A new biography examines Stefan Zweig’s final years in exile

Stefan_Zweig2Benjamin Moser at Bookforum:

Perhaps the most famous exile, certainly in his day, was Stefan Zweig. Born in 1881 into the first rank of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie (his father owned a large textile corporation; his mother descended from an Austrian-Italian banking family), Zweig was subjected to the chilly upbringing and the rigorous classical training of a man of his time and rank. He studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, receiving his doctorate in 1904. His interest in art prevailed over this unsentimental education, and he declined to enter the family business, though he showed himself, while still very young, a worthy heir to his rich, energetic father. His first book, a volume of poetry called Silberne Saiten (Silver Chords), was published when he was just nineteen. Though he never allowed it to be reprinted in his lifetime, the little book heralded the beginning of a great career that included poetry and drama and journalism but is best remembered for biographies and novellas. His work—particularly novellas such as Fear (1920), Amok (1922), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922)—earned the praise of many of the leading figures in Europe, from Auguste Rodin to Sigmund Freud, who was also a friend and a subject (Zweig devoted an essay to the psychoanalyst in his 1932 book Mental Healers). By the 1920s, millions of copies of his books had been published in Europe and America, and he became the most translated author in the world. His books are charming, in the best sense of the word: They cast a spell. And though his subjects are never less than lofty, what one feels, when picking up his books, is only secondarily the interest of their subjects: The charm of the author himself comes first, and explains his enduring popularity. I have seen his books alongside the celebrity magazines and diet books in provincial French train stations, and in dozens of countries he is still, more than seven decades after his death, more popular than perhaps any writer of his generation. In the United States, his works have most recently been revived by the New York Review Books Classics series.

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