Re-read Zweig

by | 8 Aug 2016 | Art – Literature

On February 22, 1942, after saying goodbye and sorting out his things (he even left a note about his dog, entrusted to friends), Stefan Zweig put an end to his life by poisoning himself with Veronal, a powerful barbiturate. This gesture, he made it with Lotte, who was refusing to survive his companion.

From Brazil, where they had taken refuge, he had just sent his publisher his hymn to European culture, to be published two years later under the title “The World of Yesterday : Memories of a European” (German title “Die Welt von Gestern : Erinnerungen eines Europäers”). He returned to the main stages of his life, offering his testimony to this world in destruction, as if he wanted to leave a trace of yesterday that he had loved so much.

It’s summer, and it’s good to read Musso. But you have to re-read Zweig, the European:

“Born in 1881 into a great and powerful empire […], I had to leave it as a criminal. My literary work, in its original language, has been reduced to ashes. Stranger everywhere, Europe is lost for me … I witnessed the most terrible defeat of reason […]. This pestilence of pestilence, nationalism, has poisoned the flower of our European culture”

So much was said about this “political” suicide! And how not to be seized by the temptation to return to this sort of feelings, looking at this Europe that despairs us.

But those who see his death as a political gesture have not read him, it is not possible! Or, then, they know nothing of the pains and sorrows of an existence!

In his farewell message, Zweig wrote: “One should have special strengths to start life over again. And mine are exhausted by long years of wandering. Also, I think it is better to put an end on time, and head up, to an existence where intellectual work has always been the purest joy, and individual freedom the supreme good of this world. I greet all my friends. May they still see the dawn after the long night! As me, I’m too impatient, I’m leaving before them.”

Even more than today, a lover of Europe and peace could only despair of his time. No doubt the situation of the world in 1942 has contributed to his depression … But in his word, Zweig does not speak about it: he speaks only of him in truth, and that is what is so touching because so essential: “start over again from top to bottom” he writes.

Not a lot of politics in that ! But the despair of a man, obsessed to suffocate by the inevitable passage of time and his failure to renew his life: the moment when in the night, we no longer believe in the “promise of dawn”, to use the beautiful title of Romain Gary.

Those who see Zweig’s death as a political gesture may not have read this clear message …

But at least, should they read or re-read his news: these stories of intense passion can sometimes go as far as morbid or madness. I think of “Amok”, “The Confusion of Feelings”, “Twenty-four hours of a woman’s life”, certainly my favourite, the “Chess Player” too. And even more, I think of this news, rediscovered in the hot hour just now, at the sound of cicadas: “Letter from an unknown”.

How not to see in this news in particular the truth of Stefan Zweig and his death: the suffocation of a desire not finding his answer.

We must also read this Zweig: not to despair, as long as there are cicadas ! But to share at a distance with him our difficulties, those moments that we sometimes have to go through, where we think we can no longer breathe from waking to bedtime, as we feel trapped in a vice by grief or doubt.

And for the beautiful testimony of a man who, at maturity, if he failed to renew his life, and if he finally gave up, at least tried.

As Henri Miller writes, “what good are the books if they do not bring them back to life, if they fail to make us drink with more greed”.

You have to read Zweig: all the better, it’s summer time !

Iconography: Truffle oaks in Drôme, France, August 7, 2016, personal collection. Post originally posted in French on LinkedIn.