Why did I read four biographies of Stefan Zweig?

[Trigger warning: talk of suicide and despair, including a disturbing picture.]

Why did I read four (well, three and a half) biographies of Stefan Zweig in a row? The short answer is, I’m not sure. The long answer will take us through train rides, insomnia, paragraph-structure, marriage, suicide, political despair, and then leave us where the short answer did, in uncertainty. So come along if you don’t mind futility.

These days I choose what to read according to spontaneous interest or arbitrary schemas, in order to maintain the impetuosity of my enthusiasm. Lately I’ve put the list of all the books I want to read onto Goodreads, where I can order them by author or publication or title or whatever. Just for the serendipity of the thing, I’ve been reading them alphabetically by title. I had a long train ride coming up, so I needed a journey-specific project, and I was getting a little tired of books beginning with A. First I thought I’d start from the other end and read one beginning with Z. But then that seemed too predictable. So I really mixed things up and decided to start with authors whose last names begin with Z. Which led me to Stefan Zweig.

I got hold of a few of his novellas, and his wildly acclaimed autobiography, The World of Yesterday, and settled in for my train ride.

Clive James had alerted me to the existence of Zweig in his crotchety fabulous Cultural Amnesia. According to James, Zweig was important for the friendships he cultivated and for the portrait The World of Yesterday paints of pre-war Vienna; his fictions, James thought (if I’m remembering correctly), were competent but inconsiderable.

Well, by the end of my trip I disagreed with James. I found Zweig’s novellas masterpieces of concentrated narrative. And most of the world agrees with me, having kept him continuously in print. The US is waking back up to him too, and recent years have seen lots of new translations and republications and biographies and so on. Zweig is in the air. He ought to be. I felt that I had a lot to learn from his craft as a writer. His paragraphs for example, dazzled me. They’re longer than you find in contemporary fiction. But they’re also propulsive and remarkably orderly, even while they seemed to grow organically from the demands of the story. They are a strange hybrid of the logically unfolding paragraph of the essayist or historian and the dancing-forward, streaming paragraph of the story-teller. Here he is, for example, describing a professor who only really comes alive as the genius he is when a lecture rises spontaneously from a discussion in his classes:

Soon what began as mere intellectual conversation became electrical excitement and took fire, with his skilful hand fanning the flames— forceful argument countered claims made casually, sharp and keen interjections heated the discussion until the students were almost at loggerheads with each other. Only once the sparks were really flying did he intervene, calming the overexcited atmosphere and cleverly bringing the debate back to its subject, but at the same time giving it stronger intellectual stimulus by moving it surreptitiously into a timeless dimension— and there he suddenly stood amidst the play of these dialectical flames, in a state of high excitement himself, both urging on and holding back the clashing opinions, master of a stormy wave of youthful enthusiasm which broke over him too. Leaning against the desk, arms crossed, he looked from one to another, smiling at one student, making a small gesture encouraging another to contradict, and his eyes shone with as much excitement as yesterday. I felt he had to make an effort not to take the words out of their mouths. But he restrained himself— by main force, as I could tell from the way his hands were pressed more and more firmly over his breast like the stave of a barrel, as I guessed from the mobile corners of his mouth, which had difficulty in suppressing the words rising to his lips. And suddenly he could do it no longer, he flung himself into the debate like a swimmer into the flood— raising his hand in an imperious gesture he halted the tumult as if with a conductor’s baton; everyone immediately fell silent, and now he summed up all the arguments in his own vaulting fashion.

(Admittedly I also like this paragraph because it describes—and I say this without imputing to myself the success Zweig’s character has with it—almost exactly the method I used to lecture when I taught philosophy. I’d stir up an argument, nurture it like a little fire—the same metaphor has even occurred to me—and restrain myself from jumping in until things had gotten really intense and I could count on the students caring about my intervention.)

But anyway, after I’d read a few of his novellas, I moved on to Zweig’s autobiography. The World of Yesterday was certainly remarkable, evocative, fascinating, but it raised more questions for me than it settled.

theworldofyesterday

Zweig had purposefully retired into the background of his own autobiography, but I couldn’t help wondering about his career—how did he support himself when he decided to just take a few years off to translate obscure French poets? How did he parachute into a regular gig at the Viennese equivalent of the New Yorker, becoming one of their lead essayists when still in his teens? Why did he turn from writing poetry to writing the narrative fiction for which he became famous? Also, naturally, his personal life intrigued me—what was his relationship to Judaism when his career was launched by the founder of Zionism and yet he himself became the living symbol of pan-Europeanism, an avatar and advocate of assimilation? How did he make friends so easily—seemingly considered a bestie by everybody who was anybody in Middle European culture—even when he was a nobody absconding to France from graduate school in Berlin? And of course, why did he commit suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, with his much, much younger second wife Lotte, shortly aftering mailing in The World of Yesterday for publication?

I would have to read another biography.

But I didn’t get to it for a few days, too busy socializing at the place my train had taken me. Then, one night, I found myself sweating onto a matress in an air-conditionerless basement where the humidity was approximately 323%—breathing felt like chugging a glass of water—and the dark, lucid wings of insomnia unfolded above me. So I got up and downloaded onto my Kindle a biography-cum-memoir by Zweig’s first wife, Frederike, and proceeded to read it in one sitting.

federikeandstefan
Federike and Stefan Zweig

It was a strange mixture of compelling memories and shrewd analysis interwoven with unreadable schmaltz and special pleading. The first caution of a biography about an artist who took their own life must be, I think, not to interpret the whole life as a journey to suicide; but Zweig’s wife is understandably fixated on his end, and you can tell a lot of her character-analysis is basically an attempt to understand why he did it, and to blame it, as much as possible, on the woman he left her for. I found Friderike’s information illuminating. She explained some of the contradiction I had noticed in The World of Yesterday, such as the way Zweig castigates the sexual repression of the pre-WWI Vienna but then complains about the sexual freedom of post-WWI Vienna. He apparently exhibited the same contradictions about freedom as a step-parent:

He could not, he said, repress a feeling of envy at seeing the youth of today enjoying itself in such free and easy fashion. And this explained a strange trait, entirely contradictory to the rest of his nature: incited by such memories, he would suddenly deprive the children of some harmless pleasure he himself had suggested. Such retractions, coming from a man who loved to make people happy, seemed inconceivably harsh.

One of the sad implications of Frederike’s biography—and I don’t doubt her for a moment, because it’s an old, familiar story—is that Zweig’s demands as an artist whose life needed to be managed by others and protected from disturbance stole her own career from her.

As guardian of his inner world I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances. Therefore — a fact but seldom openly confessed — I was to have no world of my own, no work of my own that might possibly deflect me from my watch. The circle was widely extended, but I had to stay within it.

I was glad for the shadows Frederike’s biography added to my perception of Zweig. But now I had become interested in her, curious how candid her apparently very open and honest memoir actually was. Some things struck me: even in her own account of their romance, for example, it’s clear that Frederike decided she would go get Zweig for herself, even before he knew who she was, when she was a young unhappily married mother of two. She got him, and according to her became the light of his life, only to be betrayed for a secretary after twenty years of marriage. I had no real desire to exonerate Zweig of being a patriarch, a shitty father, or a ungrateful lover; but there are usually two sides to stories of domestic distress.

So when I got home from my trip I picked up another biography of Zweig, this one by George Prochnik: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.

impossibleexile

Here I feel a made a mistake. I don’t mean that Prochnik’s is a bad book or that I regret reading it, but the reason I wanted to read it was to clear up some of the details about Zweig’s career that remained for me, and to add to that an assessment of Frederike’s candor as a memoirist. Prochnik’s book isn’t actually a biography. It’s a meditation on exile and a very moving investigation of the reasons for which Zweig committed suicide, presented in a mixture of novelistic scenes, brief out-of-chronology explorations of his past, and comparisons to the experience of other exiles, including, most prominently, Prochnik’s own grandparents. It was interesting; but it answered virtually none of my questions and raised a bunch more. I think I’ll probably write something about the book on its own account another day. In the story of why I read four biographies of Zweig, however, its role is just that it wasn’t what I needed at the time.

I confess it: at this point I began to get tired of Zweig. I was an absurd expert on certain details of his life. I could probably write my own biography, of considerable length, just from memory. But, an intractable puzzle, I couldn’t leave his life alone, particularly because I still hadn’t gotten any real insight into the things that most concern me when I read a writer’s biography: the material basis of their career, their working habits, how they learned their craft, whether they felt they had completed their work when they died, that sort of thing.

So, with some hesitation, I picked up my fourth biography, Matuschek’s Three Lives. Immediately, it became clear I should have begun with that biography. It was a normal chronological study, based on an exhaustive survey of available sources—including new batches of letters and so forth—and fully satisfying me as to the material details and personal chronologies I was so curious about. But a weird transformation in my motivations for continuing to study Zweig began to take shape as soon as I realized I’d found what I wanted.

threelives

Suddenly I didn’t care about my usual practical interests in this writer I liked. Suddenly I was obsessed with his suicide.

The unthinkable had occurred. I’d fallen prey to that morbid kind of clue-seeking attitude that afflicts biographers of artists like Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway. I blame Prochnik. The end of his book is a truly horrifying account of Zweig’s last hours, and of how his body and that of Lotte, his young wife, were found. Some of Lotte’s clothes were in an untidy heap beside the bed, and it was apparent she’d taken her poison shortly after Zweig. Prochnik speculates that Zweig took his while she was in the shower or bath, and she realized what had happened only after it had happened; she was faced suddenly with the choice of whether to follow him or not. Prochnik has this line I’d like to quote—but don’t have the book in my hands at the moment—about how Zweig looks dead, but Lotte looks in love. That’s because after she took her poison, she climbed in beside her already dead husband, she lay down on her side, gazing at his face, and wound her fingers through his. To pound home the nail with a last blow of the emotional hammer, on the last page Prochnik prints the death photo he is describing. I doubt I’ve recreated the effect of these pages in my brisk summary, but this is what they did to me: I was now obsessed with Zweig’s suicide, with the existential fact of it, with imagining it, horrified and fascinated.

Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.
Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.

As a result I gave up on the last, best biography of Zweig halfway through it. It was now not the book I wanted. As Emil Cioran says:

Each desire provokes in me a counterdesire, so that whatever I do, all that matters is what I have not done.

I gave up reading, but I didn’t give up thinking. I continued to obsess over Zweig’s last days, to imagine the causes and moment of his suicide.

He was by then a refugee. A wealthy and opportunity-rich refugee, admittedly, but one exiled from land and language. His books were banned in both Germany and Austria. He had spent a few years flying, dissatisfied, from country to country, Britain, the US, Brazil. Just before decided to do the deed, he and Lotte had descended into Rio for Carnival, a festival that tended to put him back into his usually happy, gregarious, life-loving frame of mind. Something happened during that trip. Perhaps he read some of the newspapers, with their stories of German advance on the fronts of WWII. Perhaps it was a chance remark a friend made to him around that time, when he casually asked them whether they thought Brazil was safe from Nazi agression—they thought not, that Hitler might come for them, and Zweig’s face had shown he took this prediction much harder than its source warranted. Whatever the case, he was suffering from political despair.

The situation seemed hopeless. Because he had invested his entire life in the cultivation of international literature with a specifically political purpose—the creation of a European culture that could transcend the disgusting aggressions of nationalism—he experienced that political despair as an existential despair, a despair about himself and his own life. Despite his continued wealth, the wife he loved, his many friendships, the prospect of continued work, and the beauty of the landscape in his adopted country—despite all this, he was done with life.

It occurred to me today, when I sat down to write a blog post for an hour (and then apparently forgot about that limit and wrote this behemoth instead) that I finally feel like I understand Zweig. I feel some small taste of political despair myself right now, the day before the first presidential debate in the most sickening election cycle of my life. I can hardly bear what is happening to my country or what may happen to the world, and I am oppressed by nightmares and dark daydreams about how things could, will, must go terribly wrong and plunge our century into bloodshed and hatreds that will make the 20th century look like an era of humanity and hope. I don’t pretend this is a fraction of the political despair felt by Stefan Zweig; but perhaps reading about him was a way for me to cope with my own small despairing. That’s my best but still inadequate explanation for why I read three and a half biographies of the same person in a row.


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Notes on Book Reviewing

I’ve been a regular contributor and editor for the long-form book review journal Open Letters Monthly for two years now. [Editorial note: no longer an editor; gave all that up for writing more. But what I say in this essay still appears valid to me.] But I don’t claim any special authority on the subject of book reviews. If my time on that staff has taught me anything, it’s how many levels there are on the parnassus of criticism. I’m maybe on level two, which, hey, is above level one, but if I squint I can see reviewers on levels twelve and thirteen, so…

The fact remains that I have now written many more long-ish book reviews than the average person (34 at OLM, by my count), received and watched others receive the always sharp and wise advice of my fellow editors, and edited dozens of others’ reviews.

Lately, a number of friends have urged me to write down any advice I might have about writing book reviews professionally. Bearing in mind that I’m not a professional—I’ve never earned a red cent for a book review [editorial note, 2017: happily this is no longer true], and am not, as a consequence, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, though I rather expect to be someday—nonetheless I’m happy to offer what I have. What follows are my own provisional conclusions about book reviewing.

Learn to love summarizing.

There is only one non-negotiable element in a book review and that’s summary. Some of the most influential book reviews — the reviews that determine whether a bookseller will even carry a book or a library purchase it, often published in places like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist — are tiny, paragraph-long things which do the majority of their work through good summary. Long-form essay-reviews of the type published by Open Letters Monthly also need good summary: in fact, in their case, precisely because of their length, there is absolutely no excuse to leave a reader unsure what a book is about.

Unfortunately, to the beginning book reviewer summaries can carry the odor of schoolwork. They reminded me disagreeably of book reports at first, something I gladly left behind in grade school. But I learned to love them by embracing them as an opportunity for artistry. A sprightly and tight summary is a real feat both of prose and of thinking. You have to condense a few hundred pages into a few sentences, and you have to do it in an interesting way. Opposite dangers of boring but precise over-qualification and interesting but too-quick misrepresentation dog your steps.

I think that, other than the opening and closing of a book review, the summary section should probably receive the greatest care and the most revision. It’s worth getting right. And if you do it well, that’s the difference between a book review no one will read, and one in which they understand your subject and are willing to entertain your own precious thoughts that follow the summary.

Assorted keys to a good summary: (1) it should come as early as it can without ruining the lede (on which, see below); (2) it should definitely include sentences, if possible, about the experience and qualifications of the author, about the genre of the book, and about the book’s main thesis (if non-narrative) or situation (if narrative); (3) if possible it shouldn’t telegraph an evaluation.

Three is particularly important to me, though I know good book reviewers who do otherwise. I think—and this is a view plenty of you won’t share—that even a denunciation is better when the denounced thing is given a full and sympathetic hearing. Summary is where that hearing occurs. Hatchet job or puff job, in any review the point of a summary is a clear, concise statement of what kind of book is under discussion and what that book has to say. Feel free to eviscerate it only after you’ve clearly stated its contents; otherwise you’re fighting dirty.

Don’t just summarize.

Despite its importance, summarizing does not exhaust the functions of a book review. Too often, a new reviewer for Open Letters Monthly will send us a lovely long essay-review which amounts to nothing but summary. Academics are especially prone to this, trained as they are to produce scholarly works five parts summary to one part original idea.

What else is there to do in a book review besides summarize the book? Well, for starters: you could contextualize or explain the book’s content or form, relating it to other books; you could extrapolate from one of its themes, anecdotes, or theses to your own experiences and ideas; you could compare it to a similar book; and you could render a judgment on the quality of its prose, organization, validity, or truth.

The cool thing about book reviewing is that it doesn’t really matter what level of expertise you bring to a book, you can still write a good review. An expert can emphasize contextualization and explanation, a neophyte can emphasize extrapolation, and anybody can make a judgment.

That last comment deserves its own gloss, because I don’t mean the old-fashioned magisterial thumbs up-or-down of the newspaper book critic. More and more I find that kind of judgment and its presumption of impossible expertise repellant. Therefore, I suggest that you…

Avoid lazy evaluative abstractions.

Yes a book review has a normative function, and the people who write them are called critics for a reason. But it’s uninteresting to crustily brute about that this book is brilliant, that one abysmal, this one magisterial, that one better unwritten. These abstractions—of which the most inventive book reviewer runs out pretty quickly—are lazy. They are, in the lingo of philosophers, “thin” ascriptions of normativity, like saying somebody “did a bad thing” rather than that they “stole” or “murdered” or “insulted” etc. If you tell me someone “did a bad thing”, I’ll ask you, “what, exactly?” Same with book reviews.

Instead of thin, lazy evaluative abstractions, you should describe the particular kind of badness or goodness that you have discerned in a book. If you do it with enough precision, you can give weight to your flat abstractions or, better yet, dispense with them altogether.

This is why I said anybody can offer a useful judgment on a book. If James Wood said flatly, “this is a bad book,” it would mean no more to me, and be no more helpful, than if Joe Schmoe said, “this is a bad book.” Both of them would do better to describe the features of the book that seemed good or bad to them in detail, showing me with quotations and accurate summary, giving me reasons rather than bland conclusions.

Even if I disagree with a book reviewer, I respect their judgment if it takes the form of detailed evaluative description rather than a pronouncement I am supposed to accept on their bare authority. I can disagree with a detailed evaluative description in a particular way—perhaps you dislike the casual style of D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, for example. I would disagree with you, but find your judgment interesting because it’s pinned to an identifiable feature of an actual book, whereas if you announce in stentorian tones, “D.H. Lawrence is a bad writer,” I not only disagree with you, but I’m going to despise the laziness of your evaluation.

Don’t be a tool.

Two traps that bedevil the critic: to accept a role merely as a cog in the economy of book selling, and to reject the role of a cog in the economy of book selling.

It can feel great to find your review excerpted on the praise-page of a book or on a publisher’s website. It might make you feel part of The Conversation. Don’t fool yourself. It’s empty — like getting excited a famous person responded to your tweet — proof only that you gave a thirsty publicist the sort of copy they needed to move books.

Look, I love me some publicists. They send me free books all the time! But we have different jobs and when my words and their desires converge, it should be a contingent by-product of my honest, accurate account of a book, not the result of a tacit conspiracy of mutual aggrandizement.

But it’s possible to be another kind of tool. To avoid even the implied judgment of precise, accurate description, and to leave your reader unsure whether you respected or despised a book. That, in my opinion, is also egregious. You’re a finite being whose limited perspective is always attended by feeling response to the things you concentrate upon. You thought the book was worth reading or not. Convey that information.

Get right to the point.

Now some more nuts-and-bolts suggestions. My first applies not just to book reviews but to literally any piece of writing, unless you have a very good reason to ignore it.

State your main idea early.

This implies two things: first, that you have a main idea, and second that you’re clear enough about it to state it succinctly.

I don’t think your main idea should be a simple thumbs up or down on the book (see the section on lazy evaluative abstractions above), but rather an evaluation-tinged observation about a feature of the book. For example, here are abstracted, one-sentence summaries of the main idea of several recent reviews I wrote:

(1) Existentialism is best told through the biographies of its main proponents, and Sarah Bakewell’s latest successfully does this.

(2) John Berger’s background as artist, novelist, and marxist make him a critic who appreciates and describes features of art works that others ignore.

(3) Friedrich Nietzsche’s lectures on education resonate with similar contemporary critiques, but should give us pause for that very reason.

That’s the sort of thing I (obviously) think a book review should be about: an observation not directly about the worth of the book, which nevertheless has consequences for the worth of the book.

Don’t neglect the lede

The lede is the hook, the opening paragraph or two (or three or four) from which you circle in to a summary of the book and a statement of your main idea. Its function is to be interesting. The stronger its connection to what follows the better, of course; but its main function, I repeat, is to be interesting. You can begin with summary, and if you’re an unusually interesting summarizer that can even be a good lede. You can begin, like a philosophical paper in an academic journal, with a bare statement of your thesis. And, again, if you have a surprising or unusually gripping thesis, that can work just fine.

But normally neither summary nor main point are going to be very hook-like. This is a book review you’re writing. A genre that proliferates like rabbits, a lowly mass-produced genre, and you’re likely competing with dozens of other reviews of the same book. Why should anyone take the time to read you?

Because you’re interesting. So be interesting, in sentence number one.

What’s interesting? Stories are interesting—I think a narrative opening is always the most gripping, and I’m not alone in that. Controversial or counter-intuitive assertions are interesting. Descriptions of inherently interesting things are interesting. But the common denominator in interesting ledes is—emotion.

I think if you want to be interesting you need to make a reader feel something. That can be curiosity, horror, delight, nostalgia, sorrow, amusement, whatever. But the more intense the feeling you inspire, the more interesting you are.

Conclude by returning to the point.

I’m not sure about this point. How to end book reviews still bedevils me as a technical problem. But the one fail-safe method that always seems to draw appreciative comments from other editors, and which I find myself admiring when I read other people’s book reviews, is an ending that alludes to the beginning.

But there are other ways to end. This is something I plan to study, and I’ll report back when I do. For now though, I can tell you this: circling back to the beginning is one safe way to go.

[Editorial note, 2017: I still think closing the circle is a good way to end a book review. There are others, equally effective. For instance, if the overall structure of your review is the form of a question, the end could be an answer. Another great thing to do is start to tell a really gripping story at the beginning of the review and finish it, or say something about its aftermath, at the end. The point is, like the lede, the kicker (writer-speak for ending) should generate some kind of interest in a reader by evoking an emotion in them.]

Have a structure.

You want neither to repeat yourself unduly, nor to write a collection of fragments masquerading as an essay. This piece of advice applies only to long-form reviews I think. A short, 500-word or fewer review kind of has a necessary form, just based on the inclusion of all a book review’s elements. But beyond that you have to make organizational decisions, and the thing will be more effective and memorable for readers if those decisions are logical.

Hide your structure.

Final piece of advice, related to the last one: rarely, but frequently enough to mention, we get writers who have so clearly organized their review that it feels like a paper. I mean it feels like an academic essay, where the goal is always very explicit organization.

I think one of the major differences between academic and literary writing is that literary writing attempts to disguise the bones of its organization. Mostly this involves two things: (1) literary writing dispenses with too-obvious sign-posting. None of this, “first I am going to… then I am going to… and finally I am going to.” (2) Literary writing takes care to make the transitions between paragraphs horizontal rather than vertical.

What do I mean by that last point? I mean that in literary writing, the first sentence of one paragraph follows from the last sentence of the previous paragraph, while in academic writing, it often follows a pre-stated schematic order. Academics think nothing of abruptly moving from one topic to another between paragraphs, so long as they have explicitly signaled that they will follow this progression. That’s fine, it fits their goals. But book reviewers are, for the most part, doing something more belletristic, and I think a certain organicism of prose follows that function. (The most magnificently organic paragraph writer, in my opinion, is William Gass, in his essays. Study A Temple of Texts.)

If you need examples of this difference, let me suggest looking back at this post. Between sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles what I am describing as academic paragraphing, and within sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles literary paragraphing.

(I’m over-generalizing about both academic and literary prose, obviously. But I think there’s something to my observation anyway.)

Go ye forth and review some books

That’s pretty much it. I hope that any pro (or good amateur) book reviewers will contribute their disagreements and additions in the comments, and I’ll take a stab at any questions.

Also, should you feel inspired by this post to write a book review, hit me up in my capacity as an editor of Open Letters Monthly—I’ll gladly talk to you about getting you a book (book reviewers get free books—did you know that?!) and working with you to publish your piece with us. [Editorial note: I’m not editing anymore. Turns out I like writing more, much more. But the Open Letters Monthly folks are still ready and eager to publish your longform book reviews. Hit them up. {Further editorial note: Alas, Open Letters Monthly is no longer publishing new material. But there are myriad other venues! Go ye forth and find them.}]