On 22 February 1942 Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular authors of his generation, committed suicide with his wife Lotte. The final, desperate gesture of this great writer has fascinated ever since.
Zweig was an exile, driven from his home in Austria by the Nazis. Fleeing first to London, then New York, trying always to escape both those who demonised him and those who acclaimed him, he eventually took his young bride to Brazil, where they were haunted by the life they'd been forced to abandon and by accounts of the violence in Europe.
Blending reality and fiction this novel tells the story of the great writer's final months. Laurent Seksik uncovers the man's hidden passions, his private suffering, and how he and his wife came to end their lives one peaceful February afternoon.
"He looked long and deep into her eyes. 'I'll go first,' he said. 'You'll follow me... if that's what you want.'"
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Laurent Seksik trained as a doctor, was a radiologist in a Paris hospital and continues to practise medicine alongside his work as a writer. Before The Last Days (2010) he published Les Mauvaises Pensées (1999, translated into ten languages), La Folle Histoire (2004, awarded the Littré Prize) and several other books, including a biography of Albert Einstein. The Last Days was a bestseller in France and has been translated into ten languages. The novel has been adapted for the stage into a very successful play, and a film version is currently in production. Seksik lives and works in Paris.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Days
By Laurent Seksik, André Naffis-Sahely
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2010 Flammarion, Paris
All rights reserved.
He threw a glance at the beige leather trunk next to the other suitcases in the corridor. He turned to face Mrs Banfield, that dear Margarida Banfield, and reached out to grasp the glass of water she had offered him. He thanked her and drained it in a single gulp. He declined her invitation to inspect the house. He was already acquainted with it. He had loved each of its three tiny rooms and their simple, rustic furniture, the shrill, passionate birdsong outside, as well as how vast the valley looked from the veranda. A few kilometres to the south, the Corcovado and Sugarloaf mountains loomed like monoliths above the islands rising out of the sea — landscapes that hold a special place in the heart of the world.
Goodbye to the fog engulfing the peaks of the Alps, the cold immobile twilight falling on the Danube, the lavish luxury of Viennese hotels, the walks at dusk under the tall chestnut trees in the Waldstein garden, the procession of beautiful women in their silk gowns, the pyromaniac charade of men in black uniforms hungry for the blood and the flesh of the dead. Petrópolis would be the place of new beginnings, the site of all origins, like the dust that man had been born in, and where he was fated to return, the primitive world, virgin and uncharted, a land blessed with order and certainties, a timeless garden where spring reigned forever.
He stood still in front of the trunk in a sort of peaceful hypnosis, as if under a spell. For the first time in months, he felt carefree. He fished inside his jacket's breast pocket for the key to his luggage, which he'd always kept on his person and often fingered like a lucky charm — amidst anxious crowds on platforms or piers while waiting for a train or a boat whose arrival time was shrouded in uncertainty. It worked its magic every time. Touching the key brought him back to the past. A single stroke of its cold metallic surface and he found himself in the horse-drawn carriage he used to ride around the Ring on his way to a premiere at the Burgtheater, or enjoying Schnitzler's company at Meissl & Schadn, or holding a conversation with Rilke in a Nollendorfplatz brasserie.
There would be no going back. Gone were the leisurely moments on the Elisabeth Bridge, the walks along the Hauptallee in the Prater, the sparkling gilding of the Schönbrunn Palace or the sunsets casting their long reddish glow on the banks of the Danube. The night would last for ever.
He turned the key. A crystal-clear light shone out of his open trunk. The sun was rising for a second time on that corner of Brazil. Long since trapped in a dreamless slumber, his spirit experienced a calm elation, while his heart began throbbing, emitting a powerful echo. His heart had started beating again.
He felt a presence behind him, thinking it was the wind. He turned around, convinced that Lotte was there, surveying the scene, finding peace in all that anguish, looking serene and motionless, knowing how to share the solemnity of a moment with him, calm and stoical — reclaiming all she had lost to those days and weeks of endless fear, when they had made their escape, always on the move, the uncertain waits for visas, the interminable queues of faces shedding tears as they pleaded in vain.
All sanctuaries had been desecrated and there were no fixed addresses one might reside at. It had become a roving sort of life, like the exodus of old.
He gazed at her. Her face, which beamed with charm, made him ask himself what right he had to tarnish the radiance of her glances, to consign this youth to the ruins of a beautiful past.
The journey would never end.
Mrs Banfield had prepared some tea, would he care for a cup? He shook his head, but this time his refusal had nothing to do with his sombre reservedness, which led him to decline most invitations. It was a feverish and impatient refusal, but a promising one.
They had finally found a place to lay down their baggage in that autumn of 1941. Many weeks later, they would still be watching the same sunset. For the first time since they'd been in London, they had a fixed address, just a simple address — 34 Rua Gonçalves Dias, Petrópolis, Brazil — where they could receive their post and write letters to their loved ones. But they had grown weary of London in the end.
Lotte started speaking to him, with a voice made gentler by her illness, which some days left her gasping for air — her incurable asthma worsened by all that travelling, which occasionally brought her to the brink of asphyxiation. On that morning, her voice did not betray the slightest ailment. Calmly, she said:
"I think we'll be all right. The location is fantastic. I'm certain you'll recover from all your travelling and get back to writing ... Perhaps this is where we'll settle into our dotage?"
He scanned his surroundings. The house was plunged in a penumbra. To the right, a narrow corridor opened into a square-shaped bedroom whose floor was covered with an old carpet. Twin beds on iron frames had been pushed together at the back of the room. There was a Bible and an ashtray on the bedside table. Plain white curtains were hanging from nails above the window.
The room gave onto a bathroom, where a couple of towels had been left on the edge of an aged enamel claw-foot tub. The kitchen appeared to be fully equipped. There was an oak table and four straw-backed chairs in the middle of the dining room, as well as a tired-looking leather armchair and a library. There were a few still lifes on the wall. It was a three-room house. They had only given him a six-month lease on the bungalow. In half a year's time, he would have to pack up and find somewhere else to stay. He counted the months with his fingers. Come March, they would be forced to leave. Raus! The Zweigs, out on the street! Six months in this nook in the middle of nowhere. A bright, desolate place. Yet did he have the right to complain? His nearest and dearest were presently drowning in an ocean of spilt blood, forced to look for shelter at night, to beg for a hundred dollars to see them through the winter, petitioning anyone with influence for a visa. They were outcasts, the People of the Book, who belonged to the tribe of writers. Taking that into account, the little house in Petrópolis was the most sumptuous of palaces.
He needed to forget his house in Salzburg, banish the memory of that majestic building in Kapuzinerberg, that eighteenth-century hunting lodge whose facade evoked those annexes on the grounds of the Neuschwanstein Castle where the Emperor Franz Josef had played as a child. This is where he'd felt most at ease, closeted behind its thick walls, which guarded over his solitude whether he was writing or in the grips of depression. That noble abode where he'd lived happily.
He had to forget Salzburg. Salzburg didn't exist any more, Salzburg was German. Vienna was German, a province of the Third Reich. Austria was no longer the name of a country. Austria was a ghost that haunted the minds of the dispersed. A lifeless cadaver. Its funeral had taken place in the Heldenplatz, accompanied by the hoorays of a people cheering their Führer. The man who had come to revive the dreams of yesteryear, to bring the lustre and purity back to a Jewified Vienna. Austria had offered itself to Hitler. Vienna, with its enchanting sights and crystal boulevards, where all hearts opened up, was wallowing in filth, withered by the winds of crime. Vienna was now a witches' sabbath that stretched out its arms to welcome its prodigal son who, born in Braunau am Inn, had recently returned to his native country, where he had been endorsed as king of Berlin and kaiser of Europe by Cardinal Innitzer and hailed by jubilant crowds. It had been three years since the Anschluss. The witness accounts of those still trying to escape came thick and fast. They told of hunger, pain and misery. The extermination of Vienna's Jews. The horrors that had unfolded all across Germany were now being played out in quick succession in the small capital, the place where he had spent some of the richest hours of his life.
They had looted the department stores, torched the synagogues, beaten people up in the streets and exposed pious old men in caftans to public persecution. Books had been consigned to the flames — his, as well as Roth's, Hofmannsthal's and Heine's — Jewish children had been expelled from their schools, while Jewish lawyers and journalists had been dispatched to Dachau. They had passed laws forbidding Jews to practise their trade, banning them from public gardens and theatres, from walking the streets most times of day and night, from sitting on public benches, compelling them to register with the authorities, revoking their nationality, stripping them of their wealth and evicting them from their own homes. Lumped together, these laws effectively exiled Jewish families beyond city walls.
The Germans were a law-abiding people.
The tragedy played itself out in the city where he'd been born. "History's greatest mass murder," he had prophesied. No one had wanted to believe him. They'd said he'd lost his mind. When he'd packed his bags in 1934, four years before the Anschluss, they'd called him a coward. He had gone into self-imposed exile. He had been the first Viennese to do so, the first of many fugitives. "You are suffering from an imaginary emigrant psychosis," Friderike, his ex-wife, had argued. He could have stayed there another four years, like Freud had done, deluding himself that all that evil was merely transitory. However, he had left in 1934, after the Austrian police had searched his home looking for a cache of weapons — weapons in the home of one of pacifism's greatest apologists!
He had felt the winds of change blowing from Germany early on. The hateful speeches, the brutal acts that announced a coming apocalypse to anyone who kept his eyes peeled, as well as those who still paid attention to the meaning of words. He belonged to a race doomed to extinction: Homo austrico-judaicus. He had a sixth sense about these things and was well acquainted with history. He had written books on a variety of historical periods, on Mary Stuart and Marie Antoinette, Fouché and Bonaparte, Calvin and Erasmus. Through the prism of past tragedies, he had managed to glimpse into the future and divine the shape of the horrors to come. That war would have little in common with those that came before it.
His cousins and friends who had opted to stay and hadn't wanted to listen to anything he'd had to say, were now in the full throes of misery and hunger. He had been sent accounts of how, from time to time, one of these banished men and women — hungry for fresh air, the perfume of the past and summoned by the light of the sun — would fearlessly venture out into the streets of Vienna, strolling down the Alserstrasse with the hope of enjoying a few moments in the sun. At which point, the accounts continued, some passers-by would recognize the crazed look in his eyes, the fear on his face, and stop him in his tracks, assembling a mob and calling him to order, the new order. Someone in the mob would send a rock hurtling through the air, another would slap his face, encouraging others to hurl themselves at the man in question, raining down blows upon him until blood would start flowing, going at it fiercely; and if an SS officer — who happened to be strolling along the Ring, going up the Florianigasse — ever caught wind of the commotion and came upon the scene, a confused sort of clamour would rise from the growing crowd and all would turn silent as the SS officer pulled a pistol from its holster. The man in the black uniform would aim his weapon, which would glint under the Viennese sun, a bullet would whistle through the air and death would come and resequester that lover of the great outdoors.
This is what a newspaper article he had been sent had had to say:
City authorities in Vienna have decided to cut off all gas supplies to apartments occupied by Jews. The ever rising numbers of suicides by gas have inconvenienced the population and such acts will henceforth be considered breaches of public order.
He breathed the warm air wafting in through the window, which had been left slightly ajar. He contemplated the view of the wide green expanse that the window offered, which extended beyond the city's rooftops. His spirit succumbed to its sweetness. His anxiety subsided. He turned his thoughts to Lotte, as well as to himself. A feeling of shame ran through him, as did one of well-being. He forgot his shame. He smiled shyly at Lotte. He said he shared her sense of relief. That what had won him over during their first visit had been how the living room gave onto the veranda, where a mysteriously invigorating feeling hung in the air. Sitting in the armchair, he felt a certain familiarity with the place.
He bent over the trunk and examined its contents: there were about forty tomes in there. The books had accompanied him on his journey, all the way from Salzburg. He had sworn to bring them out only once his spirit had regained a measure of calm. That moment had finally come.
He pulled the books out, one by one. He slowly perused their covers and ran his fingers over their edges. Then, taking his time, he absent-mindedly — and a little comically — stuck his nose in the pages and sniffed them. These books hadn't seen the light of day since they'd fled their house in Austria. The last fixed address they'd known had been his library in Kapuzinerberg. The passing of time or the crossing of oceans and continents hadn't diminished their perfume. They exuded the scent of his living room in Salzburg. Over the years, the books had become impregnated with its smells: it was a mixture of pine, firewood, autumn leaves, earth after the rain, cigar smoke, apples, old leather, feminine scents and Persian carpets. After the initial enthusiasm and solemnity with which he had opened the first books, he stuck his nose into the other tomes. He inhaled their smell, filling his lungs with it. The pages had kept the fragrances intact. The past was neither dead nor buried. It had been kept alive between the pages of these books. The Gestapo officers had cordoned off the house for a long time, ransacking every nook and cranny, confiscating all the furniture and paintings by great artists, as well as thousands of his other books, but had been unable to make off with that living room's smell. Part of the past had escaped those defilers. The books had preserved the perfumes of life, evoking images of Hofmannsthal smoking his Havana cigars, that poor Joseph Roth savouring his whisky, the revered Sigmund Freud and the aroma his pipe gave off. The memory of all those who had walked through his living room — Franz Werfel and Ernst Weiss, Thomas Mann and Toscanini — had been kept alive. Everyone who was either dead or living in exile would henceforth live on entirely through the smells their presence had once inspired.
When the trunk was finally empty, he felt a touch bemused when face to face with the humble stack of books. Rather pathetically, he groped around the bottom of the box, searching for other books that his eyes hadn't been able to spot. His hand came up empty.
He heard Lotte's voice coming from the veranda. It had the gift of pulling him from the threshold of despair. She had rescued him from depression right from their first meeting in London in 1934, the early days of his exile. Elizabeth Charlotte Altmann's eyes betrayed a penchant for indulgence which his life no longer accorded him. As soon as he'd seen her face, something had become very clear. Instead of the usual bolt of lightning, a blessing had fallen from the heavens and landed right next to him. Hitler could go ahead and invade Europe and become the master of the universe, what did he care? Even today, when nothing seemed to shake him out of his macabre mood, his companion's mere appearance served to instil in him the hope that the world might one day come back to its senses — and that he would live to see it. Neatly arranged, the books took up two shelves. Something to do with how they were aligned annoyed him. He reached for a book that was leaning slightly to one side and straightened it. He took a step back and examined the results, shook his head, grabbed another book and consigned it to a lower shelf. He smiled approvingly, then his face clouded over and he pulled two books from the bottom shelf and placed them on the one above. At which point, he plucked two volumes from the middle of the first shelf and placed each at either end. Then he pulled out another, put it on top of the bookcase, and then put it back. Lotte looked at him without batting an eyelid, though an ironic smile could be detected at the corner of her lips. The process went on for a further ten minutes. Each time he examined the results and seemed satisfied, he went back to work. It was as though he were playing a game of chess with his bookshelf, using the books as pawns. It looked as if the game would never end. Did he have a specific idea of how the books should be arranged? For a moment, Lotte thought her husband had lost his mind. She kept her distance, deciding not to intervene. Who could claim to have hung on to his sanity in those days? A second later, he moved another book, stopped, then turned around, neither looking at her nor uttering a single word. His face was marked by a profound helplessness and untold sadness, dispelling the cheerfulness the task at hand had lent it. He walked around the room in circles, then his shadow melted into the corridor's penumbra. She heard the bedroom door shut and the bedsprings creak under the weight of his body. After that, she heard nothing at all.
Excerpted from The Last Days by Laurent Seksik, André Naffis-Sahely. Copyright © 2010 Flammarion, Paris. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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