Book review: Messages From A Lost World: Europe on the Brink

Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig adhered to the dictum that ‘every age gets the diseases it deserves’ as translator Will Stone tells JP O’Malley.

Stefan Zweig

translated by Will Stone

Pushkin Press, €15.99

ON February 23, 1942, the Austrian playwright, journalist, novelist, and cultural patron, Stefan Zweig, and his wife Lotte, committed suicide in a rented house in Petrópolis, Brazil.

Zweig, a popular literary novelist and global celebrity of his time, fled Europe in 1934 amid the rise of the Nazis. 

Eight years later, he chose not to go on, refusing to bear witness to what he believed would amount to the death of a European civilisation he cherished and loved.

The British translator and poet, Will Stone, has recently translated — from the original German, into English — Messages From A Lost World:, Europe on the Brink, a collection of essays that were written by Zweig between 1914 and 1941.

The essays cover Zweig’s thoughts on history, culture, and his vision for Europe; including the poignant ‘The Vienna of Yesterday’, a lament to the European city before the First World War; and the impassioned ‘In This Dark Hour’, one of Zweig’s final public addresses, where he envisions a Europe free of nationalism.

At the time of writing the essays, Zweig had a singular vision in mind: to change attitudes relating to race and fatherland that were prevalent in Europe at the time, proposing instead to encourage a new fluidity of thought that would see the interweaving of language and culture across the continent.

“Zweig wanted to break down the boundaries between European nations,” says Stone. “Nationalism was pretty rife across Europe during this moment in history when there were only a few democracies left.”

Paradoxically, though, Zweig — despite his obvious enthusiasm for grand and bold intellectual projects across the stratosphere of European culture and politics — actually abhorred politics itself, seeing it as the “anti-Christ to spiritual freedom”.

Zweig’s phobia of politics, Stone posits, had its origins in the Nietzschean drive for aestheticism: which viewed the political class, and materialism, as the mainstays of nationalism and European spiritual decay.

“Zweig wrote a famous essay on Nietzsche, which I translated a few years ago into English,” says Stone.

“And what really comes through in this is Nietzsche’s good European ideal. Zweig naturally found an [intellectual] and spiritual ally in Nietzsche. He also saw in him a man who sacrificed his own self for his thought.” “Nietzsche’s rejection of nationalism was something Zweig greatly admired too,” says Stone.

Like his good friend and fellow writer, Joseph Roth — who has also in recent times been translated from German into English by the poet and translator Michael Hoffmann — Zweig had emotional and cultural attachments to the old world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

It provided, the writer believed, a public space for tolerance and cosmopolitanism: even in spite of its conservative characteristics.

“Roth was certainly far more attached to the traditions and legacy of that empire than Zweig ever was,” says Stone.

“That loss of the Austro-Hungarian Empire [after the First World War] was much more shattering for Roth, who hung onto this idea that the empire was his bedrock: in terms of the multiculturalism, and the diversity of languages and so forth,” says Stone.

Zweig in his memoir, The World of Yesterday does speak at length about the golden age of that empire too. However, even as a young man, Stone says, Zweig was happy to disengage from what he often saw as a closed world of the Viennese intelligentsia.

This was in spite of the fact that the city, at that time, was producing a host of modernist writers, painters, and intellectuals, who were committed to ideas of the avant-garde: including, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, the philosopher, Otto Weininger, and the artist Gustav Klimt.

“That said, the traditions of empire were important to Zweig too,” Stone is keen to point out.

“And you can see that in the essay on Vienna in this current book. So these ideas definitely do feed into both Roth and Zweig’s work. But they are from very different backgrounds, and are very different writers as well.”

Stylistically, Zweig is much more old fashioned, says Stone.

“But this idea that Zweig was just writing for a popular audience is not true,” says Stone. “Zweig’s work had just as much depth and poignancy as Roth’s did.”

Stone is keen to reiterate several times in the introduction to this latest book of essays, a recurring theme in Zweig’s work: the idea that humanity is capable of achieving unimaginable heights when it works together.

However, was there, perhaps, a contradiction in this mode of thinking? Especially considering Zweig’s class privilege, and his disinterest in politics too?

“Zweig certainly leaves himself open for criticism in that sense alright,” says Stone.

“But Zweig also read people like Montaigne and others: humanists who stood aside from any political anchorage, one way or the other.”

“Zweig really did distrust politics. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. He just felt it was his responsibility to stay apart from it. Whether that is right or wrong is an open-ended argument.”

Zweig’s was also a cultural commentator and polemicist with great insight, wisdom, and intellectual foresight, says Stone.

He says, for instance — in much of his political and cultural commentary — the stark difference between the atmosphere preceding the conflict of World War One and the World War Two: and the repercussions for Europe as a consequence of those differences.

Stone claims that Zweig witnessed his generation as being blind to events of their day; craftily hoodwinked and deceived into war by a minority of determined warmongers, who took advantage of the naivety and trustfulness of the people.

Even on the eve of World War Two, many of Zweig’s peers believed at the 11th hour that it would never happen: that Europe was far too tolerant.

Can these same words be applied to the political situation in both the United States and Europe today: especially as the rise of far right nationalism is taking a drastic hold of politics across the west?

“Absolutely,” says Stone.

“I don’t see anything as having changed. Primarily because the majority of people are unaware of history,” he says.

“If most people don’t study historic events properly, they are not going to be able to make proper judgements because they can’t see any links. That is the problem that every generation faces. As the Austrian writer Karl Kraus once said: ‘every age gets the diseases it deserves’.

Following his sudden death in February 1942, a New York Times editorial observed that Zweig had died as a man without a country. 

The paper also wrote that Zweig’s decision to commit suicide revealed that it was, in fact, the Nazis, who had pushed him to the limit.

Zweig was someone who fundamentally believed in the Utopian idea of a pan-European culture. And so, looking on at the barbarism that was engulfing the European continent at the time, ultimately, the writer felt he had nowhere left to turn to.

Still, Stone concludes by saying that Zweig had a long history of depression and mental illness: which continued to haunt him until his final days.

“Even though Zweig had this outward persona of being jovial, he was always prey to what he called his ‘black bile’. If you looked at his short stories, a lot of them end in suicide,” says Stone.

“At the end of his life, Zweig was living like a shadow and asking: even if the war was won by the Allies, what kind of world would remain anyway?

“So that feeling of being cut of from his friends and from the culture that had sustained him his whole life was a huge deal for him.”


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