There was a bit of a furore over on the LibraryThing NYRB group recently on the subject of Stefan Zweig. I follow the group because I like a lot of the books NYRB publish, and I was interested in the thread because I’ve read a few Zweigs and in many ways feel I haven’t quite got a handle on him yet. The views on LT were quite polarised, with some writers loving his work and some trashing him. One commenter linked to a piece from the London Review of Books several years ago, a really venomous article that absolutely laid into Zweig – pilloried him as a writer and a person, which seemed a little out of proportion to me (and frankly, in places it was really distasteful and disrespectful). Certainly, the Zweigs I’ve read are very personal, inward looking stories, but that doesn’t seem reason enough to condemn him.

zweig
Digging about on the net, I came to another piece in the Guardian which again questioned his reputation. The feeling seems to be that he wrote trivial, superficial tales, refusing to engage with the changes in the world around him, the collapse of his empire and the bigger issues. However, one commenter on the Guardian, Will Stone (I assume maybe the translator of “Rilke in Paris, which I reviewed here) sprang to Zweig’s defence and mentioned the short story “Buchmendel” as an example of Zweig’s art. I was intrigued enough to search this out, as I felt much of the criticism was unjustified.

“Buchmendel” appears in an old volume from Pushkin Press of Zweig’s “Selected Stories”, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. As it opens, a writer takes shelter from the rain in a bar. Sitting waiting for the storm to pass, a hint of memory flashes into his consciousness – he knows the bar somehow, has been there before, and as he struggles to regain the past and walks round the room, his memory suddenly comes back. Before the First World War, he used to visit the same bar, when he was a student; and he starts to recall the most striking personality in the bar, Jakob Mendel, who was in effect a walking library. On any subject, his prodigious brain could recall the books to read, and he could find rarities for students and scholars. His celebrity was such that he was allowed to stay in the bar at all times, sending out for meals, while people came to consult him. But now the war is over, the world has changed and the bar is in different hands. How can the narrator find out what happened to Mendel? Luckily, there is still one old staff member at the bar who can tell him…

Buchmendel

Well, Will Stone was right. This story is a powerful argument in favour of Zweig’s talents as a writer, and a strong refutation of the accusation of his lack of engagement with the real world. The narrator is emotional about  the changes that have taken place in his world, saddened at the fate of Mendel, regretful of the missing past. But this is no overwrought and highly coloured tale of love and loss; instead it is the story of an intelligent but blinkered man overtaken and crushed by events. Zweig engages with the brutality of the real world, the stupidity of those in uniform and authority, and the increasing intolerance of modern society towards those who do not fit in. Mendel lives in a world of his own, of books and learning, and is totally unsuited to deal with the closed, narrow minds of the military. The end is inevitable and moving, and I empathised with Zweig’s narrator in his elegiac recalling of a lost world. And the writing is superb, particularly at the start when the narrator is suddenly assailed by a sense of deja vu, trying to dredge for lost memories, for a past he has put out of mind.

I’m so glad Stone’s comment pointed me to “Buchmendel”; the criticisms of the naysayers have gone down in my estimation and Zweig has gone up. His talent as a writer is enormous, to be able to pack such emotional punch into one short story, and comment on civilization versus brutality. There is room for all kinds of literature in the world, and you don’t have to write a huge political novel, railing at the world, to make a point. Like Zweig, you can work on a smaller canvas, but with skill like his the effect can be just as devastating. I shall *definitely* be reading more Zweig.

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