Other Literary Forms

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Stefan Zweig, one of the most prolific and, in his time, most widely read authors of the twentieth century, began his literary career as a poet, but his lyric poetry is not among his most important or most enduring achievements. His reputation rests largely on his short fiction, his biographies,...

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Stefan Zweig, one of the most prolific and, in his time, most widely read authors of the twentieth century, began his literary career as a poet, but his lyric poetry is not among his most important or most enduring achievements. His reputation rests largely on his short fiction, his biographies, his essays, and one of his plays. Zweig the storyteller is noted for his vivid, virtuosic style and his skillful psychological penetration of his characters. His work in the novella form ranges from Die Liebe der Erika Ewald (1904; Erika Ewald’s love) to his last completed work, Schachnovelle (1942; The Royal Game, 1944), which poignantly foreshadows a time of increasing specialization, mechanization, and dehumanization in which men of mind are doomed to be checkmated by brutish technocrats. The collection Erstes Erlebnis (1911; first experience) contains sensitive stories of childhood and adolescence; the stories in Verwirrung der Gefühle (1927; Conflicts, 1927) and Amok (1922; English translation, 1931) deal with adult passions and problems. Zweig’s only completed novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity, 1939), is a haunting portrayal of a crippled girl and her love. Recently discovered and published in 1982, Rausch der Verwandlung (intoxication of transformation) is a fragmentary novel about a lowly Austrian post-office clerk whose penurious life is transformed when she gets a taste of opulent living and again when she is drawn into the vortex of big-city crime.

Another literary form in which Zweig achieved great success and an international readership in more than thirty languages was the vie romancée (biographical novel). As a biographer, Zweig favored the cyclical form, attempting to present a “typology of the spirit.” Drei Meister (1920; Three Masters, 1930) contains biographical studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevski; Der Kampf mit dem Dämon (1925; The Struggle with the Demon, 1929) examines Friedrich Hölderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche, poets and thinkers who went insane or committed suicide; and Drei Dichter ihres Lebens (1928; Adepts in Self-Portraiture, 1928) presents the great autobiographers Casanova, Stendhal, and Leo Tolstoy. In 1935, these biographical studies appeared in one volume as Baumeister der Welt, appearing in English translation in 1939 as Master Builders. Another biographical trilogy, Die Heilung durch den Geist (1931; Mental Healers, 1932), explores the lives and influences of Franz Anton Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy (who is debunked), and Sigmund Freud (to whom Zweig felt close intellectually and personally). Other biographical volumes include Joseph Fouché (1929; English translation, 1930), Marie Antoinette (1932; English translation, 1933), Maria Stuart (1935; Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, 1935), Magellan (1938; Magellan, Pioneer of the Pacific, 1938), and Balzac (1946; English translation, 1946). Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam (1934; Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1934) is a very personal ook, for Zweig regarded the Dutch Humanist, who disdained political action in a turbulent age, as his spiritual ancestor and mentor. Zweig’s collaboration with Richard Strauss on the comic opera Die schweigsame Frau (the silent woman), based on a work by Ben Jonson, became a cause célèbre in 1935 because of the composer’s refusal to renounce his Jewish collaborator in Nazi Germany. Most notable among Zweig’s several dramas is the powerful pacifist play Jeremias (1917; Jeremiah, 1922), which premiered in Switzerland. In his universally admired autobiography, Die Welt von Gestern (1944; The World of Yesterday, 1943), Zweig self-effacingly keeps his own life and work in the background as he presents a brilliant, poignant panorama of European life, thought, and culture in the first half of the twentieth century.


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In both his life and his work, Stefan Zweig was a cultural mediator. All his life, he was a translator in an elevated sense, attempting to inform, to educate, to inspire, and to arouse appreciation and enthusiasm across literary, cultural, national, and personal boundaries. He once wrote that it was his aim

to understand even what is most alien to us, always to evaluate peoples and periods, figures and works only in their positive and creative sense, and to let this desire to understand and convey this understanding to others serve humbly and faithfully our indestructible ideal: humane communication among individuals, mentalities, cultures, and nations.

For fifteen years, Zweig’s impressive home on the picturesque Kapuzinerberg in Salzburg was a shrine to his central idea, the intellectual unification of Europe, and the mecca of a cultural elite, many of whom Zweig numbered among his friends. His world travels as well as his bibliophilic pursuits, particularly his legendary collection of literary and musical holograph manuscripts, nurtured his art and aided his wide-ranging cultural and humanitarian activities. Zweig’s correspondence with Martin Buber during World War I as well as other documents indicates that he prized the Diaspora and interpreted his Jewishness rather willfully as offering him an opportunity to be a citizen of the world: “Perhaps it is the purpose of Judaism to show over the centuries that community is possible without country, only through blood and intellect, only through the word and faith.”

At an early age, Zweig became aware of the crisis facing his era, and for many years he was bedeviled by the growing antinomy between a bourgeois humanism whose position had become undermined by the failure of its adherents to commit themselves to positive action and the ever-rising current of political and social activism which was compelling individuals to commit themselves to some form of action. While Zweig’s knowledge of history and the typology of human motivations and personalities could not have left him blind to the need for change, he consciously adopted and maintained an eminently apolitical stance.

Displaying a becoming awareness of the dignity and spiritual superiority of the dispossessed and the vanquished, Zweig repeatedly and movingly portrayed apolitical individuals (such as that “bibliosaurus,” the transplanted Eastern European Jew Jakob Mendel, called “Book Mendel”) caught up in the impersonal, unfeeling machinery of world politics and conflicts. Zweig’s biographical study of Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s minister of police, is a great moral condemnation of homo politicus; teaching an object lesson in unprincipled behavior, the author warned the peoples of Europe against falling for politicians of that stripe. In an essay written in 1922, “Ist die Geschichte gerecht?” (Is there justice in history?), Zweig tried to supply a humanistic antidote and alternative to the cult of power, warning the masses against glorifying their oppressors and worshiping their chains. He pointed out that, all too often, history has been rewritten in favor of those who have prevailed by virtue of brute strength and that there is a tendency to create myths about the strong and the heroic, while the infinitely worthier heroes of everyday life remain unsung. Might and morality must be clearly sundered; it behooves man not to be bedazzled by the seductive glamour of success and to reexamine history from a humanistic point of view.

In The World of Yesterday, Zweig said about himself that as an Austrian, a Jew, a writer, a humanist, and a pacifist, he had always stood at the exact point where the global clashes and cataclysms of the century were at their most violent. His response to these blows of fate was an excessive objectivity and feckless neutrality, a reluctance to become involved in political action, and an increasing contempt for merely political adjustments. Zweig’s frequently naïve stance is reminiscent of the inaction and near-paralysis of Viennese intellectuals at the turn of the century; he came to regard Europe as his “sacred homeland,” and his Europeanism ultimately led him to view the tragedy of the Jews as only part of the larger and presumably more important tragedy of Europe.

While Zweig was a physician who could not heal himself, his undogmatic and nonideological humanism is eminently relevant to the present age. While his brand of liberalism is old-fashioned, his contribution to pan-European thought must be regarded as an enduring one. His was one of the first voices to call for a cosmopolitan community of the youth of Europe, and he proposed the establishment of an international university that would function interchangeably in several capital cities. In a lecture delivered in 1932, “Die moralische Entgiftung Europas” (the moral decontamination of Europe), Zweig called for well-organized student exchanges to reduce political tensions and collective animosities. He felt that the history of culture and of the human spirit rather than military or political history should be taught in the schools of the world. Some causes for which Zweig worked tirelessly and that seemed Utopian during his lifetime, such as Franco-German understanding, are actualities today. Zweig’s apotheosis of Brazil, his last refuge, shows that his interest was not limited to Europe and that he was alive to both the problems and the potentialities of what is now called the Third World. “Our greatest debt of gratitude,” wrote Zweig in his unfinished last work, a study of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, “is to those who in these inhuman times confirm the human in us, who encourage us not to abandon our unique and imperishable possession: our innermost self.” These words also sum up Stefan Zweig’s quest and his achievement.


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Zweig’s activities as a cultural mediator, and in particular as a translator of poetry, significantly shaped his own creativity as a poet. His first great idol was Verhaeren, and Zweig’s initial lack of self-sufficiency may have made him respond all the more strongly to certain antithetical traits which he found in the Belgian poet: a hymnal spirit, a prodigious strength, universal love, enthusiasm, and a feeling of exaltation. What others regarded as a barren field for poetry—the machines, the big cities, the industrial life, the masses of people, the entire ferment of modern civilization—Verhaeren considered eminently fertile material for poetic expression. His example purged Zweig’s own poetry of the last vestiges of fin de siècle decadence. After the decisive caesura of World War I, however, Zweig did not attempt to emulate Verhaeren’s poetic style. The three-volume edition of Verhaeren’s writings that Zweig translated and edited for the Insel Verlag in 1910 included a volume containing his translations (from the French) of fifty-one of Verhaeren’s poems; another volume had preceded it in 1904. Other French poets for whom Zweig served as a sensitive translator and commentator are Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. His translations from Verhaeren, Baudelaire, and Verlaine are rightly reprinted in the edition of Zweig’s collected poetry issued in 1966.

“Der Sechzigjährige dankt”

After the appearance of Die gesammelten Gedichte in the mid-1920’s, Zweig concentrated on his fiction and biographies, writing poetry only occasionally. Particular poignance attaches to his last poem, “Der Sechzigjährige dankt” (the sixty-year-old gives thanks), which Zweig sent a few months before his death to close friends who had congratulated him on his birthday. This widely admired poem has been set to music by Henry Jolles and by Felix Wolfes. It bespeaks serenity despite the poet’s presentiment of death, expresses calm detachment and resignation as “farewell’s blazing gloss” opens up new vistas, and says that what remains of life can be enjoyed sub specie aeternitatis, for the approach of old age frees one from the constraints, burdens, and goads of desire, ambition, and self-recrimination.


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Arens, Hanns, ed. Stefan Zweig: A Tribute to His Life and Work. Translated by Christobel Fowler. London: W. H. Allen, 1951. A short biographical and critical study of Zweig’s oeuvre.

Klawiter, Randolph J. Stefan Zweig: An International Bibliography. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1999. A valuable reference catalog of publications by and about Zweig.

Spitzer, Leo. Lives in Between: The Experience of Marginality in a Century of Emancipation. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. A study of three broadly different yet compellingly similar human stories that range from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. This important work focuses on three marginal groups—Jews in Austria, mulattoes in Brazil, and freed slaves in Sierra Leone—and their tragic quest for assimilation. Within the study of the experiences of Jews in Austria, Spitzer examines the historical, sociological, and psychological aspects of Stefan Zewig’s life.

Zweig, Stefan. Stefan Zweig, Joseph Gregor: Correspondence, 1921-1938. Edited by Kenneth Birkin. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago, 1992. A collection of letters that provides invaluable insight into Zewig’s life and work. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.

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