“Stefan Zweig was a dark and unorthodox artist; it’s good to have him back.” Salman Rushdie
In Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a writer relates the long and twisting life story of a hotel owner. It’s about youthful love and lifelong obsession. The story is original, but there’s a credit at the end: “Inspired by the Writings of Stefan Zweig.”
It just so happens that I “discovered” and read Chess Story by Zweig only a few months ago while researching literary writers who “play games” in their writing like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Georges Perec’s many experiments, Raymond Queneau, and other Oulipians. The fruits of this labor also led me to engage more deeply with psychological literary fiction, such as with Shirley Jackson and Clarice Lispector. Stefan Zweig would certainly fall in the latter category. Chess Story is a disturbing, incredible short novel. And now it’s as if the world is ready to be reintroduced to this brilliant–and apparently modest–writer.
Born in 1881 in Vienna, Stefan Zweig was an extremely famous writer in the 1920s and 1930s, befriending the likes of Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud, known mostly for his novellas and short stories, and also for biographies and popular histories. George Prochnik’s project is to aid us in the rediscovery of Zweig. His forthcoming book is called The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World. One obstacle that first had to be understood: his suicide in 1942.
His suicide remains a vexed issue for many people confronting his story. The question of why…was something that remained a problem.”
Here’s Wes Anderson discussing what he means by Zweig being an inspiration for the film.
He paints a portrait of Vienna and of Europe before 1914 that is so vivid and is filled with details–it’s personal, you know, and it’s his feeling about this moment and a destruction of a culture that he had completely handed himself over to. His whole life was art in Vienna at that time. This all came together and became an approach to this story.”
Another hint about the inspiration for Anderson’s Budapest hotel comes from a book that Anderson has cited as the spark for the film, Zweig’s own memoir The World of Yesterday, an autobiography that he wrote in exile in the early forties, soon before his suicide.
So how or why did he disappear to the extent he has?
Near the end of Zweig’s life he wrote repeatedly of feeling that he was living a posthumous existence. And that’s one aspect of his humility that’s actually very appealing: He felt it was important to make room for the next generation.”
But the reality, according to Prochnik, in terms of the almost complete disappearance of Stefan Zweig in this country–is that it’s surprisingly specific to the Anglo world. He doesn’t present the kind of stories that Americans gravitate to in terms of sticking with it and succeeding at all costs. “More or less the opposite.”
For how popular he was, and for all that he did write, it’s pretty remarkable that he only published a single novel. There are 11 extant copies of the drafts he went through in the writing of it, and it took him years of painstaking labor. Beware of Pity is the second book I read of Zweig’s and it is a modern masterpiece.
Hofmiller, an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer stationed at the edge of the empire, is invited to a party at the home of a rich local landowner, a world away from the dreary routine of the barracks. The surroundings are glamorous, wine flows freely, and the exhilarated young Hofmiller asks his host’s lovely daughter for a dance, only to discover that sickness has left her painfully crippled. It is a minor blunder that will destroy his life, as pity and guilt gradually implicate him in a well-meaning but tragically wrongheaded plot to restore the unhappy invalid to health.
Certainly there are scenes of high melodrama, but one could argue that this is exactly what Zweig needed to do in order to run his bitter disillusionment through the mill. He mourns what has been lost, but isn’t afraid to look into the eyes of many things that his culture held onto, which were good, such as he does in one of the best chapters “Eros Matutinus.” Freud was all about disentangling from illusions, and this was part of the attraction for Zweig. He was also the kind of man who wrote a biography on Erasmus, which he described as “a quiet hymn of praise to the anti-fanatical man” during the rise of Hitler and the Great Patriotism that was taking over. Subtlety is often lost in the annals of history.