The Austrian miscellany continues with some Stefan Zweig period pieces. If I am looking for masterpieces, these ain't them; if I am trying to learn about a period, they are where the action is at.
I read the three stories in one of the attractive Pushkin Press miniatures, Wondrak and Other Stories, translated by Anthea Bell, who also supplies a surprisingly cool endnote.
Zweig was born in 1881, just as Vienna was changing from a society where anti-Semitism was a faux pas to one where anti-Jewish hatred was close to the accepted norm. An openly anti-Semitic mayor had only recently been elected mayor of Vienna, triggering a two-year political crisis that the reactionary party won decisively – the “last stand of Viennese liberalism” is how Carl Schorske describes the struggle.* Theodor Herzl responded by founding the Zionist movement.
It is possible that “In the Snow” (1901) is Zweig’s criticism of Zionism. A group of medieval Jews try to flee a blood-crazed crusade but become trapped in a blizzard. The last sentence: “Soon it [spring] will be bringing buds and green leaves back again, and will lift the white shrouds from the grave of the poor, lost, frozen Jews who have never known true spring in their lives” (26). Or maybe the story is pro-Zionist. That line sounds so hopeful. But the characters have all frozen to death!
In “Compulsion” (1920) an Austrian painter working in Switzerland receives his conscription notice. He and his wife are pacifists, and he had assumed that he would ignore the draft and stay in Switzerland, but once he receives it he feels strangely compelled to return to Austria and join the fighting. The scenes in which the painter deals with the consular bureaucracy and rides the train, scenes where he tries to understand his compulsion, are not bad, but they are mixed with long one-sided arguments where his wife batters him with what are presumably Zweig’s own sentiments:
“And why do they have the power? Because the rest of you hand it to them. And they’ll have it only while you’re still cowards. What humanity now calls monstrous consists of ten men with strong wills in the countries concerned, and ten men can destroy the monstrosity again. A man, a single living man can destroy their power by saying no to them.” (64)
Then she took a long drag from her cigarette, which had little dollar signs on the tip. No, not true, but during the “discussions” I felt like I was reading Ayn Rand – that last line is entirely Randian in sentiment, and just as artful.
So that was half dud. “Wondrak” (unpublished and unfinished, presumably written during the war) is also about conscription, but this time a weird, ugly (she is missing her nose) Czech peasant tries to save her son from the Austrian army. The change in setting alone is good because it introduces competing national loyalties, but it also helps that the mother is not a theorist. She just wants to keep her son:
She snapped and bit; it was a terrible sight. “God must see this,” she howled, “God must see this.” Finally the soldiers had to drag both of them away like beasts going to be butchered. But she went on shouting, her voice cracking horribly, “God must see this, God must see this!” (116)
I know very little about Stefan Zweig. Knowledgeable readers can tell me is these stories sound representative or unusual.
* I am relying on Chapter III of Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, 1981, Vintage Books; the quote is on p. 116.