The Lost World of Stefan Zweig

By Tara Isabella BurtonApril 5, 2014

The Lost World of Stefan Zweig

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig by Stefan Zweig

“I NEVER KNEW THE OLD VIENNA — with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm.” Thus does the smarmy, smart-alecky narrator of Carol Reed’s noir classic The Third Man (1949) dismiss, in a single opening sentence, the vanished Vienna of yesteryear: the tree-lined Ringstrasse, the languid café-hours peopled by poets and Freudians in horn-rimmed glasses, the easeful beauty obliterated by two successive world wars. That old Vienna, The Third Man’s narrator tells us, has been taken into the Russian sector and shot.

The Third Man’s vision of 20th-century Vienna is dark and gritty: teeming with as many insalubrious spies as sewer rats. Its view of human nature is so bleak that we are left to wonder whether the “Strauss music,” the “glamour,” and the “easy charm” ever existed at all.

But for Austrian novelist and short story writer Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), it is precisely those Habsburgian frivolities that define Vienna’s tragedy in their presence and absence alike. If The Third Man is cynical, Zweig’s is elegiac, beckoning us into a vanished world: a world of Baronesses and bibliophiles, gamblers, and actors — all suffering from the inevitable decline of their own personal eras of innocence. 

Wes Anderson’s new film The Grand Budapest Hotel, does much to bring Zweig’s particular brand of elegiac to the screen. Once one of the world’s most celebrated living writers, Zweig had lapsed into an undeserved obscurity, and Anderson goes far to resurrect a wondrous sensibility. From Zweig’s almost cloying candy-colored atmospheres — virtually tailor-made for Anderson’s brand of visual whimsy — to the inevitability of global catastrophe, casting a pall over even the happiest moments of domestic comfort, The Grand Budapest Hotel manages to capture nearly all of Zweig’s most striking qualities. Yet the film’s final tragedies — the rise of a (spoiler alert!) Nazi-esque regime in the fictional republic of Żubrówka, the 11th-hour execution of the hotel's effete concierge, the untimely death due to illness of our young protagonist's new bride — veer from Zweig’s sensibility in the grandness of their scale, a grandness much more evocative of Hollywood than of Vienna in the 1930s. 

What The Grand Budapest Hotel forgets, and what Zweig never does, is that what humans do, and leave undone, is no less catastrophic at the hearth than it is on the battlefield. 

While Anderson borrows Zweig’s famous sense of nostalgia, the filmmaker is hampered by not having Zweig’s own words to work with. Zweig’s characters, his settings, his words are all heavy — and heady — with atmosphere. Here is Zweig describing the train carriage of one baroness, idly leaving her summer resort, killing all hope for a waiter who, unbeknownst to her, has fallen in love with her: 

The air in the enclosed space was sultry, and drenched with the heavy fragrance of many fading flowers. Clusters of white lilac were already hanging heavily, like over-ripe fruit, from the magnificent farewell baskets that she had been given, flowers hung limp on their stems, and the broad, heavy cups of the roses seemed to be withering in the hot cloud of intoxicating perfumes. Even in the haste of the express as it rushed along, a suffocatingly close atmosphere heated the heavy drifts of perfume weighing oppressively down. 

His worlds are dream-like, their atmosphere colored by a memory that is, more often than not, unreliable. In the 22 stories that comprise Pushkin Press’s new Collected Stories, expertly and atmospherically translated by Anthea Bell, most are told through concentric circles of narrative — unobtrusive narrators meet the tale’s real raconteurs on board ships, trains from Dresden, and guest houses on the Riviera. Each level of narrative adds a degree of nostalgic uncertainty, a veil of emotions through which facts become ever more vague. 

Zweig has sometimes been criticized for an excessive tendency to whitewash, to create a vision of pre-war Central Europe that is, as Robert S. Wistrich puts it, “gilded, sanitized [and] pure nostalgia.” But such a reading of Zweig fails to take in account his pronounced sense of tragedy. He treats the personal and the political with equal sensitivity: the atrocities of war are no more surprising than the atrocities of human nature from which they spring. While it’s easy to accuse Zweig of too-ready nostalgia — of falling in love with a world, a place, a time, that never really existed — such a reading is simplistic. The vanished world Zweig longs for is never really just the Vienna of 1900. It is the world of our childhoods, of our illusions, of the faith we have in human goodness that the world so often does not confirm.

A rejected act of kindness towards a gambling addict, a doctor's attempt to solicit sex from a pregnant patient, a cruel bit of manipulation at an Italian hotel: all these rip apart Zweig’s tapestry of melancholy beauty at the seams.

Take “A Summer Novella” — at first glance a seemingly insubstantial piece of Habsburgian nostalgia among the usual Zweig suspects, baronesses, and eccentrics of indeterminate nationality. At first, we are lulled by Zweig into easeful security, relaxed into “one of those little places on Lake Como that nestle so charmingly between white villas and dark woods.” But then our narrator meets the tale’s real teller, a distinguished-looking, English-seeming gentleman of Estonian extraction, “homeless in the noble sense of those who, like the Vikings and pirates of beauty, have collected in their intellectual raids all that is most precious in many great cities.” Among the aesthetic incidents stored up in the man’s soul is his manipulation of a young girl at that same resort. Through a few craftily written anonymous letters, the man convinces her that she is the object of affection of a young Italian boatsman at the resort. Too shy to speak to the boy, the girl pines for her imagined admirer, and is devastated when forced to leave before responding to his (fictional) love.

Suddenly we — and the narrator — see that this seemingly frivolous “summer novella” is in reality appallingly cruel; the man’s erotic fixation with his power over the girl is the most troubling element of all. Even in Zweig’s Arcadia, there is the seed of evil.

So too in the story quoted above, “The Star Above the Forest” — the tale of the baroness and the lovesick waiter. Precious though the prose may seem, the aromas of white lilac and rose mask a deeper disturbance in the world’s atmosphere. Ahead of the Baroness, the lovesick waiter is lying in wait on the train tracks, welcoming suicide as an alternative to life without her.

Zweig’s world is a world of myth — of the myths we make about our own pasts, of the meaning and significance we ascribe to incidences in memory. Thus, at the moment of the waiter’s death, the Baroness experiences a quasi-supernatural awareness of his presence:

Suddenly she lowered her book with limp fingers. She herself did not know why. Some secret feeling was tearing at her. She felt a dull but painful pressure. A sudden sense of constriction that she couldn’t explain clutched her heart. She thought she would choke on the heavy, intoxicating aroma of the flowers. And that terrifying pain did not pass, she felt every revolution of the rushing wheels, their blind, pounding, forward movement was an unspeakable torment. Suddenly she longed to be able to halt the swift momentum of the train, to haul it back from the dark pain towards which it was racing. She had never in her life felt such fear of something terrible, invisible and cruel seizing on her heart as she did now, in those seconds of incomprehensible, incredible pain and fear. And that unspeakable feeling grew stronger and stronger, tightening its grasp around her throat. The idea of being able to stop the train was like a prayer moaned out loud in her mind…

So too in “A Story Told in Twilight” — a story that is, we are led to believe, consciously fictional, a reverie inspired by a half-remembered story and a postcard the narrator finds in an old book. Myth and reality, the supernatural and the all-too-real, combine in a love story that is also a tale about growing up. The narrator, staying with three sisters, is visited by a nightly romantic apparition he comes to believe is one of the sisters in disguise. He falls for one — under the misapprehension that his beloved is she — only to discover, too late, once he has lost his heart to her, that the woman who has been coming to him is another of the three. His realization of the complexities of love, of the impossibility of loving someone and being loved by someone else, is the test he must pass to continue on the quest for adulthood. 

The atmosphere of the mythic, as in “The Star Above the Forest,” evokes for us the mental world of the lover, the world where love breathes meaning into life, a world in which, as “Twilight’s” melancholy narrator puts it, “Twilight falls with its veils, the sorrow that rests in the evening is a starless vault above them, darkness seeps into their blood, and all the bright, colourful words in them have as full and heavy a sound as if they came from our inmost hearts.”

Yet, for all Zweig’s stories about lost love and vanished affairs, one of the greatest pleasures of reading this collection is in its psychological complexity. Zweig shows a masterful command of all the ways two people can relate to one another. In “The Miracles of Life,” one of the most heart-wrenching stories in the collection, various characters’ relationships to two paintings of the Madonna come to influence and shape their relationships with one another — the relationship between two people and the relationship of a person to a piece of art is given equal weight, as though art and our love of art is indistinguishable in importance from human love. Thus does the young Jewish girl, Esther — an artist’s model for a Madonna and Child — develop a maternal obsession with the baby modeling as her son; when he is taken from her, it is only the finished painting that can fill the void in her soul. 

We find a similar complexity in the central relationship of “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” in which the story of a one-night stand in a casino town becomes far more about a woman’s desire to save a gambling addict from himself than it is about her desire for him personally. The two share a single night “so full of conflict and of talk, of passion and anger and hatred, with tears of entreaty and intoxication, that it seemed to me to last a thousand years, and we two human beings who fell entwined into its chasm, one of us in frenzy, the other unsuspecting, emerged from that mortal tumult changed, completely transformed, senses and emotions transmuted.” Zweig’s relationships are rarely simple, never cliché. It is impossible, in Zweig’s world, to pin anything down with easy answers.

Indeed, for Zweig, nothing is pinned down at all. Zweig’s world is the world of the exile: the world of those displaced — by war, imprisonment, or by life, for whom hotels on Lake Geneva or the French Riviera are the only safe, if liminal, spaces. His characters are bereft of any sense of belonging; in the absence of a network, a sense of home, their emotions are heightened and their actions become ever more erratic. Thus in “Amok,” a doctor working in India finds himself blackmailing a patient for sex, painfully aware of how his self-imposed exile is disconnecting him from his own personal morality. In “Incident on Lake Geneva,” a Russian prisoner of war attempting to return home is stymied by a series of redrawn borders he does not understand; he tries to swim across, only to drown. 

Such stories, of course, are colored by their political context: Zweig’s world is a world cut loose from itself. People’s bonds to their sense of self, of home, of country, of allegiance, have all been severed. But even consciously temporal stories like “Mendel the Bibliophile” — about a Viennese book collector sent to a concentration camp, and “The Invisible Collection,” about a blind art collector unaware of the fact that his family has sold his beloved prints to cope with rising German inflation — transcend their political context. They are, at their core, about the human need to connect, to ascribe meaning to what is not there, to look too fondly on an easier and imagined past as a means of coping with the at times impossible demands of real life.

At the end of “Mendel the Bibliophile,” Zweig’s narrator regrets that he has forgotten Mendel, and with it the fact that “you create books solely to forge links with others even after your own death, thus defending yourself against the inexorable adversary of all life, transience and oblivion.” George Prochnik’s biography of Stefan Zweig, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, forthcoming from Other Press this spring, will do much to defend Zweig against such oblivion. But as we come of age in a new era of nostalgia — where longing for the past (whether the “good old days” longed-for by members of the Christian right, or the nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s that has spurred a cottage industry of “You Knew You Grew Up in...” articles and television shows — it is Zweig himself whose work we need most: as a reminder of what it really means to grow up, to move on, and to leave behind the Strauss music and the easy charm of a world we cannot find again.

For far too long, our links with Zweig, all too readily consigned to the dustbin of literary history, have been broken. Pushkin Press’s phenomenal, heartbreaking collection is a reminder that it’s time to forge them again.


Tara Isabella Burton is working on a doctorate in literature and theology as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford.

LARB Contributor

Tara Isabella Burton is working on a doctorate in literature and theology as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in National Geographic Traveler, The Paris Review Daily, The AtlanticElectric Literature, and more. 


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