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.