Stefan Zweig Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Poets and Poetry, Complete Critical Edition)

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...

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(Poets and Poetry, Complete Critical Edition)

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...

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(Poets and Poetry, Complete Critical Edition)

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.


(Poets and Poetry, Complete Critical Edition)

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.