Monday, November 29

Stefan Zweig closer than ever | Babelia

In 1984 the German publisher Fischer published the Stefan Zweig Diaries for the first time. It was a single eighth volume of 600 pages, of which 200 contained the comments of the editor: Knut Beck. They captured the interest of the public because Zweig never composed autobiographical works, with the exception of Yesterday’s World. When the writer and his second wife, Lotte Altman, left Europe for good, the nine notebooks containing the diaries were left in the house in the city of Bath, England. Thanks to his posthumous publication, Zweig became more closely acquainted, because these writings contained confidences and immediate impressions never before disclosed. They were born of spontaneity and driven by the fervor of the moment.

Zweig was never a passionate diarist, in the style of André Gide or Thomas Mann. At various stages of his life he tried to submit to this daily discipline, although he soon tired. He used to start a diary on the occasion of specific events that he believed worthy of mention to be remembered in the future: personal situations, some trips or war and the political situation. But his fiery temperament was fickle, he swiftly went from exaltation to discouragement, and often he only found calm by taking refuge in his work and forgetting everything else. This inconsistency can be seen in these notes, often very intense, but fragmentary and full of temporary gaps.

The stupendous volume of Cliff, efficiently translated and enriched with comments updating Beck’s, comprises all the journals that have been preserved. Apparently, there is a missing notebook corresponding to the writer’s early years, already lost in Zweig’s life. Those published date from 1912, 1914 and 1918; then they go on to 1931, 1935 and 1936, ending in 1939 and 1940.

A handwritten page from Stefan Zweig's diaries, published by Cliff.
A handwritten page from Stefan Zweig’s diaries, published by Cliff.

Zweig was never inclined to comment on his own works, and this absence is reflected in the diaries, which also do not contain philosophical reflections or thoughts on literature, it focuses on recording events of the moment. Even so, they constitute an invaluable biographical and historical source for learning about the writer’s feelings regarding the Great War and the European catastrophe of the advent of Nazism, although they also reflect two joyous trips to New York and Brazil.

The worldly tone of the first diary entries (1912 to 1914) is very different from the rest. Zweig was 31 years old when he recorded them, he lived in Vienna in an apartment of his own and with a servant; he savored his fledgling literary successes. As an attractive, cosmopolitan, free and rich man, in the style of his admired Casanova, he excited women. His self-portrait from this time could well be that of the male character of Letter from a stranger– Passionate in one night stands, but cold with feelings and unable to commit to long-lasting relationships.

Zweig loved Paris. The newspaper records a passionate stay in the City of Light, in which, while visiting good friends like Romain Rolland, he made female friends in trams and parks. On one of his walks he met the young dressmaker Marcelle, with whom he would live “torrid nights”, according to the handsome don Juan. It is possible that the girl got pregnant and miscarried – the words in this regard are cryptic. Before long, Zweig returned to Vienna and ignored the matter. In 1914 he returned to Paris and found Marcelle “more beautiful than before” and without any hint of reproach. His relationship with the French girl did not prevent him from having an affair with the Austrian Friderike von Winternitz, a beauty in her thirties, unsatisfied married and mother of two girls, who fell in love with him through an anonymous letter. Although Zweig wanted above all things “to be free and independent”, he will get engaged to Friderike, they will marry and then divorce, but they will never stop being friends and she will always be a support for him: the calm of his inner storm. But this does not appear in any of his newspapers.

This frivolity of the privileged gentleman of the Austro-Hungarian empire that Zweig displayed in 1912 disappeared in the following years: the First World War marked the end of his world of yesterday and he had to mature. The records of the first two years of war are sad, full of bad forebodings, tragic; Already from the first day of hostilities, Zweig showed his rejection of a war that he knew was lost and useless.

In 1914 he was free to serve as a soldier, in 1915 he joined the propaganda service at the War Archive. Along with other writers, including Rilke, he cooperated as editor and censor in the rear. He never saw the front, he glimpsed it from afar on a trip he made to Galicia, devastated by the Russians. He left vibrant notes of the journey; of the trains packed with brave soldiers who went to the front singing, intuiting that they might not survive or that they would return with terrible injuries like those he himself could see in a shocking field hospital. The impressions of the war years shaped the militant pacifism that Zweig would exhibit before the war ended and in his drama Jeremiah.

“Our continent will not be habitable again until it is unified,” he wrote about Europe.

Between late 1917 and early 1918, Zweig spent a few months in Switzerland. There, together with Friderike, he found tranquility and was able to dedicate himself to writing. He strengthened his great friendship with Rolland, whom he admired for his integrity as an exemplary man; he met writers like Fritz von Unruh or Hans Carossa; he befriended the Belgian engraver Frans Masereel, and dealt with exiles from various countries. In those months, Zweig exulted optimism when he found himself again in a literary and cosmopolitan environment. On the other hand, at the end of 1918, with Europe devastated and the Habsburg empire dissolved, a deep pessimism invaded him: “The war has exacted a terrible revenge against those who wanted it: emperors, kings, diplomats, military, capitalists … its world falls apart. We are facing a change like that of the French Revolution, with the only difference that everything has acquired monstrous dimensions. We will have to learn to live differently, there is no other choice ”. And Europe is the one that will hurt him again in 1931, when he starts another newspaper when he sees it again in danger: “Our continent will not be habitable again until it is unified and offers freedom of movement in its space.”

Already in 1935, in a change of scenery, in New York, Zweig exudes enthusiasm in his notes, he is fascinated by the city: he loves the immense buildings and the open-mindedness of that “melting pot of all cultures”. He attends concerts, together with the New York cultural elite, he is a personal friend of Toscanini and Bruno Walter. He gives lectures before a large audience, although stage fright invades him; what he really craves is wandering the avenues alone. Visit the Metropolitan Museum and the Cotton Club, where you are captivated by the tap dance of black dancers.

He also felt a similar rapture on his first trip to Rio de Janeiro, in 1936; there his works enjoyed great fame. Curiously, the first stop on this journey was Vigo; the Civil War had just broken out in Spain, there were Falangists and insurgent soldiers in the streets; but he took away the beauty of the Spanish women from the writer: “I have seen more beautiful girls in two hours in Spain than in England in the months that I have been living there.”

Once in Rio, he fell in love with the city. They treated him wonderfully. The dictator Getúlio Vargas received him in private, they talked about Austria and Lehár’s operettas. It was all praise and public praise; Zweig gave a lecture attended by 2,000 people. He was happy with the “freedom” of Brazilians, the mixture of races, the lack of prejudice that he observed around him; the beauty of the mulatto women. He was enthusiastic about the landscape, the light, the jungle, the mountains, the sea. For all these reasons, Brazil would never leave his heart; and he even wrote a book about that marvel: Brazil, a country of the future. How ironic that it was precisely in Brazil, in the city of Petrópolis, where Zweig and Lotte committed suicide in 1942, when they had lost hope in the “future”.

Brazil excited him. Convinced that Hitler would win the war, he would end up committing suicide there

That sad end is predicted by the hopeless notes of 1939 and 1940; Zweig believes that Europe is lost, that Hitler will conquer everything and that he will show no mercy to the defeated, and even less to Jews like him and his wife. The newspapers end when Paris has fallen into the hands of the Nazis and an invasion from England is feared. The Zweigs have bought a house in Bath, in which they have only lived a few months. Although they have been granted English naturalization, for the purposes of daily living they are seen as “Austrians”, enemy aliens. They don’t want to live like this, without respect or friends. They have an escape: Brazil; behind they will leave an unrecoverable world. Zweig will soon be 60 years old; pessimistic and disappointed, feels “old” to start over; for a few months he will still make one last effort to recover in the exotic country, but it will be in vain.



Stefan Zweig.
Translation by Teresa Ruiz Rosas.
Cliff, 2021.
425 pages. 32 euros.

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