Saturday, 29 October 2016


On reading Stefan Zweig 

Stefan Zweig ( 1818-1942)

‘Stefan Zweig was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most popular writers in the world.’ (See (Wikipaedia)
 ‘It seems to me a duty to bear witness to our lifetime, which has been fraught with such dramatic events, for we have all .....witnessed these vast transformations – we have been forced to witness them.’ Foreword to his autobigraphy, The World of Yesterday. P.21

A prolific writer of biographies (e.g Marie Antoinette, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Dickens), novellas, short stories and plays, his only two actual novels are Beware of Pity, published in 1939 and The Post Office Girl, the manuscript of which was found among his papers after his suicide in 1942 but which was not published until forty years later, in 1982.
Zweig‘s original title, Rausch der Verwandlung, roughly translated, means The Intoxication of Transformation. It was given its English title, The Post Office Girl, when it was translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg, and in 2009 was shortlisted for The Best Translated Book Award, an American literary award that recognizes the previous year's best original translation into English. The award takes into consideration not only the quality of the translation but the entire package: the work of the original writer, translator, editor, and publisher. The award is "an opportunity to honour and celebrate the translators, editors, publishers, and other literary supporters who help make literature from other cultures available to American readers.”
The question arises: wasThe Post Office Girl completed? In an Afterword to the English translation, William Deresiewitcz says that Zweig ‘nibbled’ at the book for years and suggests that he may never have hammered the book into a shape which satisfied him. But, when I read it for the first time I was unaware of its pre-publication history and accepted the indeterminate ending as the only possible one the author could have offered: Christine and Ferdinand’s fate seems as unknowable as our own and I was content to leave it there.

The significance and interest of this novel, for me, lies in the way in which the narrative of the individual’s life and fate is set in the context of historical events in a way that brings those historical events to life. Of course, in this Zweig is by no means using an original idea: think Tolstoy, for example, or, nearer to our own time, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. But in the analysis of Christine’s personality and experiences (and it must be remembered that Zweig was a friend and follower of Freud) we get an insight into the ways in which political and social situation in which she finds herself limit and determine the direction of her life.
Despite his remarkable popularity as a writer during the 30s and 40s, Zweig does have (and did have) his detractors. For example, in a review of Zweigs’ Autobiography,The World of Yesterday, published in 2010 in The London Review of Books, Michael Hofmann was unequivocally disparaging about Zweig’s entire oeuvre, as, it must be noted, were many of his (Zweig’s) contemporaries. On the other hand, readers’ online comments are almost unanimously admiring and appreciative.
One of Hofmann’s criticisms with which I will concur is that Zweig does have a tendency to overwrite: for example,Ferdinand’s long polemic rants toward the end are unnecessarily protracted, with too much repetition of the points he has already made quite clearly enough.
For all that, I value this book for its psychological truth, and, of course, because it’s a compelling read. On second reading, it still gripped me and also inspired me to look more closely into the history of Austria before and after the First World War.The World of Yesterday gives yet more insight into the experiences and fate of Jewish families, like that of Zweig, who lived through those times.
I first came to Zweig through his other novel, Beware of Pity, a psychological masterpiece, in my view. The Post office Girl is another such.
© CME 2016

1 comment:

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