Stefan Zweig? Just a pedestrian stylist

Stefan Zweig was the most translated author in the world, yet Michael Hofmann has called the Austrian's literary output 'just putrid'. A tad harsh, perhaps, but he has a point

A recent exchange of hostilities on the letters page of the London Review of Books has prompted a reassessment of the work of one of the early 20th-century's most extravagantly popular littérateurs, the Austrian-born Stefan Zweig. Extravagantly popular, that is, everywhere but in Britain, where he has hardly been noticed until now, despite having lived here for a while in exile from the Nazi Anschluss.

Zweig was born into the comfortably overstuffed world of the Viennese bourgeoisie in 1881. From winning a poetry prize in his ambitious early years, he went on to become a prolific and much-translated novelist, essayist, dramatist and librettist, as well as a renowned translator, and the author of a late autobiography, The World of Yesterday, written while he was in transcontinental flight from the disaster unfolding in central Europe.

More than any other figure of his time, Zweig made success look easy. At 19, he sent an unsolicited poetry essay to the Neue Freie Presse, and found himself invited to the office of the literary editor, Theodor Herzl, where Herzl read the piece, nodded thoughtfully and announced he was going to publish it. Zweig went on to break bread, pass the time of day, argue the toss and shake hands with the entire cast of the European intelligentsia, from theosophical loony Rudolf Steiner to the elderly Freud, then in crumbling exile in north London. His is an exemplary 20th-century life, all the way to the joint suicide with his second wife Lotte in Brazil in 1942.

What has so upset the custodians of the Stefan Zweig Centre in Salzburg (among many others) is Michael Hofmann's red card tackle review of the autobiography – now reissued, along with a number of Zweig's fictional works, by Pushkin Press, in a new, elegantly fluid translation by Anthea Bell. Hofmann pours acid scorn over Zweig's novellas and essays, as well as The World of Yesterday, and sums up by saying that not only was Zweig's literary output "just putrid", but that he knew damn well it was, too.

This assessment clashes considerably with what's come before. Zweig was an out-and-out bestseller, the most translated author in the world, loved by a generation for his undemanding novellas and popular biographies. The stories, such as Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922) and Fear (1925), borrow from the tropes of 19th-century melodrama. His life stories of doomed queens were hits: there was one of Mary Queen of Scots, and another of Marie Antoinette, the latter adapted as a Hollywood screenplay in 1938, with Norma Shearer luminous in the title role.

Certainly, the autobiography is full of a kind of bumbling, "little old me?" modesty. We periodically find Zweig breathless with disbelief as he is ushered into another scintillating salon, or opens another letter from Richard Strauss telling him he's wonderful. And the fact is that these eulogies seem belied by the work itself, which proceeds from one lifeless pen portrait to another, coat-tailing on the invariably staggering genius of others, the accounts of their faces and voices heavily sandbagged with clichés already threadbare at the time of writing. Joining a group of dignitaries on a rail journey into Soviet Russia in 1928, for example, Zweig is bemused to find the train halted just over the Polish border by a group of Red Army soldiers, who unfurl a blood-red banner across the tracks: "Workers of all lands, unite!" The moment sounds like nothing more than an interlude in a comic opera.

Nor is The World of Yesterday the suicide note of literary legend. Zweig may have hoped to survive the catastrophe of the second world war, although he may also have thought the broken world of tomorrow wouldn't be worth inhabiting. The work ends on a note of bourgeois optimism. There are no shadows without light, and it is only the rise and fall of life – including war and peace – which make it feel like living. His tragedy lies not only in the circumstances of his own expulsion from Eden, but also in that others could – and have – told the story better.

The roughing-up of Zweig's reputation by Hofmann has smoked out a corps of defenders who have pointed to the writer's enduring humanism and pacifism amid wretched circumstances. These qualities are beyond dispute, but as Hofmann makes clear, they couldn't make of him anything other than a pedestrian stylist; a used-goods dealer in the Viennese literary bazaar.


Stuart Walton

The GuardianTramp

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