Perhaps what makes the works of Stefan Zweig such a refreshing read for the twenty-first century is the empathy that lies at the heart of Zweig’s writing. He enjoys not the privileged detachment of the flaneur; his characters are incapable of wandering foreign streets without subconsciously seeking human connection. The protagonist is always drawn into the scene he witnesses, quickly entangled in strangers’ sufferings and analyzing their sorrow; and love, however tragic, is the core of every expressed feeling, the impetus for every action.
It makes sense, then, that stumbling upon Zweig’s writing inspired Wes Anderson’s most recent — and already considered his best — film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014). Anderson’s own work is characterized by his pursuit of commonality among the eccentrics and eccentricities of regular life, between siblings, between children and their parents, between strangers and acquaintances thrust together under isolative circumstances.
The Wes Anderson Collection, a visual and written anthology of Anderson’s oeuvre to date, captures this aesthetic, as though the subject himself had set each page. It is a treasure among art books: a beautifully arranged, oversized tome revisiting the quietistic triumphs of millennial cinema delivered by the eponymous filmmaker. Comprised of a trove of stills and on-the-set photographs, perfectly pitched artistic renderings by illustrator Max Dalton, and interviews with Anderson, this Collection, pieced together by renowned critic Matt Zoller Seitz, is as thorough as it is pleasing to behold. Everything from the complete catalog of miniature furniture from the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” set to the comic strips, cinema, and advertisements that held even a momentary influence on Wes Anderson’s vision are pasted in like relics in a scrupulously assembled scrapbook, evoking the sense that the reader, too, shared in the experience of making each iconic film.
Neither Anderson nor the content of his films are Jewish, but there is something about his message and the way in which he crafts its delivery that speaks resoundingly to Jewish audiences, evidenced by The Wes Anderson Collection’s author and editor, and the introduction by Michael Chabon. And this resonance seems to reverberate in both directions — especially in consideration of Anderson’s earlier works and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Anderson’s inspiration was not so much Zweig’s stories as much as it was Zweig’s biography: who he was, how he lived, what drove and defeated him. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” emulates the life of the young Austrian writer observing global turmoil and idyllic surroundings with the same eye, as reflected in the wayward lineation of his writing — now anthologized chronologically in The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig from Pushkin Press.
But as Wes Anderson discovered upon encountering his new favorite writer, Zweig’s fiction is matched if not surpassed by the true story of his life, and herein lies The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig’s greatest failing: lacking notes or introduction, the book provides no context for the stories or their author save for a sparse timeline of publications at the end of the volume. To know nothing about this author, in particular, while reading his work is a literary travesty, mitigated only by the fact that the author’s life’s work has been exhumed out of nearly complete obscurity to English audiences, and the sheer force of Zweig’s stories, themselves.
Translator Anthea Bell masterfully captures the lyrical prose of the original German in these stories, set with descriptive sceneries that collaboratively pan the diverse landscape of Europe through the two world wars. The content of Zweig’s stories doesn’t shy away from civic violence, from pogroms and uprisings, from the downfall of huddled Jewish populations at the first compulsive sparks of civil unrest; for the victims, the attendant fear, the anticipation, the resigned silence of waiting for the inevitable crisis. Zweig wrestles openly, too, with the subject of European Jewish identity, with all of its fear, all of its hatred of the oppressors, and all of its impenetrable isolation. A painter confuses his Jewish model’s budding sense of self and loneliness for Catholic enlightenment while painting her as the Virgin Mary; a fearful Jewish community embarks on a hopeless snowy sojourn for refuge from encroaching anti-Jewish violence over a brutally wintery night of Chanukah…
Some of Zweig’s longer works unravel slightly into European melodrama, focusing a tad too redundantly, for a modern audience, on the welling emotions of his highly romantic protagonists and side characters. It is his shortest stories that frequently offer the most depth, in articulating the experiences of love, longing, and the hints of regret that eternally haunt the human heart. This condensation of the world, of the impossible hugeness of human emotion, into a moment expressed in just a few short pages of Stefan Zweig’s writing is akin to what Michael Chabon, in The Wes Anderson Collection’s introduction, observes in Wes Anderson’s miniaturization of real life, pulling into focus that which is too tremendous to comprehend at full scale:
“For my next trick,” says Joseph Cornell, or Vladimir Nabokov, or Wes Anderson — or Stefan Zweig — “I have put the world into a box.” And when he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterfly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss. And you say, leaning in, “The world!’”
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Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.