Death in Petrópolis

Viennese Writer Stefan Zweig Honored With Brazilian Museum

By Benjamin Ivry

Published June 13, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
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Viennese-born Jewish author Stefan Zweig and his second wife, Lotte Altmann, committed suicide together as refugees in Brazil in February 1942, but Zweig’s works, whether fiction, biographies or letters, have never seemed more alive. Seventy years on, the former home in Petrópolis where he died, now known as Casa Stefan Zweig, is scheduled to open in July as a museum. It will boast a library and conference hall, with performances and exhibits forthcoming. A billboard next to the museum recently proclaimed, “He’s Coming Back to Petrópolis: Here Soon,” which suggests something between a superstar’s personal appearance and a ghost returning to haunt the living. This is an apt characterization of Zweig’s continued presence on the world literary scene, dashingly elegant yet spookily posthumous.

Dapper Dudes: Zweig, standing, with his brother Alfred in Vienna, circa 1900.
Wikimedia Commons
Dapper Dudes: Zweig, standing, with his brother Alfred in Vienna, circa 1900.

It may seem paradoxical that though Zweig termed Brazil the “land of the future,” he also chose that country as a place to kill himself. In 1942, his suicide seemed to some harsh critics, such as philosopher Hannah Arendt, the petulant act of an “ivory tower esthete” who saw Nazism mainly as an “affront to his personal dignity and privileged way of life.” Yet Jean Améry (born Hanns Chaim Mayer), Austrian concentration camp survivor and philosopher of torture, proclaimed that Zweig’s suicide was his “greatest masterpiece.” Between these extreme and contradictory views remains the fact that voluntary death is a major theme of Zweig’s fiction dating back to the 1920s, in such works as “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” the novella “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” and many others.

This theme was doubtless an expression of Zweig’s own highly nervous, emotionally complex temperament. In “I Loved France Like a Second Homeland: New Studies on Stefan Zweig,” a December 2011 volume from Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, literary scholar Catherine Delattre notes that art historian Benno Geiger, in a book of memoirs first published in 1958, revealed that his friend Zweig was a tormented sexual exhibitionist. Novelist Thomas Mann echoed this diagnosis in his diary in 1954, adding that although Zweig never admitted this psycho-sexual problem to him personally, “privately it was known and it could have caused him serious problems.”

Delattre suggests that a complement of this sexual hang-up is the focus on voyeurism in Zweig’s fiction, such as “Fear” and “Burning Secret.” If it is true that Zweig suffered from this sort of sexual aberration, then his longtime habit of sending each of his new books to his friend Sigmund Freud might be seen less as an amicable gesture and more as a kind of invitation to diagnose and cure.

That Zweig was also psychologically vulnerable in terms of his sexual identity seems clear from his friendship with German lawyer, author and Nazi sympathizer Erich Ebermayer. In his autobiography, “Before I Forget,” published 35 years after his death in 1970, Ebermayer describes how as a young aspiring writer he sought out the famous writer Zweig’s company. Ebermayer, whose career boomed under the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s, saw no contradiction in also enjoying a flirtatious prewar friendship with Zweig, and with considerable nerve even quoted Freud in his memoir to justify himself: “As we know from Sigmund Freud, every male friendship resonates with mostly unconscious Eros. Naturally not with sex, but with Eros.”

Describing himself as a “fresh and healthy, worshipful blond youth” at the time, Ebermayer explains that to calm his nerves on the first night of a play that Ebermayer wrote, Zweig literally held his hand during the performance. Ebermayer adds that after he published novellas in the 1920s on the theme of homosexuality, Zweig followed suit in 1927 with “A Confusion of Feelings,” which has been translated as “Confusion,” examining the ambiguous friendship between a professor and a privy counselor.


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