Stefan Zweig was an enormously prolific author--he composed dozens of novellas and short stories, two novels (one incomplete), a shelf worth of fat biographies, comparative studies of great artists, philosophers and healers, a hefty memoir--and that's not to mention plays, libretti, poems, hundreds of articles and over 30,000 letters. So where to plunge in?
As a takeoff point, I'd start with one of the novellas suggested below. Almost every one of the fictions he wrote, from those composed during his happiest period as a global celebrity author in the mid-1920s to those written in his tormented last years as a wandering exile, contain moments of great strength and overarching conceits of compelling poignancy. (It's a sad irony that as Zweig's life became more miserable he became convinced that his writing had lost all its driving force, while in fact his late work is often his best. He's an exemplary case of the unfortunate truth that joy in the act of creation is no gauge of value.) Once you've dipped into the world of Zweig's novellas, and begin to get some sense of the abundance of characters, haunting predicaments and evocative settings he created, I wouldn't wait to begin his autobiography, The World of Yesterday. He'd once thought of titling it My Three Lives, since his life story seemed to fall into three phases--pre-World War I, Intra-war, and post-Hitler's ascendancy--that were so discrete he couldn't fathom how a single person could have passed through the full gamut of his experiences. After the memoir, I'd turn to his one completed novel, Beware of Pity, which reads like a macabre nightmare of Raskilnokov stripped of God and jammed into the Habsburg Empire on the eve of World War.
From there--well--everything else. There's always some strange and telling efflorescence of the human predicament to be observed in Zweig's work. A line from his novella The Burning Secret was chosen as the epigraph for a collection of stories he published the year he went into exile: "Gradually he became conscious of the amazing kaleidoscope presented to him by life." It's this kaleidoscope that Zweig ultimately sought to hold up to the reader's gaze, and the response he sought to kindle above all was sheer marveling admiration for the varieties of human nature. As he wrote in one biography, "if we admire more, and more intensively, than others, we shall ourselves grow richer than those timid ones who content themselves with choice morsels of life instead of grasping life in its entirety."
"He read as others pray, as gamblers follow the spinning of the roulette wheel, as drunkards stare into vacancy; he read with such profound absorption that ever since I first watched him the reading of ordinary mortals has seemed a pastime." Zweig's tale of a shabby Galician second-hand book dealer who possesses a titanic memory and conducts all his business from a Viennese coffeehouse begins as an affectionate, gently teasing portrait of an eccentric. But with the eruption of the First World War into this bibliophilic cosmos, the story shifts tone, becoming a passionate indictment of the barbarism unleashed not only through actual violence but through the general brutalization of culture that occurs in the wake of war. The novella's mix of irony, sentimentality, cruelty, intellectual gymnastics and coffeehouse life make "Buchmendel" one of Zweig's most evocatively Viennese tales.
One of Zweig's strengths as a writer is his facility for showing how minor events can snowball into a ghastly mess. In this work, Zweig's only completed novel, a young lieutenant posted to a provincial garrison town accepts an invitation to dine at the home of the district's wealthiest family. In the course of the evening, he inadvertently humiliates the magnate's daughter by asking her to dance without realizing that the young woman can only walk with crutches. The lieutenant's efforts to make-up for this faux pas engulf him in a demented passion with increasingly high stakes. The falling-dominoes structure of events--mistakes leading to misunderstandings, leading to bigger mistakes and bigger misunderstandings, has the logic of a dream or slapstick--but plays out here as wild tragedy.
"Is it not an offensively narrow construction to call chess a game? Is it not a science, a technique, an art, that sways among these categories as Mohammed's coffin does between heaven and earth?" So muses the narrator in this, Zweig's last novella--among his very best, and the only one of his fictions to directly engage with events of the times after Hitler's ascendancy. The story unfolds on an ocean-liner sailing from New York to Buenos Aires. On board is a man named Czentovic, the world's reigning chess master, a kind of idiot savant who, while tactically brilliant, is a brutal monomaniac. It emerges that also on board is one "Dr. B," a lawyer, whose activities on behalf of Hitler's opponents eventually led to his incarceration in a concentration camp where, deprived of all forms of external stimulation, he learned to play games of chess entirely in his imagination. The series of chess matches the two end up playing on the voyage become an extraordinary allegory for the contest between a totalitarian will to power and the extravagantly overgrown life of the mind characteristic of the pre-War Austro-German intelligentsia.
When does single-minded, self-effacing devotion to a beloved slip over into the realm of creepy stalking? At first glance this tale appears to relate the story of what happens when a curious, naïve young girl of modest means falls under the inspiring spell of a famous novelist--a fascination that culminates in her physical seduction, with predictable consequences. But as is often the case with Zweig, a fairly typical convention--innocence tempted into a fall from grace by worldliness--is here pushed so far, so hard, that it ends up folding back over on itself and becoming something more richly enigmatic and perverse. As the reader begins to grasp the ferocious passion with which the woman nurtures her unspoken ardor it emerges how feebly the surface events of her life, positive and negative, express the cosmic tempest of her inner existence. "What else had my whole life been since I grew past childhood but waiting, waiting to know your will?" the woman writes in her letter to the novelist, a confession that forms the core of the narrative, which ultimately reveals the world-swallowing power that a secret love can confer.
Zweig's memoir is an essential read not simply because it offers a potent transcription of the tumultuous events through which he lived, nor only because it supplies intimate details of the process by which he developed into a celebrity author, but also because of its remarkable enjambment of super-charged, hyper-personal emotion with momentous historical upheaval. Zweig's autobiography is, in effect, a psycho-spiritual portrait of an era. He discloses next to nothing about his domestic life in this book--not even mentioning the names of Friderike and Lotte, his successive wives. Rather, he flips the usual pattern of interior/exterior on its head, turning all of civilized Europe into his personal drawing-room salon. Because he sketches the private details of his life with the sort of cool remove ordinarily reserved for the great passages of history, the book can, at first glance, seem rather frosty. But it was born from an incalculably vast and violent storm of emotion. Zweig wrote the entire first draft during the summer of 1941 when, sweltering in a tiny house in Ossining New York, he felt himself swept into the eye of the apocalypse. Once you begin to sense how hard he was fighting not to let that anguish spill into his sentences, you see how even at its most restrained the book is written in the key of Socrates, as he fondled the stem of the cup that held the hemlock.
On a beautiful spring day in Paris in 1931, the narrator of this tale finds himself bursting with sensitivity to the world around him. In this state, he experiences a piqued curiosity about every passerby, quavering on high alert for an interesting subject of study. Before long he spots a man whom he realizes is a detective, and relishes the thought that the watcher is now watched--the detective, detected. But as the narrator follows this man on his passage through the streets, he gradually realizes that rather than an enforcer of the law, the man is actually a pickpocket--and that he himself is no longer just an observer, but is actually becoming an accessory to the man's crimes.
George Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World [Other Press, $27.95]. He will appear in conversation at LIVE from The New York Public Library on May 6th.