Death in Petrópolis
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.
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.
If Zweig was exploited in his relationship with Ebermayer, his friendships in the Jewish literary world of his day were more securely rewarding and lastingly genuine, for Zweig was fascinated by Yiddishkeit. Zweig’s 1929 tale, “Buchmendel,” tells of a book peddler named Jakob Mendel who sells his wares at Vienna coffeehouses around the time of World War I. As an inveterate bibliophile and collector, Zweig evidently sympathized with this protagonist, who was down on his luck like so many of Zweig’s literary friends. Earlier, in 1916, Zweig’s essay “The Tower of Babel” drew inspiration from the Old Testament to urge war-torn Europe to unite as a “heroic community” to build a project exemplifying common understanding “after the chaos of Creation.”
Zweig’s friends included some of the most notable Jews of his era, from Freud to Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. Yiddish authors such as Sholem Asch admired him, and Yiddish readers clamored for his works. “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” which appeared in Germany in 1927, was promptly published in the Forverts in a translation credited to Chaim Brakartz years before any English translation appeared. In 1929, Zweig’s biography of his friend, Nobel Prize-winning French author Romain Rolland, was published in Warsaw in a Yiddish translation by Isaac Bashevis Singer as “Romen Rolan: Der Mentsh un dos Verk.”
Given these close associations, the destruction of European Jewry during World War II took a permanent toll on Zweig’s spirit. “To Me All Friendships Are Perishable: The Joseph Roth-Stefan Zweig Correspondence,” out last October from Wallstein Verlag, notes that the day before he took his own life, the refugee Zweig said of the torments of expatriation for Roth — who died of alcoholism in 1939 — and Erwin Rieger, a translator who died in 1940, “How glad I always was for them, that they had not to go through those ordeals.”
Zweig was fully aware of his own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and the limits of the psychic suffering he was prepared to accept. For this reason, perhaps, he was a preternaturally understanding friend, as many mutual acquaintances noted after Roth’s death. Zweig had published a sympathetic short study of French poet Paul Verlaine, a helpless alcoholic entirely dependent on friends for support and survival, and Zweig considered Roth to be “the quintessential poet,” both in literary talent and in this inability to cope with day-to-day life. After Roth died, Benjamin Huebsch, head of the New York publisher The Viking Press, wrote to Zweig on June 6, 1939: “It must afford you satisfaction to remember your fraternal attitude to [Roth], for you were generous in your assistance and tolerant when others would have been irritated.”
The following day, Hermann Kesten, a devoted friend of Roth’s who would edit the first collection of Roth’s letters in German, wrote along the same lines, praising Zweig for “so many acts of friendship for [Roth].” Zweig’s own obituary for Roth, published in The Sunday Times of London on May 28, 1939, is balanced between admiration for the writer and grief over the loss of a friend, with a kind of selflessness that is quintessential Zweig:
Joseph Roth was one of the really great writers of our day; his German prose has always been a model of perfect style. He wrote every page of his books with the fervor of a true poet; like a goldsmith he polished and repolished every sentence till the rhythm was perfect and the color brilliant. His artistic conscience was as inexorable as his heart was passionate and tender. A whole generation loses with him a great example, and his friends a wonderful friend.
In parts, this eulogy might have been applied to Zweig himself only three years later, instead of the captious critiques by those contemporaries such as Arendt, who saw his death as a petulantly privileged cop-out. The world’s tributes today, from Brazil to Europe to America, are reflections of appreciation for his human and artistic ideals.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.