"The Pepsi of Austrian writing"

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.

One thought on “"The Pepsi of Austrian writing"

  1. Jaywalker

    While a joy to read, the review is deeply flawed and mean. Using Zweig’s desperate suicide for a cheap joke is not a sign of class but a token for the reviewer’s intention and mean streak.

    If Zweig is really Pepsi, who is the “real thing”? Zweig is no copy, no cheap version. He developed and mined two niches of his own: For his female readers, novels and short stories about caged women in psychological distress (mirroring Zweig’s in the closet/bisexual situation). For his male readers, biographies about pathbreakers, writers, scientists and politicians with a twist. Each biography mirrors part of Zweig and his time, e.g. Zweig disguised as non-violent, accomodating Erasmus vs the meaty Luther. Zweig’s account of Joseph Fouché, eminence grise and survivor of all the French Revolution, the Empire and the Restoration, is a treat for political junkies. The World Of Yesterday is still one of the finest tributes to the Habsburg Empire.

    Zweig is a smooth (no Dan Brown, he), sometimes a bit flowery writer – is readability really a flaw? Is it really wrong to outsource grammar and spell-checking? In fact, this is the key to Zweig’s productivity and readability. Delegating and accepting peer review prevents brilliant trainwrecks such as Musil’s Men without Qualities. Shouldn’t a writer not only be published but also read?

    Contemporary critics were mostly jealous about the commercial and public success of filthy rich kid Zweig. They sound like GM execs talking about Japanese cars. Instead of learning about Zweig’s processes, they hold their own non-performing struggles dear.

    The review also disregards Zweig’s tireless labor of love of translating and promoting other and lesser known writers. Overall, concentrating on Zweig’s weaknesses and neglecting his strengths does not do justice to the man and his work.

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