The decline of the Hapsburg Empire was long, and slow, and confusing, and it produced in the empire’s subjects that combination of desperation and indolence that results from staring down into a disaster one is powerless to avert. The years of secure prosperity were over, though many were prosperous still. Political and economic institutions—corrupted, and, it turned out, irreplaceable—careened out of control. In this late period of decline it began to seem possible, even if the idea was deplored, that collectivity had been a dream, that nothing existed but the individual, and so the people living in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire did what people do in such circumstances: They sought meaning and solace in life stories, in the successes of the illustrious and the tragedies of those understood to be ordinary. Perhaps this accounts in part for the fact that Stefan Zweig, born in 1881, became, in the period from 1910 until his suicide in 1942, one of Austria’s most popular writers by penning more than twenty biographical studies (on Erasmus, Balzac, Marie Antoinette, Magellan, Freud, Casanova, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and Mary Stuart, among others) and a number of fine, strange novellas, in which the characters very often tell the stories of their lives. Neither was Zweig’s popularity limited to the territories of the imploding empire. Translated during his lifetime into twenty-nine languages, his books were also best sellers in all the neighboring and chaotically restructuring European states.
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