Novel renews interest of Zweig’s legacy

Exactly 72 years ago today, Stefan Zweig, one of the most famous authors of the early 1900s, committed suicide with his second wife Lotte in Brazil. In the novel “The Last Days” (Pushkin Press, 2013), the French author Laurent Seksik tries to paint a picture of what these days were like.

Seksik, who is also a practicing physician in Paris, has enjoyed a great deal of success with this book: it has been translated into multiple languages and it was adapted into a play, a graphic novel, and a forthcoming film. Within the first year of its release in France in 2010, it became a bestseller with over 80,000 copies sold.

That a novel chronicling the end of Zweig’s life could achieve the amount of success that Seksik’s text has had is good news for the legacy of the late Zweig. Despite being one of the most widely translated and read authors of his time at the height of his writing career, Zweig suffered a decline in popularity in the second half of the 20th century and had become a somewhat obscure name. With the successes of this novel, there will no doubt be renewed interest in his work.

Local readers not only have access to the recent translation of Seksik’s novel at SUNY Fredonia’s Reed Library, but also to much of Stefan Zweig’s work. The library holds an impressive collection of more than 6,000 letters, his published novels and stories, manuscripts, and various other writings and effects of Zweig. A visit to the archive is an amazing experience that allows a glimpse at the pre-war Austrian society in which Zweig lived and flourished.

“The Last Days” takes its reader back to the days of World War II, starting months before the United States entered the conflict. Seksik provides a historical and psychological look at the last six months of the life of Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte (Charlotte). The story begins as they settle into Petropolis, Brazil; having recently left the United States because of Lotte’s asthma. Through flashbacks and stories we are shown a Stefan Zweig who longs for the Vienna of the past despite the fact he knows it can never exist again and a Lotte Zweig who wishes to remain by his side in a new life away from Europe.

Zweig’s mental state shifts back and forth throughout the novel, parallel to the physical state of his wife. As they settle into their new ‘home’ in Brazil, they are satisfied with the seemingly restorative quality of the exotic land. Stefan becomes optimistic and hopes to start work while Lotte suffers less from her asthma attacks at night. Both are still occasionally plagued by their demons, showing that this paradise is not a cure all. The book is also an exploration of the culture of expatriates present in Brazil, connecting back to the golden days of Vienna and providing Zweig with, depending on the conversation, fuel or a distraction from his dark thoughts.

Things seem to be going well for the couple as the United States joins the war against the Axis Powers, but at the same time atrocities against the Jewish populations of Austria and Germany are confirmed. At the end of a night of revelry during Mardi Gras, Stefan and Lotte learn of the fall of Singapore, which seems to be a sign of the defeat of Britain. The novel closes as they get their affairs in order and die in bed next to each other, bringing about a conclusion the reader knows is coming, but holds out hope against.

Seksik’s prose throughout the novel is somewhat simplistic, which does not take away from the complexity of his character study of the Zweigs. He encapsulates the essence of two human lives as they struggle through exile and anguish together. The way in which he uses flashbacks is a testament to the way Zweig himself fashioned his own stories, as a master of the framed narrative. Despite a somewhat slow start, the novel really draws in the reader’s interest and gives a very important glimpse at a dark time in human history.

Through the eyes of Stefan and Lotte Zweig we are given a taste of the despair and attempt to cling to hope that exiles from Europe experienced. Apparent throughout the book is Zweig’s attempt to remain somewhere between optimism and pessimism; a struggle to neither give oneself over to hope nor to despair. In constructing Zweig’s psychology – another technique the author himself used – the world can hopefully shed the view of Zweig as a dispassionate and uncaring character.

Seksik also recreates the uncertainty of the World War II era in such a way that as a reader I was able to forget the outcome and identify with some of the thoughts that haunted the exiles, hidden away in Brazil. He recreates such real depictions of Stefan and Lotte that as I read I found myself excited when they found reasons to be hopeful, thinking it might prevent the conclusion I knew was coming. As the novel shifts closer to the end, I had to accept what I thought I already had and say farewell to two characters that, despite only existing to me for 160 pages, I felt that I knew intimately.

Seksik’s novel does a fantastic job of presenting the end of Zweig’s life in a way that does not have a heavy handed message. He does not condemn Zweig for his choice, nor does he attempt to justify it to his readers. Instead, Seksik takes the facts he found from his research and constructs them into a replica of Stefan Zweig.

What we as readers are left with is a clear psychological map leading Zweig from slight optimism to his decision to end his life 72 years ago. I suggest that anyone interested in learning more about Zweig buy a copy of the novel and pay a visit to the Fredonia Special Collections website to find out more about the archive.

Matthew J. Pisarski is a graduate student in the Department of English at Fredonia State University.