The recent The Grand Budapest, comedy-drama film written and directed by Wes Anderson, nudges me back to the writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The movie is inspired by his writings. Zweig was born to a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna in 1881. He wrote novels, short stories and biographies. When Zweig was still a young man, he went to Berlin where he was supposed to be studying in the university there, but instead spent most of his time in low dives hanging out with the toughest, roughest people he could find. Zweig describes his lifelong fascination with character types whom he calls “monomaniacs,” people really driven to stake everything on the realization of a desire that often proves impossible to realize. His work is deeply invested in confessions and secrets. Who doesn’t like to overhear conversations? In his fiction there’s lots of eavesdropping and peeping in and all sorts of ways in which the characters who narrate their stories are often observers of some grand moment of passion to which they become, in some way or other, either sucked in directly or have their own complacent view of the world shaken by what they see of other lives.
Zweig’s overwhelming objective was the creation, preservation and proclamation of the Europe that was already inside him. When Zweig began to feel that the Europe that he had known was gone for good, he lost a lot of his motivation to keep going. He and his wife committed suicide while they were in exile in Brazil in 1942. As Zweig put it in his memoir, The World of Yesterday, published in Stockholm in the year of his suicide: “The truly great experience of our youthful years was the realization that something new in art was on the way—something more impassioned, difficult and alluring than the art that had satisfied our parents and the world around us.” The World of Yesterday is in one respect a long, loving wail of lament for a world that was largely lost by 1918, and wholly, irrevocably lost with the rise of the Nazis. While the goofiness and jocularity in the film are not part of Zweig’s work, but what Zweig does have is an understanding of the absurdity of existence. The way the film portrays a celebration of life in the midst of a poignant tragedy is something the Zweig himself would have found very resonant.
With the ascension of Hitler and the toxins of xenophobia and nationalism, Zweig felt that old, familiar pain and surrendered to despair. Yet, in saying “no” to the world, Zweig found a way of saying “yes” to himself. I was moved by his visionary idealism and commitment to international culture. It is with The World of Yesterday that I begin to feel I have anything approaching the full measure of the man. His art was always self-effacing, or certainly not self-revelatory; all you could have confidently told about him from reading his work is that he was obviously thoughtful, highly observant, and humane.