"The Incarnation of Humanism"

The bodies of expatriate Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and his wife were discovered on this day in 1942, the two having committing double suicide in Brazil. Zweig was popular during the prewar decades for a broad range of work — over two dozen novels and biographies, as well as plays, essays, and criticism — and his death made international headlines. Many reports carried excerpts from his suicide note:

…But after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering. So I hold it better to conclude in good time and with erect bearing a life for which intellectual labor was always the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on this earth.

Being Jewish, a man of letters, a pacifist, a humanist, and an internationalist, Zweig came to represent all that Hitler wished to destroy. The Nazis had banned or burned his work — the banning included one opera he created with Richard Strauss; the burning included his prized personal library in Salzburg, symbolically torched when Germany took over Austria in 1938 — and Zweig’s suicide was interpreted as a victory for barbarism.

After the war, Zweig’s popularity plummeted, and his books all but disappeared. But a revised edition of the only major English biography, Donald Prater’s European of Yesterday, was published in 2003, and several publishers have recently brought out new editions of some of Zweig’s novels — notably, Beware of Pity, published by both the Pushkin Press and the New York Review of Books Classics series. The last chapter of Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia (2007) has a  chapter on Zweig, “the incarnation of humanism.” The entries in Cultural Amnesia are arranged alphabetically, but the author reflects that Zweig is a fitting conclusion for his collection of essays, subtitled “Necessary Memories from History and the Arts.”  “His life, work, exile and self-inflicted death,” says James of Zweig, “combine to sum up so much of what has gone before, which is really the story of the will to achievement in the face of all the conditions for despair.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.