairly unobjectionable interpreter and simplifier of other people’s ideas, cf. Nietzsche), nor a philosophically appealing writer (“humanism”of the Zweig variety and canned pork are roughly equivalent products, to my mind), but a writer who spins tales that convincingly describe emotionally charged events and their unfolding, and how apparently arbitrary actions lead people into disaster. Many of them suggest Hollywood melodramas of the late 1930s and ’40s, and in fact many of them were made into Hollywood melodramas in the late 1930s and ’40s, notably Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).

Born in 1881 in Vienna, Zweig grew up in the rarefied atmosphere of Art Worship that characterized the last crumbling years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. An inveterate traveler with numerous friends (and enemies), Zweig spent his most productive years as a writer observing human folly with sympathy and emotional detachment. Like Maugham, Zweig compulsively loitered in hotel lobbies, restaurants, and casinos, in Deauville or Istanbul or Rangoon, watching strangers like a raptor clocking mice. As a writer, Zweig’s formal predilections are similar to Conrad’s, the model of the self-effacing storyteller at a campfire, or on a tropical hotel veranda, recounting other people’s adventures, repeating secrets told to him, often by a borderline psychotic or a ruined obsessive—some ghostly, disillusioned man or woman who confided, in a spell of desperate loneliness, the single, shattering love, bizarre adventure, or fatally wrong move in his or her life.

Zweig is sometimes a brilliantly gifted bad writer, at others a plodding, long-winded good one, and sometimes both within a few pages, as in Amok, a 1922 novella (recently reissued in Pushkin Press’s Collected Stories, translated by Anthea Bell) about a fit of erotomania and its consequences. In the Dutch East Indies, a rich woman from town seeks out a European doctor in the countryside for a discreet abortion. The doctor is desperate to leave the colonies but has no money; she offers him a small fortune; he is too proud to be bought, though he knows he’s an idiot to refuse. He lets her know he won’t help her for money, but would do it if she slept with him, a grotesque demand that she is too dignified, despite her situation, and also too distressed, to even consider.

The woman leaves, and the doctor writes her a twenty-page letter of urgent, probably insane apology, in a panic, retracting his caddish demand and begging her to let him do the procedure, sensing that something awful might otherwise happen. Too late. Some hours later, her houseboy summons him to a back alley in Chinatown, where the woman is bleeding to death on a filthy mattress. She makes him promise to save her honor rather than her life, by obscuring what has happened to her.

The story is quintessentially Zweig, masterful in generating suspense, operatically predictable (the woman always dies in Act Four, so the man has a story to tell in Act Five), and drenched in the implicit mores of its day, which Zweig tweaked in his modest fashion by depicting a clean abortion as a better option than a coat hanger. The whole story hangs on the scandalous nature of the encounter, the vulnerability of a married woman needing an abortion, and the derangement of lust; if anything it throws a dark area into even greater darkness for the purposes of melodrama. Even so, Amok is a compelling story: for its meticulous portrait of the doctor’s emotional process, its compression, and the almost incidentally sharp observations of gestures, movements, the charged silences in a conversation.

Stefan Zweig, second from left, at the Jockey Club in Rio de Janeiro, ca. 1936.
Stefan Zweig, second from left, at the Jockey Club in Rio de Janeiro, ca. 1936.

Zweig, whose books of bizarre yet plausible inner turbulence made him an international best seller, did not think himself as good as his contemporaries, whom he fawned over and fetishized. It’s easy to believe, as Michael Hofmann claimed in a devastating takedown a few years ago in the London Review of Books, that a lot of Zweig’s contemporaries found him dreadful, considered his family wealth and his manuscript collections and his graphomaniacal production of books appalling, thought his vast popularity disgusting and symptomatic of widespread degeneracy, and so forth.

The strangely personal inflection of Hofmann’s attack seemed a waste—after all, Zweig was long dead—though it was of some interest to learn that Robert Musil supposedly vetoed South America as a possible place of exile in 1941 because Zweig was living in Brazil at the time, which could be true, or a joke, or something someone made up. In Zweig’s defense, I feel it’s necessary to add here that Thomas Mann, one of the many writers Hofmann cites to support his argument, was a repulsive individual, serenely noting his daily bowel movement in his diary while failing to note that his son had killed himself the night before; Bertolt Brecht was even more disgusting, a faux communist with a pound of beluga in the fridge who used everyone he met like Kleenex, including Zweig; others Hofmann cited in his London Review essay as Zweig’s detractors—Hermann Hesse, Elias Canetti, and Karl Kraus, to name three—were the kind of company you would hop a flight to Hong Kong to avoid. As writers, Hesse was infantile, Canetti a self-important windbag, Kraus a uniquely pathological example of the right ideas in the wrong brain. As for Mann and Brecht: A lousy person can be a terrific artist; it’s one of life’s little ironies.

Dismissing Zweig as a popular novelist, as many do, is a bit like reproaching Stephen King for not being Herman Melville. As someone who likes Stephen King better than a lot of highbrow literature, and usually prefers to read something like A Dog’s Ransom over Buddenbrooks, I wonder how many people who revere Ulysses, or The Sleepwalkers, or Berlin Alexanderplatz, or other massive doorstops of modernism have ever finished reading them. To tell people these are works of genius, important, or great may have been enough enticement or intimidation for people of my generation to muddle through them. They are wonderful books, of course, but it takes a month in the country to tunnel through The Man Without Qualities, whereas one can read Zweig’s biography of Casanova, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, or Journey into the Pastin one sitting, and do it without feeling like an imbecile.

Musil’s great subject was the mental and emotional life of the Viennese cultural elite at the moment before its busy philanthropic plans and private ambitions were swept out of existence by a few pistol shots fired at Austria’s monarch-in-waiting in Sarajevo. This was the great subject of every notable writer in former Austria-Hungary between the wars. The other pervasive, inevitable subject was the certainty of another disaster, the only uncertainty being when it would occur.

Like Musil—and Hermann Broch, Joseph Roth, �–dön von Horváth, Anna Seghers, Marieluise Fleißer, and Irmgard Keun—Zweig mined what he could from what remained of European civilization after “the world of yesterday” disappeared, trying to decipher the behavior of a society from which a seemingly imperishable code of sentiments had vanished. It’s true that Zweig exhibited an infuriating obtusity about how rotten the Austro-Hungarian Empire actually was at the time of its total collapse, even in such a late memoir as The World of Yesterday, which he finished in 1940, after fleeing Europe for New York. But much as he recoiled from the way things suddenly were, he did recognize that human behavior had profoundly changed, human thinking had changed, and he observed its new shapes and habits more astutely than most writers.

Zweig inscribed the seismic shift created by the Great War differently than his peers, by indirection, inferring a general pathology from singular, extreme cases, like the torture victim in the novella Chess Story, who retains a fragile sanity by memorizing a book of winning chess moves. Of all Austrian writers, Zweig gleaned the most benefit from Freud, a personal friend. His work resonated for an audience that would not have read Freud, but would gladly have eavesdropped on his treatment sessions. As Freud was excavating the secrets of the unconscious, modernist literature was starting to erase psychology from the novel; writers like Zweig not only took the nineteenth century as their style template but also repined so inconsolably for the stability of the gone world that they couldn’t relinquish its literature’s emphasis on manners, class distinctions, the subjectivities of multiple characters, and the judgments and prejudices implicit in its vocabulary.

Zweig’s lost world features some repugnant aspects that the reader encounters with annoyance and disdain. Perhaps it was true to life at the time that the reflexively racist doctor in Amok underscores his desperation by saying, “I had lived here for seven years without sleeping with a white woman,” or that Zweig brags naughtily in his memoir The World of Yesterday about having “sat at the same table as heavy drinkers, homosexuals, and morphine addicts,” adding that “I seemed to like mingling with amoral and unreliable people whose company might be compromising.” Such passages reflect, though, how much a product of his class and time Zweig remained throughout his life, and how trifling his notion of transgression usually was, even though his fiction dramatizes it effectively enough that it still entertains, and often reflects something true about how people are with one another.

That he could write a novel as durable as those of his contemporaries was proven only once during his lifetime, with Beware of Pity. A young, handsome cavalry officer named Hofmiller, posted to the sleepy nether regions of the Empire, gets invited to a party at the home of “the richest man in the whole neighborhood,” Herr von Kekesfalva, and makes a hideous gaffe by asking the man’s daughter, who is seated at a table, to dance. Edith von Kekesfalva’s legs are paralyzed from an unnamed illness five years earlier; before that, “she loved to dance, she wanted to be Pavlova. But alas!”

“But alas,” indeed, is the phrase that hangs over Zweig’s entire novel, which has the toughness and horror of any Fassbinder movie. Hofmiller, horrified by Edith’s stricken reaction, tries to rectify the oafish impression he’s made; in the process, he becomes the object of Edith’s passion. It’s no innocent passion, either: Before long, Edith is throwing herself into fits that can only be calmed by Hofmiller’s touch; she probes his weaknesses, pampers his narcissism, and exploits an ambivalence that has nothing to do with love, but with Hofmiller’s growing desire to detach himself from her without hurting her feelings. Edith is one of the great monsters of modern literature, the evil twin of the Princess Casamassima; the reader loathes her long before Hofmiller can bring himself to do so, but every ghastly, verminously savage low trick she resorts to is too fascinating and too credible to put the book down. Like Sam Pollit in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Edith is so vile, and exerts such uncanny power over her victims, that we can’t get enough of her, though it comes as a great relief when the First World War breaks out and Hofmiller is given the only possible opportunity to get away from her. That a person one feels pity for might use the compassion of others as a weapon against them was a new, truly upsetting theme for a novel in 1939; Beware of Pity hasn’t become dated at all, even if its settings and the kind of people in it are long gone.

Zweig’s fiction plumbed the same well of queasy eroticism that Schnitzler drew his water from, depicting the pursuit of sexual gratification as a psychic rampage that flattens the surrounding landscape into the very image of a vagina. The handsome young baron in Burning Secret, for example, whose single-minded, fatuous determination to screw a married woman he sees at a resort would be tedious without the interwoven story of the woman’s twelve-year-old son whom the baron befriends as a pawn; the boy has never had an adult friend before, and is thrilled by the illusion of suddenly becoming interesting to a grown-up. Zweig renders the boy’s gradual realization that he’s being manipulated by the baron, and eventually lied to by his mother, in a devastatingly accurate picture of childhood on the cusp of adolescent disillusion.

There are, unquestionably, passages of prolonged, exasperating hesitations, choked utterances, and dithering tripe in many of Zweig’s stories, like this snippet from Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman: “I shall never know how long I lay like that, all my limbs cold: the dead must lie rigid in their coffins in much the same way. All I know is that I had closed my eyes and was praying to God, to some heavenly power, that this might not be true, might not be real. But my sharpened senses would not let me deceive myself. . . . How long this dreadful condition lasted I cannot say: such moments are outside the measured time of ordinary life.” Some of this blather may be more blathery in translation than in the original German. One has to just skip over the redundancies, Hamlet-like mental contortions, and too-chewy bits of filler to get to the heart of the matter.

His finest novellas, like Chess Story, proliferate in complexity as they move along, surprising the reader with every narrative twist and turn; at the outset we are made to sympathize with rather trivial ill feelings of some ship passengers toward a man they’ve identified as Czentovic, a world-champion chess master who is also a kind of idiot savant, an oaf from the provinces whose genius at chess was discovered accidentally; they pay him to play against them in simultaneous games. A new person appears, offers advice on certain moves; it soon seems obvious that the newcomer is also a genius at chess, but how he happens to know every move that Czentovic will make is a story within the story crafted as perfectly as a Fabergé egg. Zweig leads the reader to this revelation in a Borgesian way that very gradually and deftly turns our sense of what is happening inside out. There is something Borgesian embedded in most of Zweig’s apparently effortless and often purplish writing that makes it still enjoyable to read, however many of its features are redolent of attitudes and prejudices we now understand as rebarbative.

This kind of story Zweig wrote is no longer published much, as other media formats have usurped its function. We no longer look to literary fiction for intense narrative excitement, elaborately orchestrated character studies, descriptions of landscapes, the textures of clothing, the color of people’s eyes. Cinema and television have relieved literature of the prolixity once required to tell a convincing story, and even the need for a story to seem convincing.

One thing impossible to show in a visual medium is the actual process of thinking. Since Zweig’s strong suit is what goes on inside people’s heads, movies and television will never adequately substitute for his fiction, or literature in general. Zweig’s writing bears the inscription of an important moment in history, and it is well worth the time it takes to read it. We would know a great deal less about the quotidian mental life of the patrician class of Central Europe between the world wars without Zweig’s fiction. Most of the myriad biographies he produced—of Magellan, Mary Stuart, Casanova, Nietzsche, Marie Antoinette, Kleist, Stendhal, and other historical figures—are still highly readable, astute, factually sound, psychologically plausible, and, unlike half the biographies published every year, not so crammed with beetling details that only another biographer would bother reading them. And then there is Beware of Pity, which—along with the novellas Amok, Fear, Burning Secret, Chess Story, and Letter from an Unknown Woman—is the best argument for reading him. It stands out from Zweig’s other work because it goes much further into darkness, a darkness we recognize as belonging to our time. Unlike the taboo subject matter Zweig treated elsewhere—abortion, homosexuality, adultery, etc.—we don’t have to discount the antiquated unmentionable at the heart of the narrative. It’s still shocking.

Gary Indiana is the author of six novels and seven books of nonfiction.