By Stephen Sheeran
Stefan Zweig is probably the most famous writer that you have never heard of. He was one of the best-known and most widely translated international authors in the years between the two world wars, at one point being compared favourably with James Joyce. Yet, in spite of recent efforts to revive his reputation, he is still a virtual unknown. Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse—these names ring plenty of bells thanks to a bump in popularity in the 1960s. But Zweig? Not so much.
Zweig was born in 1880s Vienna into a secular Jewish family, and he came to prominence in the early 1900s with a prolific output of biographies, novels, and novellas. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire drew to a close, Vienna was home to a cultured and wealthy middle and upper class, and a vibrant intellectual and artistic community. Think Freud, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Loos, Schoenberg, Mahler. Biographers note that Zweig always considered himself an internationalist—a citizen of the world—so it is not surprising that the rise of National Socialism in Germany forced him into exile, first to England (1934) then The United States (1940) and then to Brazil in the same year. In February of 1942 he committed suicide with these as his parting words: “Exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering… I greet all my friends! May they live to see the dawn after the long night! Impatient, I am going ahead of you.”
All of Zweig’s stories are disconcerting, reflecting a society in which traditional structures are being challenged and swept aside by modernity and by the increasing encroachments of Nazism. Characters are restless, unfulfilled, wounded, and trying to adapt to instability. “The Royal Game” (“Schachnovelle” in the original German) was completed in 1941. The setting of the story is an ocean liner which is on its way from New York to Buenos Aires around 1939. Immediately we detect the substrate of brink-of-war anxiety in the odd assortment of characters who are randomly assembled on the voyage. We are introduced to an affable and gregarious narrator, and through his eyes we see the drama unfold. Essentially it is a conflict that centres on an impromptu chess tournament. On one side of the board is a bizarre chess master, Mirko Czentovic. He is a savant—brilliant in chess, but illiterate, uncouth, arrogant, and condescending. On the other side is Dr. B, the nervous survivor of a Nazi interrogation centre. Accused of colluding with the Catholic Church and the Austrian royal family, he has been subjected to months of solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, grinding interrogation. His only relief has come from a purloined copy of 150 championship chess games which he has played through ad infinitum. In his solitude he has developed a black ego and a white ego in order to run simulated games in his mind. In any case, the few games played on the ocean liner pit rationality against insanity, and the outcome is fraught with contradictions.
Unfortunately, this bare-bones summary cannot begin to convey the depth and complexity of Zweig’s narrative power. Scenes are rendered with precision, with extraordinary attention given to the slightest detail. Dialogue is breathless and fragmented as the characters insist, deny, demur, obfuscate. As with most novellas, the characters cannot be developed with any detail; however, there is ample scope in each story for one main obsession or fixation. And within that limiting format Zweig is able to craft plots of amazing interest and curiosity. If you were to look for comparisons, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice would figure. Zweig is also experimental in his narrative techniques. Sometimes, in moments of panic or delirium, the past tense is abandoned in favour of the narrative present.
The other novellas in this collection are drawn from earlier in his career, yet they all bear a similar stamp. Zweig tends to hitch his narrative cart to the oddest ponies! “Amok” is narrated by a dissolute doctor who is devoted to the desperate mission of protecting the reputation of a socialite whom he has attempted to rape when she comes to him for an illegal abortion. “The Burning Secret” is related from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy who finds himself embroiled in a bizarre love triangle with his mother and a Lothario who is trying to seduce her. (It should come as no surprise that Zweig befriended Sigmund Freud, and like James Joyce, was influenced by his works. In every story there is some homage paid to trauma and obsessive attachment.) In “Fear” an adulteress is the focus of attention as she is blackmailed to the point of madness. In sum, this collection of stories is disturbing and thought provoking, and does raise the question of why Zweig languishes in obscurity. Current reception is divided. Writer and poet Michael Hofmann pans him, yet novelist John Fowles was an avid fan. I leave it for you to decide.
The Royal Game was realized in a 1960 film called Brainwashed, starring Curt Jürgens. The screenplay inflicted violence on the basic plot, but the overall feel of the story is maintained. The Royal Game and Other Stories will soon be available at the Lennoxville Library.