For a portrait of the inner man one must turn to his autobiography, The World of Yesterday , published in This book shows that Zweig was always troubled by his Jewishness. His World of Yesterday and occasionally his correspondence reveal that Zweig was self-centered yet kind, annoyed by distractions yet responsive to appeals from friends for financial assistance or introductions to publishers, and, above all, modest about his talents. He was painfully aware of his limitations. If any of his works survive, it will probably be his biographies—erudite, readable, lucid—rather than his novels, novelettes, or plays.
The son of a Viennese Jewish banking family, born in the last years of the 19th century, he was predisposed to romanticism. In his intransigent pacifism, to which he clung even up to his death, he demonstrated considerable moral fiber, but his works were, in fact, symptomatic of his evasiveness. Always the individual was chained to the common lot. It was not Nazi persecution per se that accounted for the suicide pact he and his second wife carried out—he was a successful writer in the democratic world—but rather his enforced confrontation with the world.
And here was his elegant style and his familiarity with Freudianism to give his writing an appearance of depth. His consciousness of being a Jew never resulted in a firm and unqualified commitment: identification with his ancestors by allusion better suited his introverted, yet theatrical nature.
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Thus he makes the point, in his autobiography, that Jeremiah , his pacifist play, was Jewish in spirit, a spark of the moral indignation that characterized the Prophets. Rathenau had made his decision, even as Herzl had made his. Zweig, through suicide, escaped confrontation to the very last.
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This is underscored in an obtuse footnote by Friderike to a letter in which he apologized for his absence from home on Christmas. He moved among the great writers of his era, and served many of them well as translator and interpreter. Like a Hofjude , he was humble in their presence—a figure at the court, but not of the court. Although Zweig was skeptical, he was not probing; though intelligent, he lacked true wisdom; interested in diverse matters, he was never really concerned about anything except the shape of his style, and although he wrote with feeling, he never showed a capacity for deep emotion.
Possessing all the literary graces, he naturally attracted notice his books were widely read, and by discriminating people , but he had no true impact, and remained without adherents or disciples. He had no reason to feel any more strongly about his Jewishness than about anything else in the world.
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Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom — the most precious of possessions on this earth. I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night.
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I, who am most impatient, go before them. There are several Zweig biographies and critical studies in a number of languages that try to address this complex man and his work the first was written by his friend Erwin Rieger in , but most follow the narrative line Zweig and his wife set down in their respective memoirs. Three Lives often resembles good catalog copy rather than penetrating biography. There are many excerpts from letters and diary entries —- but little analysis or cross-referencing.
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This is a pity because, whatever his literary merit, Zweig was a fascinating character: deeply ambivalent, troubled and mercurial, a dutiful son who had little in common with his parents or brother. Zweig apparently had many one-night stands and brief affairs during his travels, but the gender of his hook-ups is not entirely clear. He married late and by proxy, living apart from his two wives as much as he lived with them.
But he barely hints at even more compelling evidence that Zweig was a closeted gay man. Like many of his generation, Zweig was an ambivalent Jew, born in into a wealthy, highly assimilated Jewish family in fiercely anti-semitic Vienna. Jews had been allowed to move freely within the Austro-Hungarian Empire only since , but the Zweigs traveled a lot and Zweig grew up speaking German, as well as becoming fluent in French and Italian. Like many of his classmates at gymnasium, Stefan wrote poetry. Unlike most of his classmates, Zweig published his poems as a book, Silberne Saiten Silver Strings , when he was 19 The volume garnered 40 reviews.
In , when he was 21, he published his first novella there.
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Zweig began to write what would become hundreds of dispatches and feuilletons in the Neue Freie Presse and newspapers throughout Europe. In Life Number Two — a married Zweig produced most of his best work based in Salzburg, aided by Friderike, who served as his researcher, in-house translator, editor, and sometimes typist. He cohabitated with Friderike and her daughters, but continued to travel extensively, spending as much time away as at home, enjoying enormous popular and critical success.
This comfort was brought to an abrupt end by the rise of Hitler in Like thousands of Jews and prominent anti-Nazis of his generation, he fled first to France, then to Britain.
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Although Matuschek does not delve into this either, Friderike was slow to realize that she would not be able to ride out the war in Salzburg. In London, Zweig began an affair with the young Jewish refugee Lotte Altmann, whom Friderike had hired as his secretary. He began traveling with her, then married her, and the couple moved to New York and, ultimately, to Brazil.
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