Sunday Morning! “Fantastic Night” by Stefan Zweig
I’ve been working on a larger scale writing project this week that I’ve been putting off for some time, because, well, it sure beats watching the news! Social isolation also has a way of focusing the mind I’m finding. But, as a result, this week’s post might be a little brief. I’ve been reading good books and watching good movies and keeping sane as best as possible.
A funny thing did happen this week: I read the “rediscovered” writer Stefan Zweig without actually ever having realized he was forgotten! The cover blurb on Zweig’s “Fantastic Night: Tales of Longing and Liberation” tells me the “rediscovery of this extraordinary writer could well be on par with last year’s refinding of the long-lost Stoner, by John Williams” and bemoans that “For far too long, our links with Zweig have been broken.” I’ve posted here about the rediscovered Eve Babitz and how her immensely enjoyable prose deserves all the accolades its finally gotten.
But, really? Who’s ever forgotten about Stefan Zweig?
I first heard about him as an undergrad in a course on Europe between the wars. He was, for a time, one of the most popular writers in the world and an ambassador for the sort of high culture that developed in Vienna before the World Wars. The son of a wealthy manufacturer, trained in philosophy, a cosmopolitan playwright, journalist, and novelist, he was among a group of secular Viennese Jews that included Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. As he wrote, he had a “life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.” He never knew want. He found it easy to write and he did so beautifully. His books sold very well. It was a charmed life.
And then, it wasn’t. Zweig was really a man of the nineteenth century, which finally ended in 1914 when the new reality came lapping up to the shore. He never really wanted to live in this century of mass murder and routinized barbarism. Who would?
I knew Zweig in school from his autobiography, The World of Yesterday. The “world” in question, which had since vanished was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at once a highly civilized and humane society and a deeply repressive one. I was struck by how many of the stories in Fantastic Night are about individuals whose desires run contrary to the codes of their culture and the ways they fall apart. The influence of Freud is as clear on Zweig as the influence of Vienna is on both writers.
The title story, in fact, is a little psychological masterpiece: a wealthy Baron, every inch a member of high society, feels himself aimless, emotionally bereft, dissolute. An encounter with a beautiful wife leads him to impulsively commit a very minor theft at the race course. And this leads him to the dark side of the street where the thieves and prostitutes dwell in squalor. The moral exhaustion and self-destructive tendencies of the patrician class are a perennial in fiction. David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Dom De Lillo’s prolix text Cosmopolis is a recent example. But, once upon a time, the blue-bloods actually had something to uphold. One hundred years later, what is left to collapse?
For Zweig, everything collapsed with the world wars. I haven’t read his autobiography in twenty years, but I still recall a terrifying scene in which the young Zweig is in a movie theater whose audience is howling for blood at the newsreels. The First World War seemed like madness to a pacifist like Zweig. One of the best stories in the collection, “Compulsion”, deals with a young Austrian in Switzerland conflicted about being drafted to murder people in a war that his conscience abhors. His lover begs him to stay, he cannot fathom serving, and yet duty compels him against all reason. It is as perfectly composed as a piece of music.
I think my favorite story in the collection, “Mendel the Bibliophile”, is probably closest to the real Zweig. Mostly it is the character study of someone who is massively erudite and lives largely in their head and between the pages of books. Aloof but not cruel, cultured and a bit out of touch, Mendel has a perfect memory for books, and very little mental space left over for life. Zweig seems to have been the same way, a bit unaware of the dangers of Nazism and the rot that had set in to the Austria he loved, until suddenly he wasn’t. Mendel is particularly unaware of borders and boundaries, which really only matter in times of war. Herman Hesse compared borders to cannons and generals: “as long as peace and kindness go on, nobody notices them- but as soon as war and insanity appear, they become urgent and sacred.” Mendel doesn’t understand why anyone would care that he’s a Russian in Austria. But they do.
Zweig wasn’t so much opposed to war as to politics. He preferred a life of inwardness, something almost verboten in mass societies. We are always called upon to engage, to answer for ourselves, and to face the realities lapping at our shores. For Zweig, reality meant the growing impossibility of being a cosmopolitan and a Jew in Austria. He decamped to England and then to Brazil.
There, famously, he abandoned whatever hope he had left that the life of intellectual labor and personal freedom, and inwardness, would ever again be possible in Europe. What’s most tragic about Zweig’s suicide, by the side of his second wife in a hotel room in February, 1942, was the tide of war would turn soon after. It was reasonable to assume the Allies would win. And yet, as far as Zweig was concerned, the world in which he could have lived was already gone forever.
Reading Zweig, it occurs to me that the classic story of a character passing from innocence to experience is one in which they were ill-served by their inner life of art, stories, and illusions. But, often, those are the things that save people’s lives.
So, what are YOU reading, watching, playing, pondering, or creating in isolation this week?