Of Zweig and Patience

October 18, 2010


Stefan Zweig (standing) with his brother Alfred


A year or two ago my wife and I discovered Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), an Austrian writer whose memoir The World of Yesterday paints a lively picture of Europe before, during, and after World War I. Zweig knew every poet, novelist, dramatist, and artist on the scene; a devoted pan-Europeanist, he translated dozens of his friends’ works and wrote biographies of cultural figures ranging from Erasmus to Nietzsche to Balzac. In 1942, shortly after he finished the memoir, in exile in Brazil and despairing as Europe dove deep into another round of self-butchery, he and his wife took their own lives.

In the memoir’s last chapters, he speaks of the disbelief and agony that he and others like him experienced as they witnessed Hitler’s rise. On a Sunday morning he hears the radio news of the declaration of war, “a message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us.”

After reading the memoir, we were moved enough to explore his other work. Despite his vast output of nonfiction and drama, Zweig found time for a number of novels, stories, and novellas—intense psychological works that examine the characters’ thoughts and emotions in exquisite, sometimes excruciating, detail. His writing is marvelous, his characters strange enough to feel very contemporary. And yet I have the typical problem of our A.D.D. age: attention span.

Look at the following passage from The Post-Office Girl (trans. Joel Rotenberg, New York Review Books, 2008). The title character, Christine, a penurious young woman from a small town, has been invited by a rich aunt to visit a magnificent resort in the Alps. When her aunt tells her to “freshen up” before lunch, Christine is amazed, bewildered, awed, and humbled by the luxurious hotel room she is given. We join the action, if it can be called that, about halfway through a two-page paragraph:

Discovery upon discovery: the washbasin, white and shiny as a seashell with nickel-plated fixtures, the armchairs, soft and deep and so enveloping that it takes an effort to get up again, the polished hardwood of the furniture, harmonizing with the spring-green wallpaper, and here on the table to welcome her a vibrant variegated carnation in a long-stem vase, like a colorful salute from a crystal trumpet. How unbelievably, wonderfully grand! She has a heady feeling as she imagines having all this to look at and to use, imagines making it her own for a day, eight days, fourteen days, and with timid infatuation she sidles up to the unfamiliar things, curiously tries out each feature one after another, absorbed in these delights, until suddenly she rears back as though she’s stepped on a snake, almost losing her footing. For unthinkingly she’s opened the massive armoire against the wall—and what she sees through the partly open inner door, in an unexpected full-length mirror, is a life-sized image like a red-tongued jack-in-the-box, and (she gives a start) it’s her, horribly real, the only thing out of place in this entire elegantly coordinated room. The abrupt sight of the bulky, garish yellow travel coat, the straw hat bent out of shape above the stricken face, is like a blow, and she feels her knees sag. “Interloper, begone! Don’t pollute this place. Go back where you belong,” the mirror seems to bark. Really, she thinks in consternation, how can I have the nerve to stay in a room like this, in this world! What an embarrassment for my aunt! I shouldn’t wear anything fancy, she said! As though I could do anything else! No, I’m not going down, I’d rather stay here. I’d rather go back. Bur how can I hide, how can I disappear quickly before anyone sees me and takes offense? She’s backed as far as possible away from the mirror, onto the balcony. She stares down, her hand on the railing. One heave and it would be over.

This scene goes on for another long paragraph in which Christine frets over what to wear, worries what the maid will think, and finally “scurries down the stairs with downcast eyes.”

I admire this writing tremendously—“timid infatuation,” a carnation like a trumpet’s salute—but at some point in the piling of detail upon detail, I become impatient. “I get the point!” my inner voice yells at the author; “let’s move on, OK?”

Then I remember what Stanley Fish once said to a seminar of undergraduates. The more the culture emphasized reading fast, he declared, the slower he read. He engaged us in examining Milton line by line, word by word, almost syllable by syllable.

I try to keep that perspective in mind. No, I lecture myself, don’t read Stefan Zweig while you’re simultaneously watching baseball, checking e-mail, and snacking on the delicious nut-cranberry mix from Trader Joe’s. Both hands on the book, please. Both eyes on the text. Slowly, patiently. Writers as good as Zweig deserve this much from us, and more.

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