Lost world of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Stefan Zweig

Nanjing Night Net

Stefan Zweig: ‘a connoisseur of coursing blood and throbbing temple’.Like a literary version of the Kevin Bacon Game, it’s a challenge to find an important cultural figure from the early 1900s through the 1940s who didn’t connect with Stefan Zweig. Zionist founder Theodor Herzl gave him his start with front-page articles as a 19-year-old. Einstein became a fan. Zweig introduced Dali to Freud and served in the War Archive with Rilke before working with Joyce to translate A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into Italian. He watched Rodin sculpt and Richard Strauss compose.

Today some of his exile-friends have joined him in receiving popular revivals: Joseph Roth (who abused Zweig despite – or because of – his unfailing financial support), Jakob Wassermann and the daring Irmgard Keun, who sued the Gestapo for lost income after the ban of her ”degenerate” books.

Before Wes Anderson ”discovered” the world’s most popular writer of the 1920s and ’30s, more recent fans such as Colin Firth, Kazuo Ishiguro, Belinda Carlisle, Carla Bruni, Salman Rushdie and Antony Beevor lauded the Austrian writer, whose massive body of work includes a cache of novellas, biographies of figures as diverse as Marie Antoinette, Magellan and Freud, a memoir of Europe’s interwar years, a novel, plays, libretti, and hundreds of poems and essays. In the decades after his death in Brazil in 1942, Zweig’s works faded from popular consciousness. In France, though, he has remained among the top three foreign-language bestsellers, behind only Shakespeare and Agatha Christie.

Those who become acquainted with Zweig through the coda that ends The Grand Budapest Hotel, ”Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig”, may find themselves perplexed when they crack open the author’s greatest fiction. While Zweig peaked during the glitzy but uncertain era that embraced Hemingway and Fitzgerald, his characters don’t muster the manic levity of flapper girls or the bravado of post-war wanderers. Likewise absent are the zany characters who populate Anderson’s jolly romp.

While often daring in its descriptions of sexual obsession and psychological undoing, Zweig’s work retains the feel of a lost world as its passions remain keenly topical. His writing teeters between the old and the new, the cream-puff facade of decadent Viennese splendour alongside dirty secrets, with nods towards Freud, that proliferate in the tightly constrained.

Zweig’s characters allow their misunderstood but unchecked emotions – and their straining bodies – to betray their assumed selves and tempt death. There are murders, illicit affairs, suicides and devilish psychological manipulation, but – unlike in The Grand Budapest Hotel – no madcap chases from evil henchmen. Zweig and his work are comfortable on film. In the 1930s, Hollywood offered him $US3000 (circa $40,000 today) a week to write for the screen; he declined. But he occasionally penned scripts, and more than 40 film versions of his work have appeared, including Max Ophuls’ 1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman and, most recently, A Promise (based on Journey into the Past).

Pushkin Press, leader in the Zweig resurgence, has ensured the availability of much of his work, often in the inestimable Anthea Bell’s crisp new translations. To coincide with the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Pushkin has issued a Wes Anderson-curated best-of sampler. Inexplicably sporting the title of one of the film’s sections, The Society of the Crossed Keys includes a French Riviera-based novella about obsession and the beginnings of Zweig’s memoir and his only full-length novel, alongside an interview between Anderson and George Prochnik, whose new book on Zweig, The Impossible Exile, appears next month.

Anderson admits to stealing his film’s structure from Zweig’s most common and affecting trope: the amazing ”true” story of an individual as relayed to an unsuspecting author, who remains a mere receptacle. The film’s introduction lifts nearly verbatim the first passages of Beware of Pity: ”There is nothing more erroneous than the idea, which is only too common, that a writer’s imagination is always at work … In reality he does not have to invent his stories; he need only let characters and events find their own way to him …”

When an artist names his inspiration, it’s tempting to hunt point by point for what he has captured and twisted from the original. But an inspiration remains by its nature unviewable and often mingles with too many other unidentifiable strands. The appropriation of a work, though, can be tinged through this kind of use. Woody Allen’s Love and Death spoofs the great Russian novels, just as his Midnight in Paris caricatures the Lost Generation, but the viewer is complicit with the jokes through shared knowledge. For a writer who has fallen into relative obscurity, this type of reinvention and subversion becomes more problematic.

A primer for Anderson fans arriving at Zweig with only The Grand Budapest Hotel for guidance: forget the film’s gorgeous Technicolor lobbies and deadpan delivery, physical comedy and whimsical characters. Most importantly, forget the raucous laughter.

Zweig’s writing is more subtle, but at the same time overflows with over-the-top, emotionally draining yet exhilarating melodrama. His work does not remove the viewer from their situation the way the best comedy can; his dramas amplify and, at their most successful, elucidate it. If Anderson is all about laughs, Zweig is a connoisseur of coursing blood and throbbing temple.

This marriage might seem more fitting when viewing Anderson’s film as a pleasure for those seeking reprieve into an imaginary place where the surroundings are more beautiful and the worst scenarios (dismemberment, incarceration) become the stuff of hilarity. Zweig, too, was a crowd pleaser of a different sort. Thomas Mann and Robert Musil disregarded him as a populiser for the masses, and his work helped overthrow the belief that German-language writers must be difficult.

There are writers we love to resuscitate over and over. Some finally stick, their hearts strong enough to sustain the repeated alternating throttles and neglect. Aside from his masterful stomach-churning plots that make the most ordinary life appear precious and precarious, Zweig provides a back-story that becomes ever more tantalising. With his life’s glittering distractions, his precisely groomed moustache, fussy manners and naive pacifism, it is tempting to settle on the figure of a man who appeared to have everything even as the world self-destructed – and who is now resigned to history as the driving-force behind the double-suicide that cut short his life and that of his 33-year-old wife.

Most important about Zweig is the cache of gems he left behind. The World of Yesterday, his memoir of Europe from the turn of the century through to the rise of Hitler, remains a touchstone with its overview of shifting culture, morals and politics. The culmination of his fiction, Beware of Pity, first published in 1939, alternately condemns war and muses on how an insignificant remark can reshape a life if unbridled emotions rule actions.

Alongside The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, Zweig’s final work, The Royal Game (or A Chess Story), remains one of the finest fictions about the game. In it, a man imprisoned by the Gestapo steals a book in hopes of maintaining his sanity. To his horror, he discovers that the book is a compilation of famous chess matches. For those looking for a more complete education in Zweig, Pushkin offers a 720-page Collected Stories.

There’s hope, still, that the new wave Anderson has added to the ever-flowing Zweig resurgence will keep the writer where he belongs: in the hands of readers who will wonder, as did Anderson, ”How is it that I don’t already know about this?”

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