Archie Hamerton

Tragically overlooked in favour of the Hemmingways, Eliots, and big players of 1930s literature, Stefan Zweig’s writing remains mawkishly enticing, and incontestably doomed from the outset. Despite the bourgeois gentility his World of Yesterday, there is a pervasive sense of grave predestination in Zweig’s writing: he created a damned reality, with its cultural paradise of the upper-middle class self-indulgently deluding itself to the rise of totalitarianism.

Set predominately among comfortable society of fin de siècle Europe, his works consistently negate to mention the rise of the right, and instead fondly mourn for a European past historical even to him; he turns away from the conventional, plot-driven narratives of contemporaneity, in favour of a deeply sentimental style of writing, that relies heavily on memory and anecdote to recall world that has arguably ended long before he has even begun writing it: the late Nineteenth Century through the eyes of a writer in the midst of the Twentieth.

"His naivety is doomed from the outset"

The reader’s knowledge of the looming second world war—and indeed the characters’ ignorance to it—provides an equivocal and non-negotiable answer to a question that Zweig is resolutely decided to keep asking. His works wonder if the old Halcyon days of coffee houses and spa town retreats will return, if old charm and manners will replace what he perceives as vulgarity, if literature and art will continue to flourish. No, comes the resounding answer from the rise of fascism. Zweig writes predominately in the late thirties and early forties, when Nazism was in full control, meaning the naivety with which his texts believe in the untoppleable cultural Europeanness is misguided and doomed from the outset.

His is a spectral grimness, always with the threat of the end—be it of the sentence, the plot, or even life—looming. His works often take the form of recounted stories: our protagonist functions as little more than an active listener, a framing device to open and close the book. They typically begin with Protagonist A, a sort of authorial parallel for Zweig, stating something along the lines of ‘I was sitting in a café with Protagonist B when she told me this story, that I set down now exactly as it was told to me.’

Stefan Zwiegtwitter/@usefuladdiction

Even the recounted story is recounted once again to us; the narrative ended long ago for Protagonist B to be looking back anecdotally on it; and the meeting of Protagonists A and B also happened long enough ago for A to have translated it into the written record the reader is holding. In short, the story is tangible proof of its own end and place in the past, Zweig’s own sword of Damocles. It is perhaps understandable that Zweig’s writing functions as a large inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a similarly nostalgic film that uses the Matryoshka format to create an atmosphere of sentimentality.

"The stories have an innate grace, wealth, and splendour that could only belong to the turn of the century"

This predestined end is due, in part, to the Europeanness of his works. His characters meet in literary salons or grand hotels, historic universities or riviera guesthouses. They are stories steeped in a sort of innate grace, wealth, and splendour that could only belong to the turn of the century in his beloved Europe, the last vestiges of Victoriana; for a Europe that by the time he writes, is long since decimated—this fondness for a lost Europe leads one to wonder why his popularity hasn’t soared, post-Brexit: the other day a tweet from Cameron in 2015 resurfaced, the replies exhibiting a retroactive dread reminiscent of Zweig’s stories.

In having the stories recounted and retold by their now aged, nostalgic protagonists looking back with regret or longing, we are made aware of their ending: the central figure is alive and likely miserable. Confusion begins with a now celebrated lecturer mournfully looking back on his student days and his relationship with an English professor; but from the immediate tone of unease and the lone nature of the character, the love affair of the novel is already tainted with misery, doomed by the innate melancholy of anecdotal format.


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In doing so Zweig rejects the conventions of narrative—plot, surprise, and hope—and favours the melancholic plotless nihilism that seems to inspire postmodernism: he is arguably writer of atmosphere, not narrative, a progenitor of the postmodern stylings and yet in a distinctly historic fashion. These little episodes often span no more than a year, a month, even a single day—24 Hours in the Life of a Woman a notable example, in which the sparse events of the book (a woman witnesses a man gamble, and offers to pay for a hotel) chronologically take up only 24 hours, and yet the anecdotal retelling, and the haunting regrets span almost a lifetime.

This is perhaps most poignantly mirrored in Zweig himself: cast out like an exile from his beloved Europe, and turned into a macabre parody of ‘The Wandering Jew’ pastiche, finally settling and dying in south America, as his homeland falls to fascism. The fateful, fatal war is ominously present in all his writing: his Europe, his fictionalised self—both ignorant and hyper aware—haunted by the rise of Nazism, and his own eventual death. In his works, he toys with disappointment, the omen-like knowledge of the present, to depict the sentimental world of the past with a sort of grim naivety as it steps into sepia obscurity.