Zweig's Blessed Freedom, Destroying Obedience

by Garrett Zecker


Stefan Zweig was arguably the most famous worldwide author of the early twentieth-century, and his resurgence in popularity in the last five years comes as no surprise. On the 75th anniversary of his suicide, new translations from Pushkin Press, The New York Review of Books, and Hesperus Press fill shelves. Scholars are fiercely debating one another on the value of his work. George Prochnik has delivered a sparkling new biography. New interpretations and adaptations pull Zweig’s work from obscurity, most notably Wes Anderson’s cobbling together of several of Zweig’s novels to create his masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps what is most surprising is the large number of American readers and scholars who remain unfamiliar with his work.

The noteworthy editions published by Pushkin Press of London have encouraged me to revisit his work. Anthea Bell’s translation of his Collected Stories capture Zweig’s fledgling development of a new twenty-first century voice. The pieces energetically catapult the purpose and form of story over his forty-year career from Romantic frame, through the verbose Victorian, and into an approachable metafiction we’ve come to expect from our contemporary narratives. But Zweig would encourage readers not to mistake the self-depreciating ordinariness of his work, so much so that I don’t doubt he would go as far as to enthusiastically promote the merits of Anderson’s film above his own writing. Still, his pieces read as if Sholem Aleichem’s oral histories were pressed through a Joycean sieve. He presents most of them in what was an already antiquated form, such as epistolary correspondence or frame stories. Rereading these works in 2017, I am reminded of his strangely protean political and emotional existence as a writer in exile. Zweig’s failure to identify with nation, voice, and allegiance is beautifully apparent through the existential angst present in the forty year development of work presented in this collection. Unfortunately, the very confusion that makes his work so powerfully unique is likely the same that led to his early demise thousands of miles from his crippled fascist homeland.

As twenty-first century writers, we find similar difficulty in balancing the many ways in which our sociopolitical identities intersect with those of our culture. Zweig’s aggressive honesty and self-actualization isn’t afraid to confront the intellectual and political (Mendel the Bibliophile), the emotional (Letter from an Unknown Woman), the sexual (Leporella), and the existential (A Summer Novella), and he does so in a manner that recognizes that exploring the wandering truth of oral-history style narrative is just as valuable to the message as it is to the structure of the story itself. Zweig’s form holds on to the human voice in a manner quite unusual for its time, and it provides a valuable model for capturing authenticity in today’s work. Piecing together a narrative from our disjointed world is no easy task. Zweig’s enthusiastic and innovative prose reminds us to capture the pacing of conversational voice, essence of identity, and living personal consciousness in our work. Zweig’s hurly-burly world was definitively different than ours in terms of our external conflicts, however his vibrant presentation of the human condition feels more relevant than ever.