Stefan Zweig, Austrian Novelist, Rises Again ; Psychology of His Work and Fascination with His Era Spur a Fresh Revival

By Rohter, Larry | International New York Times, May 30, 2014 | Go to article overview

Stefan Zweig, Austrian Novelist, Rises Again ; Psychology of His Work and Fascination with His Era Spur a Fresh Revival


Rohter, Larry, International New York Times


Zweig, prolific storyteller and embodiment of a vanished Mitteleuropa, seems to be back, and in a big way.

In the decades between the two world wars, no writer was more widely translated or read than the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, and in the years after, few writers fell more precipitously into obscurity, at least in the English-speaking world. But now Zweig, prolific storyteller and embodiment of a vanished Mitteleuropa, seems to be back, and in a big way.

New editions of his fiction, including his collected stories, are being published, with some appearing in English for the first time. Movies are being adapted from his writing; a new selection of his letters is in the works; plans to reissue his many biographies and essays are in motion; and his complicated life has provided inspiration for new biographies and a best-selling French novel.

"Seven years ago, when I told friends who are writers what I was going to be doing, they looked at me with silence and incomprehension," said George Prochnik, the author of "The Impossible Exile," a biographical study of Zweig's final years, published this month by Other Press. "But Zweig has become an object of fascination again."

Born in Vienna in 1881, into a prosperous Jewish family, Zweig grew up in what he would later describe as a "golden age of security." Success and acclaim came to him early and never left, but the rise of Nazism forced him into a painful and enervating exile, first in Britain, then the United States and, finally Brazil, where he and his wife, Lotte, committed suicide in February 1942.

The reasons for Zweig's resurgence at this particular moment are not necessarily obvious, and that has provoked much speculation in literary circles. Zweig was, in many ways, an old-fashioned writer: His fiction relies heavily on plot, with some developments telegraphed long before they occur, and the tales he tells are often melodramatic, their language sometimes florid.

But that conventionality of structure and tone is accompanied by insights into character, emotion and motivation that were unusual, even revelatory, for their time and continue to resonate today. Not surprisingly, Zweig and Sigmund Freud were friends and mutual admirers -- Zweig even delivered a eulogy at Freud's funeral -- and one of his eternal themes was the workings of the human mind.

At an event at the McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo last week, the authors Andre Aciman, Katie Kitamura and Anka Muhlstein joined Mr. Prochnik in a discussion of what made Zweig relevant and appealing to modern readers. They immediately zeroed in on that perspicacity.

"The man is an absolutely brilliant psychologist," Mr. Aciman said, placing Zweig at the head of a group of writers who "are very pointed in their ability to understand what makes human beings tick." Ms. Kitamura added that Zweig was particularly astute in "the way he handles women" and their yearnings and frustrations.

There also appears to be an element of nostalgic curiosity in the renewed interest in Zweig, especially as the centennial of the outbreak of World War I approaches. He called his memoir, published in 1942 and reissued in paperback last year, "The World of Yesterday," and some of his best-known works take place in elegant, long-vanished settings, like ocean liners, spas in the Alps or a cavalry regiment serving on the frontier of the Hapsburg Empire, a world evoked by Wes Anderson in his recent film "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

"I think it partly can be attributed to a larger ongoing interest in the disaster of the 20th century and taking its pulse," said Edwin Frank, editorial director of New York Review Books Classics, which has published Zweig's novel "Beware of Pity" and four of his novellas in recent years. "Zweig was both a chronicler of that world and a victim of the disaster, which makes him an intriguing figure."

Some of the most recent interest obviously stems from Mr. …

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