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When Famous Authors Are Forgotten

December 10th, 2015 · No Comments · Austria, Books, Newspapers

Stefan Zweig. Know him?

I thought not.

Neither did I, until I expressed my interest in the history of Europe before the First World War while in the earshot of our friend Mary, who has an enormous library in her home in Paris.

She later sent me the names of five authors, including Zweig, with the notation: “Memoirs of life in Central Europe before World War I in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday.”

That is how I came to read a man described as “one of the most popular writers in the world” at the height of his career, in the 1920s and 1930s.

An author now nearly forgotten. And, when his name is broached, he often is dismissed as a literary lightweight. Perhaps the best-known piece this century on Zweig is a 4,400-word thrashing given him in The Times of London by a living German poet.

Which leads us to muse about artists applauded in their time, and those whose fame evaporates soon after they leave the stage.

Zweig’s “World of Yesterday” remains a valuable book because he brings to life the world of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the comfort in living in it … and describes the tumult after the war.

He brings an almost journalistic approach — of the op-ed variety — to the topic as he touches on the major topics of the time, particularly the prudishness of topics sexual, in the late 19th century, and makes clear how important the arts were in the final years of Habsburg rule.

He then shifts into his conviction that pre-war Europe was a sort of paradise, particularly for intellectuals and artists. They had freedom to associate, to move, to take on topics that might not please the rulers of the period. Most of them seemed certain that progress and a sense of internationalism would only increase.

He writes of his ability to travel around Europe and India without a passport and says he “never saw” a passport before World War I.

He describes a Europe at its peak, how courtly and polite it was, the center of global learning and culture, as he notes, but also one that had reduced much of the world to colonies, which he doesn’t mention.

He fears the advent of war, colors himself as someone who was opposed to the folly and waste of that war even during the excitement and nationalist fervor of the first months of war, making clear he is disappointed by artists and writers who made the quick leap into champions of their own country’s right to conquer and rule and demonizers of an opposition with whom they had enjoyed an easy familiarity only months before.

He describes a shattered Austria “bloody and dismembered” after the war, which ends with the collapse of the Austria-led empire and Austria’s hesitant acceptance of its reduced horizons as a small and independent nation. The economic crises are mentioned, including the trials of rampant inflation which, he writes, should never be overlooked as creating the conditions in which National Socialism and Hitler could rise.

And his sense of loss for the Europe he knew is always present in his book.

But, too, we become aware of his almost pathological need to attach himself to any author or poet or composer or sculptor he encounters, and he makes a point of trying to encounter them all. He is a relentless name-dropper, and he is routinely impressed by the brilliance of everyone he meets.

He also comes across as a fanboy: He collects autographs and manuscripts (original, if possible) of the greats at work. A scrap of a Mozart libretto; a sheet of paper from the first draft of a novel. He spends considerable sums on it and, later rues that he had to leave his collections behind as he escapes a pre-Anschluss Austria.

And he becomes famous as a writer, though he repeatedly insists he does not enjoy fame and never sought it.

As we consider how he could have been so big in 1930 but overlooked even 30 years later … we wonder about whether he was too specific to a generation, an era, which does not resonant with people who didn’t live it.

Dickens was famous when he alive, and still is today. So was Mark Twain. So are many others from previous centuries, those whose themes and observations still seem pertinent.

Something about Zweig makes him easy to overlook. Some of it might be how he targeted his books at the internationalists of mittel europa, who nearly ceased to exist by the time the Second World War began. Again, maybe he is a bit too journalistic; even the most limited readers understand the value of yesterday’s newspaper.

And much of what can make him cloying is his apparent deep need to be recognized by those others whose talents were greater this his own.

I would be interested in reading some of the biographies he did, on Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Marie Antoinette, but they are not in print.

His body of work, however, is often harshly critiques, to the point that he seems like the Bulwer-Lytton, of dark and stormy night infamy, of Austria.

Zweig’s “World of Yesterday” has value for his observations of a time and a place little-known now. I recommend it. Many others, apparently, would not.



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