Sunday 28 September 2014

Sartre said that if readers wanted to learn anything about his life they should read his novels and plays, not his autobiography. Stefan Zweig is elusive in all these genres. Or he's a species of selfless writer I haven't encountered before, whose work is a duty to humanity. Even a novel like Confusion, which appears to flow straight from a writer's best-kept secret to the page, may have little to do with his own experience, or even his wishful thinking. His autobiography The world of yesterday announces on page one, line one of the Foreword that he does not feel important enough to be the main character in a book (or he is a faux-modeste); we only learn he is married when he uses the first person plural pronoun. Instead he writes about the world he has lost, for which, with his second wife in their final exile in South America, he was prepared to kill himself.

In order to lose a world you have to have one in the first place. Zweig grew up in a privileged Jewish enclave in Vienna. His history is already a novel, he doesn't have to confess anything; he only has to turn a trick. He knew everyone, met everyone, emerged from a swaddle of literary-minded young men as the one most likely to succeed. I'm thrown by this kind of belonging; I can barely conceive of it; is this what allows Zweig, what compels him, to write outside himself?

I may never have begun reading Zweig at all if it hadn't been for the copy of Beware of pity at the end of my parents' bookshelves, which I didn't read then, in its probably charmless 1930s translation, and would perhaps never have read without the Pushkin Press translations of the last 15 years. I've re-read Confusion, CasanovaThe Governess and other stories, read Beware of pity and The world of yesterday. And Zweig has become fictional. He has joined his characters. In his portraits he looks like Schubert then Proust, more canny than either of these. Now that I know him, or rather, hardly know him, I'm not sure I like him, not even his worthy stance on war. I would prefer him to have been a historian or a politician.

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