Daniel A. Reed Library at SUNY Fredonia
Of all the names that ring out from the annals of Viennese cafe society, that storied model for later bohemias, none is more elegiac than Stefan Zweig’s. Hitler destroyed that world, but the Great War had already rung the curtain on its golden age. The greatest names and greatest achievements belong to the three decades surrounding the turn of the century: Mahler, Schnitzler, Klimt, Schiele, Freud. After the war, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose tolerance and multinationalism made Vienna’s cosmopolitan ferment possible, the mood is all of loss, whether nostalgic or disillusioned, Joseph Roth or Robert Musil. But if Roth and Musil come late, Zweig comes last. He wasn’t the youngest or the last to die, but he believed longest in the pan-European culture Vienna represented, and his career embodied the passing of that ideal. Zweig, the most popular author of his day, knew everyone who mattered in European culture, and he seems to have read every thing that mattered. His outpouring of biographical studies–books and essays not only on Mahler, Schnitzler, Roth and Freud but also on Erasmus and Montaigne, Goethe and Nietsche, Dickens and Dostoyevsky, and many, many others–can be understood as a mission, impelled by a growing sense of doom, to preserve European civilization and the humanistic values for which it stood. But though he escaped the camps, he couldn’t escape the sense that everything he cared about was being exterminated. His death in 1942, in a Brazilian backwater, was a suicide.
Zweig’s fiction is also marked by the two catastrophes he witnessed, especially the first. His best-known tale, “Chess Story,” completed, like his memoir The World of Yesterday, on the eve of his death, registers the Nazi hostility to the life of the mind. But two previous stories–he wrote about twenty in all–allegorize the earlier loss. In “Buchmendel” (“Mendel the Bookman,” as it might be rendered), the Great War destroys a living repository of bibliographic knowledge who dared to ignore the political barriers–irrelevant to his universe of culture–the conflict has created. In “The Invisible Collection,” a wife and daughter sell off a connoisseur’s unparalleled assemblage of engravings to stave off poverty during the postwar hyperinflation. The collector is blind by then, and still lovingly caresses the blank pages his family has slipped into his portfolios to conceal the loss. The image is immeasurably poignant, but it is also double-edged: European culture has been erased by history, yet it is still alive in the minds of those who cherish it.