Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Stefan Zweig: ethnicity is not enough

Three statements from a recent "Open Book" edition surprised me: first, that nobody in the UK has heard of Stefan Zweig; second, that his work was "accessible"; and third, that he did not, in his writings, tackle Nazism head-on.

In fact, Zweig's name has come up more frequently in Richard Strauss's 150th anniversary year, as the composer famously refused  under pressure from the Nazi authorities  to remove his Jewish librettist's name from the programme for "Die Schweigsame Frau". But it is as a supreme exponent of the novella - the long short story - that Zweig's reputation rests. I cannot believe that any Briton who is interested in the arts at all has not come across the story of the art collector now blind who can describe his etchings from memory to a visitor; "The Royal Game" (Schachnovelle), [Genfer See] or even Max Ophuls' film "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (from Brief einer Unbekannten) This is before Wes Anderson's hat-tip.

As to the easy-to-read prose, I suggest that this is down to the English translation. My recollection of tackling "Buchmendel" for A-levels in the 1950s is that Zweig makes maximum use of gender in the German language to build long but unambiguous sentences from multiple subordinate clauses. There is a particular extended metaphor comparing the retrieval of old memories to fishing in deep, dark oceans which I had hoped to find on the web - the text of the metaphor, that is, not the oceans. (You can see how it is easier in the German language to link to the female Metapher rather than to the plural oceans.) I didn't find that one, but I did find this description of memory destruction (memory is clearly an abiding interest of Zweig) in Ken Frieden's critique of Buchmendel:
in dem phantastischen Kunstbau seines Gedächtnisses mußte irgendein
Pfeiler eingestürzt und das ganze Gefüge in Unordnung geraten sein:
denn so zart is ja unser Gehirn, dies aus subtilster Substanz gestaltete
Schaltwerk, dies feinmechanische Präzisionsinstrument unseres Wissens
zusammengestimmt, daß ein gestautes Aderchen, ein erschütterter
Nerv, eine ermüdete Zelle, daß ein solches verschobenes Molekül schon
zureicht, um die herrlich umfassendste, die sphärische Harmonie eines
Geistes zum Verstummen zu bringen.

(in the fantastic artistic frame of his memory some pillar must have collapsed
and left the entire structure in disorder; for our mind is so delicately
tuned - this circuitry of subtlest materials, this fine, mechanical,
precision instrument of our knowing - that an obstructed vein, a convulsed
nerve. a worn-out cell, or a misplaced molecule suffices, in order
to silence even the masterful, most comprehensive, harmony of the spirit.

I am grateful to the Professor Frieden's commentary for the literal translation, which would be beyond me these days, but you don't need to read German to take the point: the example is just part of one sentence.

The third criticism has more substance. "Buchmendel" is suffused with Jewishness - boys at Oldershaw Grammar were grateful to our part-Jewish German master for explaining a bit of Yiddish which had escaped the clearly Anglo-Saxon editor of our set text - but Zweig's dream was of a world at peace, beyond religious and racist affiliations. Part of his dream was of a united Europe, the first signs of which he would have seen if he had not given up on life just as the war was turning against the Nazis.

There is more here.

No comments: