The Col­lect­ed Sto­ries of Ste­fan Zweig

Ste­fan Zweig; Anthea Bell, trans.
  • Review
By – May 21, 2014

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 Col­lec­tions 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 Zweigs 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 Col­lec­tions 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.

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