Before I travel, I like to immerse myself in some of the culture of the place. Soon to embark on a trip to Central Europe, I’ve been watching foreign films and discovering the work of authors I’ve never read. One of these authors is Stefan Zweig, prolific writer and especially master of the art of the novella. Zweig was born and raised in a wealthy Viennese family, moving as an adult to Salzburg. Zweig sensed immediate danger following Hitler’s rise to power in neighboring Germany in 1933, and after a run-in with the authorities, he and his wife Friderike departed Austria as though for a weekend. They fled first to England, at which point Zweig and Friderike divorced. He then married his secretary, Lotte Altmann, with whom he moved to the United States. After several years in North America, the couple moved to Brazil.
Although in the 1920s and 1930s Zweig was one of the most translated writers in the world, after his death he fell into obscurity outside his native German language. Within certain literary circles, however, he was known and read, which is likely how numerous Zweig titles were reprinted by Pushkin Press starting in the 1990s. More recently, the New York Review of Books press has published several Zweig titles, including the novella I read, entitled Chess Story and alternatively published under the title The Royal Game.
Without giving away the plot (it’s only 80 pages), the narrative takes place during the course of a ship crossing and ultimately pits two very differently oriented chess players against one another. As the story progresses, the background of the more mysterious player is revealed, uncovering the terrible circumstances of his skill.
It was likely the Pushkin Press edition of Beware of Pity, one of Zweig’s few full-length novels, that director Wes Anderson discovered about six years before his film The Grand Budapest Hotel was released. Anderson loosely based the film on Zweig’s writings and the character of Zweig himself. In fact, numerous films have been adapted from Zweig’s stories, beginning in the 1930s, including Max Ophuls’ 1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Zweig’s stories are nuanced yet potent, intricately crafted to tell large and universal stories in a small, sometimes even claustrophobic space. Zweig’s own story in some ways tells an illustrative tale of the 20th century and its darker moments. Zweig and each of his wives were able to escape the Nazi regime and live freely elsewhere in Europe and then the Americas. Living in Petropolis, Brazil, Zweig and Lotte seeing the deterioration of the way of life they had known in Europe, combined with the guilt they felt over the fates of the millions of Jews unable to escape Hitler, led to their suicide pact in 1942. Peter Gay, a professor emeritus at Yale University, wrote the introduction to the NYRB’s edition of Chess Story. In it, he refers to Zweig as “one of Hitler’s posthumous victims.”
In addition to his prodigious output of over 30 novellas and short stories, Zweig composed numerous works of nonfiction, primarily biographies, and a memoir, entitled The World of Yesterday, which detailed his reminiscences of Vienna and several other European capitals. Zweig completed the memoir, according to various reports, either several days before or one day before he and Lotte killed themselves in Petropolis. Now Zweig’s life itself is receiving a film treatment—in German, actress/director Maria Schrader’s Vor Der Morgenrote; in English, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe.
We’ll be in Austria for a few days, and in Salzburg, where Zweig made his home and wrote his books in the years leading up to his forced exile. In Salzburg now, just south of Furtwangler Park and just west of St. Peter’s Abbey, sits the Stefan Zweig Centre, which houses a museum exhibition of Zweig’s life, a library, and an event space, which, two weeks ago, screened Maria Schrader’s recently released film.
A writer’s relationship with his hometown and birth country often seems notoriously fraught, or complex at the very least. In Zweig’s case, he was rejected by Austria under the Nazi regime and fled, in fear of his life, only to take his life himself. Perhaps he believed he would never be able to return, or perhaps he felt he wouldn’t dare to, if or when the war should end. Whatever the exact motives for Zweig’s untimely death, the wealth of writings he left behind speak to a vanished world, yet in reading his stories, we find it is one we still inhabit.
Here’s a question for you: What author(s) would you recommend in translation?