I’ve written before about my father’s unfashionable taste for Lion Feuchtwanger. Another Mittel European whom he favored was Stefan Zweig, for his fiction more than for his historical works. Many are sitting on my shelves now, part of the library that was divided between my sisters and me. But I’m going to have to take another look, with some trepidation, after reading Michael Hofmann’s evisceration of Zweig in the London Review of Books:
Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing. He is the one whose books made films – 18 of them, and that’s the books, not the films (which come in at a stupefying 38). It makes sense: these are hypothetical and bloodless and stiltedly extreme monuments and monodramas for ‘teenagers of all ages’, as someone said, books composed for the bourgeoisie to give itself culture or a fright, which needed Hollywood or UFA to make them real, to give them expressions, faces, bodies, rooms and dialogue; and to drain some of the schematic grand guignol out of them. Of course he failed the Karl Kraus test – who didn’t? Kraus quotes some yea-sayer to the effect that Zweig with his novellas had conquered all the languages of the world, and adds two words of his own: ‘except one’. The story went the rounds that Zweig had his manuscripts checked for grammatical errors by a German professor, which gets most things about Zweig: the ineptitude, the anxiety to please, the respect for authority, and the use of others.
If you enjoy the virtuoso display of a critic tearing a reputation to shreds, read the whole thing. Feuchtwanger makes a guest appearance, incidentally: “Thomas Mann and his family spent diverting evenings – this in 1939 – debating which of Zweig, Ludwig, Feuchtwanger and Remarque was the worst writer.”
I’m curious what Hofmann, a great translator from German to English, think about the Zweig my father particularly rated, Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan, as far as I know). His The Case of Sergeant Grischa was regularly hailed in our house as the greatest anti-war novel ever written. I struggled through it with little reward 35 or so years ago. I should return to it and see what I think.