Books, like their authors, are living beings. They are, true to the words of Plato, immortal sons deifying their sires. There is a mistaken perception that readers choose their books. In fact, it is books that chose their readers. In my library I still see several books that remain unread. You may ask me why. The answer is quite simple. They have not chosen me. Contrary to this, the work of an Austrian writer named Stefan Zweig sitting in the cozy study of a writer friend chose me for its audience.
While having tea with the friend, she casually mentioned Stefan Zweig. “Stefan Zweig.” she began, “was an Austrian writer who wrote psychoanalytical biographies, upon which his reputation principally rests, as well as novelettes, short stories and essays.”
“But what is special about him?” I asked. She pulled out Letter from an Unknown Woman from one of her bookcases and said, “I rarely lend books. But I’m sure you will love this book.”
To my great surprise, I read the book in a single sitting and, after a couple of days, read it again. Letter from an Unknown Woman tells the story of a girl who falls in love with the writings of an eminent author and at a later date loses her heart to him. A writer, though he creates, is no god. The suffering his fan undergoes in bringing up his child whom she mothered forms the story. The unknown woman suffers so exquisitely in this romantic evocation of late- 19th Century Vienna that one doesn’t know whether to clobber the poor, wronged creature or to give in and weep. In short, it is the best woman’s portrait ever produced in words.
Inspired to read more Stefan Zweig, I borrowed The World of Yesterday. It was Stefan Zweig’s autobiography. Stefan Zweig was born on November 28, 1881, in Vienna, Austria. He studied in Austria, France and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. He achieved distinction in the genres of poetry, essays, short stories and plays. The First World War deeply hurt him and was a turning point in his career.
Because he was a Jew, the Nazis burnt his books and exiled him. He had no other option but to emigrate to England in 1934 and from there to Brazil in 1940. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide on February 22, 1942. Despite his last wish that he didn’t want a national funeral in his testimony, he was given a state funeral at Petropolis cemetery.
An ardent admirer and disciple of Sigmund Freud, Zweig’s interest in psychology enabled his characteristic subtle portrayal of character. His most outstanding accomplishments were his many biographies that were based on psychological interpretation. The subjects of these include Marie Antoinette, Erasmus, Queen Mary of Scots, Magellan, Balzac, and Verlaine. These sensitive biographies, upon which his reputation principally rests, are really outstanding. Distinguished for his psychological insight, Zweig was able to make his biographies as readable as novels.
Zweig’s only novel Beware of Pity established his reputation as one of the most widely read and translated authors in the world. This much admired psychological novel was written in Zweig’s exile in London in 1938. Although its tragedy unfolds in the private realm, Zweig’s humanistic perspective provides a commentary on the larger historical and political situation. The author’s subtle analysis of pity and its implications for his psychological study of the self-denying surrender to the object of one’s pity and his Nietzschean verdict against the fatal power of the weak resonates with the political ills of the time.
Zweig’s short stories and novelettes like The Royal Game, Amok and Impromptu Study of a Handicraft are equally readable. His poetry has been compared, in its shimmering effects, to impressionistic paintings. An outstanding storyteller, Stefan Zweig, found dazzling ways of expressing the hither to unexpressed. He wrote a lot about the man-woman relationship with ease and charm. Each reader will be mesmerized by his immensely readable work.
The fact that this gifted Viennese Jew was translated into several languages and widely read even today is proof enough to show Zweig as intellectually more distinguished than any other writer. The extreme anxiety underlying Zweig’s attitudes, particularly his attitude to death as the fearful solver of life’s enigma, makes itself powerfully felt in his work. Zweig is fascinating for his coherent, persuasive, striking and challenging formulation of man’s psyche.
His website: www.professorraja.com