The urbane Austrian who inspired ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
Wes Anderson deserves to be praised if his new film encourages readers to seek out the work of the Viennese literary figure Stefan Zweig
Inspiration: Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel, based on the work of Stefan Zweig. Photograph: Fox
The Society of Crossed Keys: Selections from the Writings of Stefan Zweig
Word of mouth is the bush telegraph of which most writers must dream, as it is created by readers instead of by canny teams of publicists armed with gimmicks. In the case of the initially urbane, ultimately tragic Viennese literary figure Stefan Zweig, his rediscovery has been ongoing during the past 20 years.
In 2009 alone the publication by Pushkin Press, by then already a staunch Zweig supporter, of an outstanding volume of short fiction, Selected Stories , which included Fantastic Night (1922), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922) and Twenty-fours Hours in the Life of a Woman (1927), complemented the excitement generated by the first English-language edition of Zweig’s posthumously discovered second novel, The Post Office Girl (Sort of Books).
Believed to have been completed by Zweig during the 1930s, possibly even before he left Austria for London in 1934, it is a powerful story about a young woman, the eponymous post-office worker, who is given a destructive glimpse of a very different life.
The manuscript of The Post Office Girl was found among Zweig’s papers following his suicide, with his second wife, in Brazil in February 1942. By then death was the only solution for Zweig, who had spent his final years lamenting not only the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of his youth but also the destruction of the Europe he knew.
The release of the American film director Wes Anderson’s manic marvel The Grand Budapest Hotel will once again alert the wider public to Zweig, who was during the 1920s and 1930s the most widely-read German-language writer in the world, much to the irritation of the German master, Thomas Mann.
Seam of sadness
It is ironic and rather wonderful that a film-maker has hailed Zweig’s work as the inspiration for the movie. It is also fitting because no matter how funny The Grand Budapest Hotel is – and it is incontestably that – it also undercuts a subtle seam of sadness that attests not only to Anderson’s singular vision but also to the compelling humanity of Zweig. He may not have been the greatest of prose stylists, but he was obviously an astute observer.
Zweig was the second son of a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer who had married into an equally rich banking family. In his memoir, The World of Yesterday , published after his death, Zweig offers an open-eyed view of his bourgeois inheritance.
It is not a particularly charming work and does not match the allure of Gregor Von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear (1989), a gorgeously idiosyncratic account of a central European childhood. Yet it is informed and candid, particularly about how sexual behaviour changed during Zweig’s life. He stresses that Vienna’s fabulous culture owed a huge debt to the hardworking – and rich – Jewish merchant class intent on affirming themselves within a society dominated by aristocrats and careerists wedded to the imperial army tradition. It is social history filtered through autobiography.
Bubbling away beneath the current interest in Zweig prompted by the film is the residue of Michael Hofmann’s vehement 2010 denouncement. This is interesting. Hofmann, a gifted translator of many major German-language writers, including Hans Fallada, Wolfgang Koeppen and Gert Ledig, as well as the man who has almost single-handedly revived the reputation of Joseph Roth, the great chronicler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, detests Zweig and has dismissed his large body of work, despite there being several outstanding stories and The Post Office Girl , which opens with echoes of Roth, also has flashes of Mann and is a very fine novel.
Several factors begin to emerge. Roth and Zweig were friends, in as much as the difficult Roth could sustain relationships. Roth was famously poor and Zweig was more than comfortable, and he gave generously to Roth, who never stopped mocking him. Zweig apparently knew everyone, including Sigmund Freud and Richard Strauss, while Roth had little time for anyone. Zweig was an insider, Roth the consummate outsider.
As writers there is simply no comparison: Roth was a genius, as vicious as he was romantic, blessed or cursed with a feel for language, an inspired image and the ability to evoke a mood. Zweig is a very good writer, but he never wrote anything approaching The Radetzky March (1932).
Roth slowly drank himself to death; Zweig deliberately took sleeping tablets. They both lamented their lost world. When Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters , edited by Michael Hofmann, was published in 2012, Zweig did not fare too well in Hofmann’s accompanying explanatory essays. Roth does not either; and that in letters he wrote himself.
Zweig indulges in theatricality and has a Dickensian weakness for melodrama. In Beware of Pity (1939) the hapless former officer, a decorated war hero, describes to the narrator what happened some years earlier at a party when he approached his host’s daughter, to ask her to dance with him.
“Something terrible happens next. She had been leaning slightly forward, but now she flinches abruptly back as if avoiding a blow. At the same time the blood rushes into her pale cheeks, the lips that were half open just now are pressed hard together, and only her eyes kept staring at me with an expression of horror such as I have never seen in my life before. Next moment a paroxysm passes right through her convulsed body. She braces herself on the table . . . both her hands are still clutching the table, which sways, her childlike body is shaken again and again, but she does not run away, she only clings even more desperately to the heavy tabletop . . . Suddenly she bursts into sobs, a wild, elemental sound like a stifled scream.”
The girl’s dilemma drew the young man into a relationship based on pity and, eventually, denial. To mark the release of the movie, a selection of Zweig’s work, taking as its title The Society of the Crossed Keys – a reference from the screenplay – offers two extracts, one from the memoir, the other from Beware of Pity , along with the full text of Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman , one of Zweig’s most compelling stories within a story (one of his favoured devices).
A chance remark, made by the narrator in defence of a wife who leaves her husband and children, earns him the confession of an older woman who explains how the unexpected can cause bizarre reactions. It is a moral tale, and very human, as is the work of Zweig.
Extracts are not very satisfactory, yet this curious little taster volume, which also contains an insightful interview with Anderson, may act as a helpful tie-in, more for Zweig than for the movie. New readers coming to Zweig, though, would be far better advised to look to the Selected Stories and read The Post Office Girl .
If the film encourages readers to seek out Zweig, Anderson deserves to be praised. For once a film-maker has looked to a writer and acknowledged the work, without daring to meddle with it.