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The Uncivil Servant: Homage to a Great Bad Writer

Mitchell Abidor
November 21, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Farewell to Europe, a film directed by Maria Schrader.

THE PAST FEW YEARS have been posthumous good ones for the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Once one the world’s best-known writers, his stock had fallen greatly, his novels and stories of Hapsburg Vienna viewed as inconsequential confections, his biographies lacking in scholarly rigor. The British newspaper The Spectator not too long ago headlined an article about him, “The Tragedy of a Great Bad Writer,” which pretty much sums up the case. Zweig himself said: “At best my talent is a small one.” But now two publishing houses, NYRB Classics and Pushkin House have been publishing new editions of his works, while his memoir of his Viennese youth, The World of Yesterday, has never been out of print, and is an invaluable document of the glories of pre-Anschluss Austria. Zweig’s writings, which were the direct source of many films, most importantly Max Ophuls’ immortal Letter to an Unknown Woman, also served as the inspiration for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.

He has also been the subject of two recent books, George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile and Volker Weidermann’s Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and the Summer Before the Dark, which provide us with moving portraits of a man who tried unsuccessfully to remain upright as the world that sustained him crumbled.

Zweig is now the direct subject of a new film, Austria’s entry for the Oscars: Maria Schrader’s Farewell to Europe, which covers the final years of Zweig’s peripatetic exile, ending with his suicide in Petroplis, Brazil in February 1942.

THE FILM UNFOLDS in six episodes, all of them beautifully staged and shot, following Zweig (played by his near-double Josef Hader) and his young wife Lotte (played movingly by Aenne Schwarz) to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Bahia, Brazil, New York, and Petropolis. An object of adulation everywhere, the Zweig of the film, like the real Zweig, refuses to enroll in the fight against fascism, refusing to accept that the intellectual’s place is in the front lines, refusing even to openly condemn Hitler, even though he was himself suffering under the blight of fascism. Zweig was the intellectual living above the fray, remaining faithful above all to the values of the humanist Erasmus (about whom he wrote a biography) -- the only commitment he felt to be valid.

A notoriously generous man (Zweig all but kept the drunken Joseph Roth alive over the latter’s final years), he willing put both his money and influence to use to save imperiled writers. In the film, visiting his ex-wife in New York, he bemoans the ceaseless imploring on behalf of embattled writers and his constant need to pull strings with ambassadors and consuls to obtain visas. Yet he continues to do so.

What a world Zweig lived in! It’s all but unimaginable that a novelist could have such clout today that he or she could actually wheedle visas out of governments. in Zweig's world, writers mattered, which is why their books were burned. He was an unequalled representative of the cosmopolitanism of the pre-World War II intellectuals: A collector of manuscripts and rare books, he was at home in several languages, and over the course of Farewell To Europe he speaks German, French , Spanish, English and Portuguese. It was not the world’s job to learn to understand him; he took it upon himself to join the world.

Director Schrader’s film is full of light, masking the darkness that hovers over it. In his suit and tie in the hottest tropical heat of Brazil, her Zweig is unflappable. The soul of propriety, he doesn’t even blink when at a ceremony in his honor in the Brazilian outback the mayor repeatedly calls him Zeig; manners and decency above all.

While in Brazil, which he clearly loved and whose warm welcome he appreciated, he wrote one of his least estimable books, a paean to the country called Brazil, Land of the Future, a book so effusive that progressive Brazilians accused him of having been in the pay of the ruling Vargas government, which took him in. He loved Brazil, he loved his wife, he seemed to be bearing up under the loss of his European homes and his manuscripts -- and yet he and his wife committed suicide together, proper Europeans to the end. Prochnik described their deathbed scene: “Stefan lies on his back, perfectly coiffed, in trousers, a buttoned-up shirt, and a carefully knotted tie. Lotte is in a kimono. Her underwear lay on the floor of the bathroom in a manner suggesting she’d undressed in a hurry. And though Lotte’s pillow and sheets were crumpled, so that she’d clearly lain down on her own bed frame, she moved at some point before lying completely onto Stefan’s mattress, turning over onto her right side, slipping beneath his dark blanket, resting her cheek on his shoulder, laying her left hand over both of Stefan’s, which are folded together, curling her slender first and last fingers into him. He looks dead. She looks in love.”

Scharder wisely doesn’t speculate about why the Zweig’s killed themselves, and their bodies are discovered in an epilogue shot in a long take, their bodies briefly seen in the mirror of a wardrobe. In his suicide note Zweig wrote of the difficulty of starting a new life at his age. He was, despite his refusal of politics, devastated by Nazi advances in the Middle East. Prochnik say that he “no longer belonged anywhere, and there was nowhere left to travel.” Until the end Zweig remained in public the man he always was, receiving friends, chatting happily. But the world of yesterday that once kept him afloat no longer could.

Schrader renders justice to this noble man.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.