Monday, 15 June 2015

Let's knock Stefan Zweig

A review of Zweig's Collected Stories in the TLS (February 2014) points out that Zweig's reputation has undergone a huge swing both during his lifetime up to the present day. Zweig was highly admired during his lifetime, but his reputation declined after his death in 1942.. Since the 1990s he has been widely reprinted.

Jonathan Keates will have none of this new reputation. He charitably does not condemn Zweig for his "fecundity", or that he was part of "that world of cultured internationalism that failed so significantly to rescue Europe after the First World War from totalitarianism" (are you listening, Stefan? It was your fault!).

But Keates dutifully points out that a recent number of critics have condemned Zweig, and since he can add to their condemnation the negative verdicts of contemporaries of Zweig's such as Thomas Mann, Karl Kraus and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, you would think there is no case left to answer.  Keates respectfully quotes Michael Hofmann claiming that Zweig was "platitudinous, logorrhoeic, smug, humourless and duplicitous".

Sadly, there is still more. Keates has complaints of his own. For Keates,

Zweig wished, it seems, to be the people he created but he never quite managed that. ... our feeling that [a character's] inner life has an intensity unattainable by his creator.... [Zweig's] inability to sit still and accept the value of reticence and understatement ... It is himself Zweig needs to convince, not just his readers."

After such comments, you could wonder why such an appalling writer and appalling man could ever darken the pages of the TLS.  While the torrents of condemnation swirl around Zweig's reprinted stories and biographies, can I just ask one question: Since when does a writer have to be the people he creates? Surely the intensity of the character is perhaps the achievement of the writer? Did Shakespeare have to be Othello?