A Conversation About Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth
The following is a panel discussion that took place at McNally Jackson last October on the occasion of New Directions’s reissue of Joseph Roth’s The Hundred Days. The panel included Richard Panchyk, author, editor, and translator of twenty-three books; George Prochnik, author of The Impossible Exile, a biography of Stefan Zweig; Tess Lewis, a translator from the German and French and an advisory editor of The Hudson Review; and Sophie Pinkham, doctoral student at Columbia University’s Slavic department. The event was hosted by Joshua Cohen, new books columnist for Harper’s and author of six books including Witz, Four New Messages, and the forthcoming novel, Book of Numbers.
Special thank you to McNally Jackson Bookstore, New York Review of Books, and Michael Barron at New Directions.
I. RESPECTIVE ORIGINS
JOSHUA COHEN: Hello. Thank you all for coming out. I see a handful of people in the audience who know much more about both of these writers than I do. So I should just leave right now. … Excuse my voice. I just got off a two-and-a-half month book tour in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. So this might be the last subject I want to speak about. If this were a panel run by Joseph Roth we’d be drinking already. If this were a panel run by Stefan Zweig, your moderator would be much better prepared—fussily prepared, neurotically prepared.
With the translator’s permission, I’ll read a bit from this book, The Hundred Days, which is a telling of Napoleon’s return to, and fall from, power. The bit that I’m going to read comes just before Napoleon dictates his abdication to his brother. So the him—the he—here is Napoleon:
That night found him sleepless. It was somber and sultry. All the millions of stars were up in the silvery blue heavens, but when the Emperor gazed at them, they seemed not to be real stars, just the pale, distant images of genuine stars. That night he once again felt he could see right through the seemingly sublime intuitions of the Ruler of the Universe. He had yet to really know God but he now believed he could see right through Him. The Emperor believed that God too was an Emperor but a wiser, more cautious and therefore more lasting one. He, however, the Emperor Napoleon, had been foolish through arrogance; he had lost power through arrogance. Without that arrogance, he too could have been God, created the blue dome of the heavens, regulated the brilliance and position of the stars, and orchestrated the direction of the wind, the drifting of the clouds, the passage of the birds, and the destiny of man. But he, the Emperor, was more modest than God, carelessly generous and thoughtlessly magnanimous.
He opened the wide windows. He could hear the cheerful monotonous song of the crickets in the park. He detected the rich peaceful fragrance of the summer night, the overpowering lilac and the cloying acacias. All of it made him furious.
No longer did he want a throne or a crown, a palace or a scepter. He wanted to be as simple as one of the thousands of soldiers who had died for him and for the country of France. He hated the people who tomorrow or the following day would force him to abdicate; but he was also thankful to them for forcing him to resign. He despised his power but also his lack of power. No longer did he want to be Emperor, yet he wanted to remain Emperor. Now at this very hour they were debating in the House of Deputies whether he should remain Emperor or not.
Restless and lost, he paced, stopped a moment at the open window, turned around again, sat at the table, opened its hidden drawer, and attempted to organize his papers into three piles. Some were harmless and could stay; others were sensitive and had to be destroyed; still others he wished to keep and even take with him. He held a few of the letters to the golden flame of the wax candles. He mindlessly allowed the ash to scatter on the table and the rug. Suddenly he stopped, gently replaced the condemned papers, and began anew his pacing. It had occurred to him that it was perhaps too soon to destroy these letters and he was gripped by a fear, his old superstitious fear that he might have carelessly given Fate a hint, a sign. This thought wearied him, and he tried to stretch out on the sofa. But as soon as he lay down, he felt more helpless than ever. Black worries seemed to be swooping down upon him like sinister crows on a corpse. He needed to get up. He looked again at the sky and then checked the time. This night was endless. Confused visions ran across his mind; meaningless images with no temporal reference rose up as if from totally different and newly unlocked compartments of his memory. Meekly he gave in to them, sat down, supported his head with his hands, and fell asleep in his chair.
JC: So I wanted to read that not just because it’s one of my favorite scenes in the book, but because it seems to me that while writing a portrait of Napoleon, Roth was also writing a portrait of a writer: someone who sits around a lot, and calls it “working” or “thinking,” someone who makes things and then burns them, paces endlessly, rues, entertains contradictory thoughts, entertains contradictory thoughts simultaneously, and finds his only peace with the craft, and with the craft of living, by falling asleep. In short, I felt some Roth-ian biography informing that scene, and I want to begin by asking Richard, the translator of this book, if there’s any truth to what I’m saying, or am I just being “a critic”?
RICHARD PANCHYK: I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say. By this time in Roth’s life he was very focused on his writing and his misery, complaining to people about how much he wrote and how many hours a day he spent writing and that it was endless. His process, I mean. He didn’t really have a house; he lived out of hotels at that point so he would write in cafes on paper, longhand. He didn’t use a typewriter. So you know his process was drinking smoking, writing, sitting there, and like you said probably eventually just falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
JC: But also the idea that, though this was his daily routine, he was the Emperor and maybe even the rival of God.
RP: You’re talking about Roth now?
JC: I am. He has to have some ego to sustain that sort of…
RP: Roth, his ego, was very strong when he was working on a book, and then afterward a lot of the time he trashed it. In this case he had high aspirations for the book, and afterward he said he was disappointed about it and would rather forget it. He said that about other books too. I think in one case, he said afterwards: “I wrote this too fast.” So it’s almost like, when he’s in the process, he’s really excited, and afterwards he says: “What did I just do?” But obviously his work stands on its own. Obviously he’s not right about his work. But he is his own harshest critic.
JC: So we have itinerant Roth stopping in Paris, a city he loved second only to Vienna—a city he hoped would be his salvation, and so he writes this book, but it’s a commercial failure… Stefan Zweig, it seems to me, had a much different process of writing, and wrote, at least before his forced emigration, under much different material circumstances. I was wondering, George, if you would speak about that.
GEORGE PROCHNIK: Certainly the material circumstances could not have been more different, and in fact Zweig’s and Roth’s friendship grew in part, I think it’s fair to say, out of the increasing financial dependence that Roth had on him. Zweig was hugely generous, both to his friends and to complete strangers, but he also had a great capacity for self-effacement. He didn’t have arrogance in the way that Roth did. Sometimes even perhaps to a fault because it became a strategy, for Zweig not to take responsibility for some of his writings, and even some of his behaviors as a very affluent child of privilege, whose success was immediate.
He became successful while he was an incredibly young man. He published his first book of poems when he was only nineteen. Zweig was constantly astonished by the ways that works he did not think would find an audience sold incredibly well. This underestimation of his commercial appeal was consistent throughout his life.
In 1935 he had already just left Salzburg, left Austria, and gone into a kind of preemptive exile in England, believing that it was certain the Nazis eventually would not only crush Austria, but would actually succeed in annihilating all of Europe. Although it’s true Zweig’s writing process was much less frenzied—in a financially pressured way, than Roth’s—Zweig was also very prolific and wrote too quickly, in ways that bear some similarities with Roth.
In his last years he wrote in a more feverish way as well, and I’m thinking particularly of his memoir which he wrote in Ossining, New York, in the summer of 1941, when he was already in deep despair. He wrote several hundred pages in a matter of six or seven weeks, and was pretty much literally throwing pages over his shoulder to his much younger second wife, who was then typing up his handwritten work as fast as she could. Everyone who visited that summer described it to be a sinister and wrong place for Zweig to be. He was in a little bungalow about a mile uphill from Sing Sing Prison. They had really gone in some way insane. Certainly his first wife felt that Zweig was too old for what he was doing. It was a kind of Roth-ian frenzy. But the pressures were different, and Zweig’s was self-imposed in a completely different way.
TESS LEWIS: Roth contains multitudes in a way that Zweig doesn’t. It was a line early on in this novel that I read in a biographical way, but in the opposite way. It’s a scene where Napoleon is first coming back to Paris. He’s greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm, and lauded as the God he knows he no longer is. He is thinking: How do I greet all these people, my former officers, some betrayed me, some are loyal, some don’t know. Is ire easier than generosity? He was generous. There was one source of tension between Zweig and Roth growing up. Roth was instinctively angry about injustice. Zweig finessed it, and would take the easy way out, sometimes by being generous, overly generous, self-effacingly generous. Roth railed against the machine, against the man, against the system, against everything.
JC: Do you think this tension had anything to do with their respective origins?
SOPHIE PINKHAM: I absolutely do, and was about to add something about that. I think it’s interesting to compare the two of them because they embody, in so many ways, the multitude of experiences that the Austro-Hungarian empire could contain, including two Jewish writers, who were friends and who were communicating constantly and both living in Vienna for a quite extended periods of time. But of course the experience of the empire and the experience of being a writer was absolutely different for Joseph Roth, who was from the very western northernmost part of Ukraine, and who came from an orthodox family, and who never had anything, and who was constantly embattled. I think in a certain way, ironically almost, it’s easier to aggressively cry out for justice when you come from a place of having nothing. Whereas Zweig was a first-born in Vienna, born to this great privilege, and it was much harder for him to let go of that fixed world, Roth had always been accustomed to such extreme instability. One thing that struck me when I was reading George’s book was Zweig’s preoccupation with this collection of things and his extreme anxiety over what to do with this collection. He had Beethoven’s desk, and Mozart’s sheet music, and all of these things, but that’s one instance with Roth that couldn’t be more stark, because while Zweig was worrying about what would happen to Beethoven’s writing desk while he was gone, Joseph Roth didn’t even have copies of his own books, which is part of why his manuscripts became sort of chaotic and he repeated himself.
RP: Yeah, he said that he lived out of three suitcases.
II. EUROPE’S SECOND FORM OF SUICIDE
JC: My next question might be slightly ridiculous, but indulge me—we’re all victims of our time. So, lately we’ve had this Franzen translation of Karl Kraus. We’ve had this Wes Anderson film, which is apparently based on the themes, if not the exact stories, of Zweig. Zweig’s collected stories have recently come into English. And thanks to Richard we now have almost all of Roth in English. And I was wondering, parenthetically, if a Canetti [Elias Canetti] renaissance might be next, because that would be wonderful… But the question is: why all this publishing activity now, or am I making too much of a coincidence? Is there some truth to this notion of one empire in decline being interested in another empire in decline? Which is essentially the Franzen argument about Kraus, where he equates fin de siècle Vienna with millennial New York, and the Viennese press with Facebook or Twitter. I’m asking a Freudian question, maybe: Is this an accident, or do you feel some common anxieties?
SP: I’m sure the translators and writers’ panel can speak to why they chose to translate or write about these writers at this moment, but for me as a reader it seems not at all coincidental. It seems there are really exceptional commonalities, and I find it extremely eerie to read Joseph Roth. As someone who lived in Ukraine for a long time, and as someone who is now writing about what’s been going on in Ukraine, where there is a desire for this sort of pan-European sense of belonging that goes hand in hand with an increasingly bloodthirsty nationalism, and increasing ethnic division and enmity between groups that had once been able to coexist semi-peacefully in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Russian empire, and in the Soviet Union.
So reading these writers and their thoughts about pacifism, about pan-Europeanism, and nationalism, I have this extremely eerie sense of historical recurrence. Also in their sense of conflict, which goes back to Kraus and Franzen to some extent: conflict between, on one hand, a very frightening and violent nationalism, and on the other a vapid American consumerism, which was something that they seemed to have written about quite a fair amount, that also seems quite relevant to what’s going on in Europe right now.
RP: Roth was quite prescient in his ability to predict things. I believe he is cited as the first writer to cite Hitler in a work of fiction. It was in the 1920s. So that’s one thing. And then he wrote The Antichrist, which was a collection of some of the work he had written before, with new stuff added. But if you read The Hundred Days, you’ll be shocked how it applies to today: some of the stuff Roth writes about technology, for example. He was very much opposed to movies. He called Hollywood bad names and he thought that actors were horrible, evil. Just the whole thing was terrible, and these were just shadow players.
If Roth were to be here today and see Facebook and Twitter and all these things, and iPhones, it would just make him crazy. One of the things he said in this book: the wonders of technology are that that you can pick up the phone and call somebody in South America; but just because you’re talking to that person doesn’t mean you’re telling the truth, and just because the phone is magnifying your voice and sending it across the ocean, you’re still lying—if you’re lying you’re still lying through all that distance. Part of what he’s getting at is the power of public speaking, the power of people believing what you say through technology, through loudspeakers, through all this stuff. I think that’s an aspect.
The other is that Joseph Roth was always kind of a multiple personality who identified with different groups. Where he grew up there were Jews, there were non-Jews, Polish and Ukrainians and all kinds of nationalities and pretty much all his books use a mixture of these characters, from all different parts of Europe. I think Roth struggles and shifts his identities through time. He has a couple of books that are very Jewish, and he has this book with Napoleon and you see Napoleon struggling with God, and you have some of his later work where there’s kind of a Catholic tinge to it. I think if you look at people today, they are less likely to identify themselves as one particular thing; or more likely to be like Roth, and in all different places with their identity—a little bit of this a little bit of that. That’s how Roth perceived himself.
GP: In Zweig’s suicide note he speaks about how the two highest values for him have been the ability to work, and the preservation and cultivation of personal freedom as a guiding ideal for society. I think that’s a wonderful quote from Roth, about how ire can be more difficult that generosity. And I think certainly in Zweig’s personal relationships, it’s true that he used his generosity to escape from a deeper kind of engagement. But he was also extremely invested in promoting not just pacifism, but pan-Europeanism and a whole set of humanist values that together constituted this ideal of personal freedom, which he saw under threat very, very early on. He wrote an essay in the 20s about the monotonization of the world. It’s an amazing piece that talks about how American culture, mass fashion mass dance crazes, all sorts of mass entertainment, were driving out localized cultures.
He felt that these forms of easily digested entertainment disseminated through, for example a broadcaster with a wireless, were rapidly absorbed and were already changing culture as nothing had changed culture before. He made the point that against entertainment without exertion the Gods themselves would struggle in vain. There was no way to compete with the immediate gratification of watching movies or adopting a fashion that you had seen in a magazine. He actually said that he felt that the American capacity to dominate mass culture was Europe’s second form of suicide. He was obsessed with the inability to travel without a huge proliferation of identity papers of one sort or another, and the whole way that society had come to deny the individual in favor of the bureaucratic state identity. I think he was touching on a set of issues that we’re absolutely concerned with now, whether it’s to do with mass surveillance or a sense that we don’t really understand how to exercise our freedom anymore.
The ways that the characters within Zweig’s fiction as much as in his nonfiction are struggling for some kind of psychological freedom that is somehow always evasive even in situations when it’s not clear who the oppressor is—the sense that there’s some shift in the entire culture that denies people’s ability to express their desires or, if they can express them, to be heard, feels to me extremely contemporary.
TL: I don’t have much more to add, other than the mundane fact that: I think that this revival is kind of overblown in the sense that they have been read for a long time, and yes, they’re being read more now, since the Wes Anderson movie brought attention. But people read less, and they read less fiction in translation than they did before, so if you sort of handicap it, and look at sales figures and the attention Roth and Zweig are getting in the media, the revival’s been going on for a long time. The fact that they each have such a great body of work in print, retranslated for the first time, is just fabulous, so I’m just saying that the revival started longer ago than we’re recognizing.
GP: I think that’s a really important point, partly because it points to the recovery of the work. I mean that was Wes Anderson’s story: stumbling on Zweig, and then not being able to understand why a writer who had the sort of propulsive force he found in his work, just wasn’t read now.
III. “I WAS A RELIGIOUS JEW.”
JC: I agree. I’ll speak at least a bit biographically. I first discovered these writers in editions my parents owned—hardcover, beautifully designed, beautifully introduced editions that were published just a decade or so after the Holocaust as major discoveries by Euro-focused New York intellectuals putting aesthetic pressure on the major American presses, back when that was still possible. It seems to me now that those writers—all of Austro-Hungary’s great writers that weren’t Kafka—have arrived at another generational turning point, where it’s time to make them new again, or to make the lasting things new again, which brings me, finally, to my question. Reading through some of the Roth and Zweig correspondence—and now taking a cue from our talk about “multiple identities”—I’m struck by how much Roth loves Zweig’s support, and wants his help; but he also loves being “the poor little Jew,” and giving Zweig the Eastern, the Ostjude, education. The Eastern Jewish experience was always of interest to German-language Jews—it was their own homegrown, or near-enough, version of “the Orient,” and so you have Kafka visiting wonder rabbis, Buber translating the Hasidic tales… Despite that well-known, well-documented history, it was still poignant for me to read Roth reminding Zweig that even with all of his refinements and aspirations he was still a Jew—because that’s how society regarded him. I wanted to speak about that East-West divide, and also wanted to ask about your feelings about the correspondence, about the pagebound performance of their relationship…
TL: I think the one great essay or book still to be written is about the relationship between the two men. Because it was this honestly deeply affectionate, loving relationship, there’s no doubt about it. But they each had very thin emotional skins in their own way, and were absolutely ruthless in lashing out when they felt wounded. So the remark about the “poor little Jew” almost ruined their friendship. It came in 1936, when Roth, not at the bottom, but on a fast train down, keeps asking Zweig for money, which Zweig gives, and he’s asking for more and more. Roth complains about his publishers: you know “he gave an advance of this to that person, and then he gave me this, and then somebody’s talking about this”— this whole big soap opera. And he’s alienating publishers, agents, right and left. Finally Zweig has had enough so he writes to Roth, “No matter how great a writer you are, you have to remember the fact that you’re a genius literarily, but in material terms you’re a poor little Jew. You’re going to have to live like 9/10ths of the world does, and tighten your belt, and get on with things, and do the work, and stop drinking,” and so forth. Every time Zweig gave Roth money, it came with moral lessons: “don’t do this, don’t do that; I’ll help you out, but first you have to make a list of your contracts and put your affairs in order because I can’t help you if you’re such a mess.” But Zweig also prefaced that remark, “you’re just a poor little Jew,” with “you may be subconsciously angry.” And Roth writes this fabulous response. It’s really pretty short. He says: I’m not subconsciously angry. I’m always conscious. If I didn’t believe your letters were coming with the best of intentions, then yeah, I’d be angry. But I know you mean well. However, don’t you tell me what a poor little Jew is. I’ve been poor for thirty years. I’m a poor little Jew, and I always will be.
JC: And that’s when he declares himself religious in that letter. That’s when he says: “I was a religious Jew.” That was amazing to me…
TS: He took his wife to a wonder rabbi. I can’t think of another Jewish writer of his stature, or any writer of his stature, who would go to the equivalent of a wonder rabbi. And so this plays out, this tension plays out, neither breaks it off, but they each get their digs in. But you know they loved each other so much and resented each other so much for the others’ greatness and advantages. It wasn’t long before their elbows got very sharp.
JC: Don’t you think that today, in our very comfortable New York, disadvantage has become something of an advantage, in literary terms? I mean, don’t you think it’s become consciously fashioned, by publishers especially, as advantageous? Roth, I think, understood Zweig’s social advantage, but did he ever realize his own? Conversely, do you think Zweig realized the advantage of Roth’s marginality? Or is all this conversion of experience a modern creation?
RP: I think Roth was disadvantaged when he wanted to be, and could use it to his advantage. But he wasn’t always poor. Most of his life he was, but for a short while, when he was in Germany, he was actually making some money and had apartments. I think a great deal of his troubles came with leaving Germany, and being persona non grata in Germany, and having his money cut off.
JC: Money cut off and stolen from him as well.
RP: In one of his letters he explained how much money he had earned from, maybe in 1933 or 1932, one of these books, and then suddenly all that’s gone and now he’s trying to find publishers in other places in Europe and going back to the correspondence. I pulled out just a couple of lines that struck me. In one letter he said, “I’m wallowing in filth.” Again, trying to get the pity from Zweig and then he said to Zweig, “When did I ever have a friend like you, as good, as noble, as natural?”
One minute he’s buttering him up, the next minute he’s reproaching him. And then one that really struck me: “For purely selfish reasons, I am very unhappy that you are going so very far away,” Roth wrote when Zweig was about to leave for London. So, you read these and you’re surprised people actually say these things out loud to each other, but I guess that’s part of the relationship. It’s very open, it’s very stormy, but very close throughout.
FROM THE AUDIENCE: How did they meet?
TL: When Roth was in his late teens, he wanted to go seek out Stefan Zweig because he admired him so much, but then lost heart outside Zweig’s doorstep. He never knocked, never did anything, just turned away. And then, in 1927, when he wrote his book The Wandering Jews, it was given to Zweig, and Zweig liked it so much he wrote Roth a letter saying, “This is a great book, thank you so much for writing this work; it’s fabulous.” And Roth’s letter back was: “Esteemed Mr. Zweig, thank you very much for your praise. It means a great deal to me because you mean so much to me. However, I disagree with you on this that and the other thing.“ So it started very early on, that tension. Michael Hoffman in his introduction to the letters says that he sees Roth as playing Zweig like a big fish that he’s not really sure he wants to catch. I’m not so sure.
SP: I think he caught that fish.
TL: Yeah, I think he caught that fish, and that his relationship to Zweig was both more calculating and more genuine. I think there was real affection there.
GP: I’d add that I do think that, for all the mutual combativeness, there’s no question of Zweig’s admiration for Roth’s writing, and sense that it was superior to his own fiction. I don’t think Zweig really had a problem with granting that greatness to Roth and to other writers. I think it would be an amazing book about them, and partly because it does trip into so many themes we’ve been touching on: class, east and west, and actually a whole set of relationships to the idea of nostalgia, because Zweig’s nostalgia is complicated and it’s often portrayed as being more naive than it was.
In fact, in the introduction to his memoir Zweig makes the point that the image of the world of security was always an illusion, and then he says maybe these some illusions are in fact useful and better than the reality which has replaced them. It’s a very complicated fantasy he has about what the world was. And it’s clear he thinks that there is not just an aesthetic and philosophical virtue in having a glorious model of what a culture can be, but also political purpose. This comes out in a lecture he delivered in Paris, just before the fall of France, that was the basis for his memoir, called The World of Yesterday.
Roth didn’t have that nostalgia. The whole category was so complicated for him. Certainly in a material sense it couldn’t exist. it’s a vague monarchial fantasy that he held onto, a fantasy of a more ordered society, a justly ordered society, and that is not Zweig’s nostalgia.
IV. A FANTASY OF HIS OWN LIFE
SP: Going back to your question about the margins: I think Roth recognized that, and one of the things that comes up repeatedly in his novels is the idea of the strength of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which to him was a fantasy empire that existed mainly after it stopped existing. He talks about how the strength of the empire lies not in Vienna, but in the marginal lands. In The Emperor’s Tomb, there’s this wonderful, extremely allegorical relationship between the narrator, who’s of a sort of Slovenian background, and then a Jewish cabby from Poland, and the Polish count, and another guy from the Balkans, who’s a cousin, and it’s very clear that this is the sort of alliance between outsiders, of the non-central Viennese, and that they’re able to draw strength from the fact that they’re together, and as the empire collapses their relationship collapses and they become detached. I do think Roth was very conscious of the sense that there was a strength to being marginal, as long as you had this unifying vision, which he imagined to be the Austro-Hungarian empire.
JC: I had one or two more questions. And the one I’ll ask first doesn’t have an answer, but I’ll throw it out there anyway: When you read writers from the past you come to them with some notion of their biography, and, for better or worse, some notion of their critical status, or fortunes, too. I came to Roth, then, with an idea of his drinking, of his rush, and his repetitions, his crude constructions, and loose-threads. I came to Zweig with an idea of his pretensions, of his sweetness, his oversweetness, his sentimentality. And of course, I knew their ends—from the beginning—I knew their tragedies. So, how to deal with this preconditioning? How to critically renovate an author? Should biographies compensate for the lapses of the work? Can they?
FROM THE AUDIENCE: Of course not!
SP: As someone who studies Russian literature, I have a lot of tolerance for alcoholic writers who were unable to make final edits, and keep forgetting what they’ve said before, but I would definitely say, especially in the case of Roth, there are sections of exceptional beauty, just as prose, and that they stand alone, completely exquisite. It’s great there are such beautiful new translations that make that available to non-German speakers.
RP: If you want to talk about Roth, I think that so much of his process—he poured so much of himself into his writing—that it is hard to separate the man, the writer, the biography, from what he’s writing. And like I said: as he shifted personalities, through time, and identities, his writing shifted and what he talked about—he wrote the book about wandering Jews, and then some other books—and so the books I translated were the three most bizarrely interesting books—
JC: The Hundred Days, The Antichrist, and—
RP: Perlefter, which is his unfinished novel, which was never published in English, until now. He abandoned it apparently. It’s not his best work, but it’s an interesting read. The Antichrist is kind of out there. The Hundred Days is uncharacteristic too because you’re talking about Napoleon, you’re talking about France, you’re not in the Austro-Hungarian empire anymore. but you can see some parallels between the emperor Napoleon and the Austrian Empire. Again, you have some of these types of issues and struggles. Napoleon and his empire, versus the Austro-Hungarian empire. In a way, I think Roth was struggling with this nostalgia for something that had already passed long ago. And The Antichrist is interesting because it’s the now, it’s 1933, a call to action, a look-what’s-happening-to-the-world-book, whereas the other ones are stuck in World War I and that era. So can you separate the man from his work? I think you can. And like you said there are some passages, where he really comes through as this amazing writer, and then there are others where you can see he was drinking too much.
TL: I think for Roth you can separate the man from his best work. Radetzky March stands on its own. I am one of those who believes his real genius went into his reportage, and there you don’t need the biography at all. It was so clear sighted, it was so timeless. It was prescient. His reportage will be relevant forever as far as I’m concerned. It’s funny because that, his reportage, in the sense that most of it is written in the first person, if not all of it; and so in one sense it’s highly personal, but in the other maybe he just wrote it when he was sober. You can read it on its own, stand-alone, perfectly formed, beautifully written, timeless.
GP: In Zweig’s case, I don’t think we want to separate, I don’t think we can separate the life, in part because the memoir is really one of the greatest things he did. It’s great partly as a work of fiction. If one hasn’t read this book, and is coming to it fresh, it can read as very reserved. He does not talk about his domestic life, which was very complicated, at all. But going back to the conditions under which it was written, this feverish effort to get this book out, which I think he really intended as a kind of message in a bottle, as it were, which he would send off as the world fell apart, that maybe people could then refer to, when they were trying to construct a more humane society. Even in the ways it’s an utter fantasy, I think it’s very important. It’s partly a fantasy of his own life.
Just one point about the sweetness of his writing in exile: I think we have to be careful with that. There are certainly parts of his work that I can’t get through. But I don’t think it’s the sweetness so much, I think that’s calculated. So much of his fiction ends in suicide. It’s actually very very bitter. Even at the height of his fame there’s an incredible darkness in his work, phenomenal—an engulfing darkness. And I don’t know if it’s exactly prescient, but it’s symptomatic of a malaise that I think Schnitzler captured in The Road into the Open, which has that beautifully toxic aura. Zweig doesn’t write anything as grand as that one book, but in moments of the novellas we feel the weight of this society itself seeming to foresee its doom, written into its minor love affairs, and its small moments of happiness, so pathetic, often.