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Translated from French by André Naffis-Sahely

In memoriam Stefan and Lotte Zweig (died 22.02.1942)

One didn’t have to be a genius to imagine what people would say about him.  That he had abandoned others to their pain and deserted when the time had come to fight the enemy. When others had expected him to be an example, a hero even, he had run off like a coward.

Did people hurl such accusations at Stefan Zweig when, together with his wife, he committed suicide 75 years ago today? Do they today? If so, then a reading of Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days might ellicit a more sympathetic response.

Reconstructing the 5 months the Zweigs spent in Petrópolis, Seksik’s narrative, written in alternating 3rd person his and her points-of-view, takes us into the minds of two despondent human beings.  For those who have read Volker Weidermann’s Summer before the Dark, the contrast between the Zweigs of 1936 and those of 1942 is stark.  In 1936 the Zweigs were still in the rosy days of their love affair, his initially self-imposed exile had lasted just two years and he still had sufficient strength and creativity to support his less fortunate friends, both financially and emotionally. They really hadn’t realised how dark the world was to become.  Six years later and that was all too apparent.  Having fled Austria in 1934 (a prescient action, following a search of his home in Salzburg on a trumped-up excuse), and becoming a British citizen, Zweig was nonetheless declared an enemy alien in 1939.  Whereupon he fled again to New York, where he was too well-known, and could get no peace.  Thus another flight to  Petrópolis in 1941.

Lotte, totally besotted with her Great Austrian Writer, followed him.  Due to her chronic asthma, the air in New York was killing her.

The injustice of his being declared an enemy alien preyed on his mind – he was a committed pacifist, had been since 1914, and he never wavered.  Yet the effort of remaining on the higher moral ground was exhausting.  Then the guilt – the guilt of having left his family behind (regardless of the fact they thought him mad when he left of his own accord), imagining their suffering in a world going from bad to worse. Imagine reading reports like these, knowing your kin are trapped, and you are powerless to act:

City authorities in Vienna have decided to cut off all gas supplies to appartments occupied by Jews.  The ever rising number of suicides by gas have inconvenienced the population and such acts will henceforth be considered breaches of public order.

Of course, this was mild in comparison to reports that followed.  But, instead of relief at being safe, torments: survivor guilt, dismay over the deaths and suicides of his author friends (Roth, Toller, Weiss), creative difficulties (everything seemed irrelevant, and the voices of his critics were ringing ever louder in his head), despondency over his world that was lost forever. It would not return even if the Allies were victorious.  Neither was he positioning himself for an afterwards.  As his closest friend in Petrópolis, the journalist Ernst Feder pointed out:

You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself away in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone revolves. …. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world … On the other hand, here you are doing the utmost to disappear.

And disappear he did, following the British defeat at Singapore. Convinced that now it was only a matter of time before the Gestapo would find him in Petrópolis, and totally overcome by world-weariness, he decided his last flight would be the final one.

But why take Lotte with him?  She was only 30 to his 60.  (If I had any accusations against him, it was that.) Seksik’s analysis of Lotte’s psyche is just as incisive as of her husband. She was as psychologically afflicted by the times as her husband.  Chronically ill.  Worn down by exile. With no family of her own, no career of her own, she was even more isolated than Zweig himself.  He literally was her everything.  What was she to do when he made known his intentions?

He didn’t take her with him. Lotte followed him.  Of course she did.

It was a tragedy.  Unnecessary, as we now know, but inevitable, given the darkness of the times and the darkness inherent within Zweig himself.  Seksik incorporates some interesting observations about Zweig’s literary themes as well as a thought-provoking comparison of Kleist and Zweig that suggests an undercurrent I’ve never suspected before now.  I’m sure it will colour my reading as I continue to read through his oeuvre.

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This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Almost a world tour in itself – taking us to Vienna, Austria (pre- and post Anschluss), Bath in Great Britain, New York, USA and Petrópolis, Brazil – this post is also stage 4 in my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press.  We’re staying in Austria for Stage 5 – at keast I think we are.  It depends on where my chosen collection of Zweig’s short stories takes us!

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