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The Rise And Fall Of Stefan Zweig, Who Inspired 'Grand Budapest Hotel'

Apr 2, 2014
Originally published on April 2, 2014 7:54 pm

In Wes Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a writer relates the long and twisting life story of a hotel owner. It's about youthful love and lifelong obsession, and while the story is original, there's a credit at the end that reads: "Inspired by the Writings of Stefan Zweig."

Last month, Anderson told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that until a few years ago, he had never heard of Zweig — and he's not alone. Many moviegoers share Anderson's past ignorance of the man who was once one of the world's most famous and most translated authors.

George Prochnik is out to change that. His forthcoming book is called The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.

Prochnik tells NPR's Robert Siegel that Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881. After Hitler rose to power, the writer left Austria for England, New York and eventually Brazil, where, in 1942, after years of exile, Zweig killed himself.

"His suicide remains a vexed issue for many people confronting his story," Prochnik says. "The question of why ... was something that remained a problem."


Interview Highlights

On Zweig's suicide

It's critical, when we think about Zweig, to realize how deeply he identified himself with Europe. Zweig's overwhelming objective was the creation, preservation and proclamation of the Europe that was already inside him. When Zweig began to feel that the Europe that he had known was gone for good, he lost a lot of his motivation to keep going ...

This Europe that was so invested in aesthetics, in beauty, in civilized tolerance was very much gone by the time of his suicide. But he knew that, in letting that dream go, he was going to be also relinquishing his hold on the will to live.

On Zweig's short, readable, premodern writing style

When Zweig tries to analyze the reason for his incredible popularity, he ascribes it largely to what he calls a character flaw — radical impatience. And he talks about how he has even proposed to publishers that the classics of literature throughout history should be reissued with all the boring parts cut out ...

But I think — although it's true that there are aspects of Zweig's narrative technique which are conventional and harken back to 19th century forms — in that emphasis on speed and drive of narrative, there is something that we recognize today and can respond to. The stories really move. So he understood the ways that stories could hook us.

His work is deeply invested in confessions and secrets. And we all like to overhear conversations and there's lots of eavesdropping and peeping in and all sorts of ways in which the characters who narrate his stories are often observers of some grand moment of passion to which they become, in some way or other, either sucked in directly or have their own complacent view of the world shaken by what they see of other lives.

On how his time in Berlin influenced his writing

When Zweig was still a young man in university, he went to Berlin where he was supposed to be studying in the university there, but instead spent most of his time in low dives hanging out with the toughest, roughest people he could find. And he describes his lifelong fascination with character types whom he calls "monomaniacs," people really driven to stake everything on the realization of a desire that often proves impossible to realize.

On how The Grand Budapest Hotel reflects Zweig's work

The element of joyously goofy caper that is at the core of Wes Anderson's film is not part of Zweig's own work. But what Zweig does have is an understanding of the absurdity of existence. And even beyond this, I think that one point that Anderson really gets in the film that we feel, when Zweig speaks about Vienna, he talks about a kind of laxity and a joyful sloppiness of the city. He talks about its deep investment in the idea of pleasure, maybe even a slightly transgressive pleasure. And I think the ways that Wes Anderson's film has about it a celebration of life in the midst of a poignant tragedy is something the Zweig himself would have found very resonant.

On why he thinks Zweig was so quickly forgotten

One thing that I can say with certainty is that Zweig himself saw his disappearance as likely. I remember speaking with his stepniece; I asked her what she thought Zweig himself might think about this revival of interest in his work and she said she thought he would be completely astonished. Indeed, near the end of Zweig's life he wrote repeatedly of feeling that he was living a posthumous existence. And that's one aspect of his humility that's actually very appealing: He felt it was important to make room for the next generation.

But the reality, in terms of the almost complete disappearance of Stefan Zweig in this country — the reality is that it's surprisingly specific to the Anglo world that his disappearance was so complete. He does not present the kind of stories that Americans gravitate to in terms of sticking with it and succeeding at all costs. More or less the opposite.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in Dallas.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

In the new Wes Anderson movie, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a writer relates the long and twisting life story of a hotel owner. It's a story of youthful love and lifelong obsession. While the story is original, there's a credit line at the close that says, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig. Zweig was the Austrian-Jewish writer who, despairing of the Europe he knew and dreamt of, committed suicide as an exile in Brazil, in 1942. Wes Anderson has talked about Zweig - which is spelled Z-W-E-I-G - among other places, in a recent interview on WHYY's FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRESH AIR BROADCAST)

WES ANDERSON: One of the biggest inspirations for me was reading this writer, Stefan Zweig - who I'd never even heard of until about five or six years ago; and I just responded to from the first page I read.

SIEGEL: Well, my informal survey finds that most moviegoers share Anderson's past ignorance of Zweig, who was once one of the world's most famous, most translated authors. George Prochnick is the author of a forthcoming book about Zweig. It's called "The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig At The End Of The World." It's coming out in May. And George Prochnick joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

GEORGE PROCHNICK: Thanks for having me on the show.

SIEGEL: First, some basic biographical facts about Zweig - where he was from, and when he lived.

PROCHNICK: He was born in 1881, in Vienna. But after the ascension of Hitler, Zweig left Austria and ended up in England and then in New York and lastly, in Brazil.

SIEGEL: He was born to a prosperous Viennese-Jewish family; hence, his exile. Obviously, the Europe that he dreamt of, this Pan-European cultivated continent, was absolutely impossible by the time of his death.

PROCHNICK: That's right. This Europe that was so invested in aesthetics, in civilized tolerance, was gone by the time of his suicide. But he knew that in letting that dream go, he was going to be also relinquishing his hold on the will to live.

SIEGEL: One thing you observe about Stefan Zweig's writings is that other novelists, other contemporaries - Thomas Mann or James Joyce - were writing massive modernist works. He wrote books that were pre-modern, and they were short and readable.

PROCHNICK: That's right. And in fact, when Zweig tries to analyze the reason for his incredible popularity, he ascribes it largely to what he calls a character flaw - radical impatience. And he talks about how he proposed to publishers that the classics of literature throughout history should be reissued with all the boring parts cut out.

SIEGEL: He could strip Homer down to a short, readable poem or two.

(LAUGHTER)

PROCHNICK: And he pointedly, in the list of authors that he wants to compress, he lists Thomas Mann. But I think although it's true that there are aspects of Zweig's narrative technique, which harken back to 19th century forms, in that emphasis on speed and drive of narrative, his work is deeply invested in confessions and secrets.

And we all like to overhear conversations. And there's lots of eavesdropping, and all sorts of ways in which the characters who narrate his stories are often observers of some grand moment of passion to which they become either sucked in directly or have their own complacent view of the world shaken by what they see of other lives.

SIEGEL: This is something that you wrote in your book, "The Impossible Exile." He wrote - you're writing of Zweig - he wrote of men running amok through the tropics, unraveling inside casinos, chasing dreams around the Protter Amusement Park(ph), of women who jeopardized a lifetime of respectability to follow the flame of a momentary passion, or who devoted their whole lives to a passion that ought to have been momentary.

PROCHNICK: When Zweig was still a young man, he went to Berlin, where he was supposed to be studying in the university there but instead spent most of his times hanging out with the toughest, roughest people he could find. And he describes his lifelong fascination with character types whom he calls monomaniacs, people really driven to stake everything on the realization of a desire that often proves impossible to realize.

SIEGEL: Now, I should just note that while the movie "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is - it's largely comedy, you're not going to get the Marx Brothers if you read Stefan Zweig, no?

PROCHNICK: You're not. The element of joyously goofy caper that is at the core of Wes Anderson's film is not part of Zweig's own work. But what Zweig does have is an understanding of the absurdity of existence. When Zweig speaks about Vienna, he talks about its deep investment in the idea of pleasure, maybe even a slightly transgressive pleasure. And I think the ways that Wes Anderson's film has about it - as a celebration of life in the midst of a poignant tragedy - is something that Zweig himself would have found very resonant.

SIEGEL: Stefan Zweig's books sold very, very well; his novellas, also biographies that he wrote of historical figures. He could pack lecture halls. He was very famous in his day. Some famous people just leave no trace behind. They disappear with death in a decade or two, and Zweig seems to be somewhere out there. Why?

PROCHNICK: That's an excellent question. And one thing that I can say with certainty is that Zweig himself saw his disappearance as likely. I remember speaking with his step-niece. I asked her what she thought Zweig himself might think about this revival of interest in his work, and she said she thought he would be completely astonished. Indeed, near the end of Zweig's life, he wrote repeatedly of feeling that he was living a posthumous existence. And that's one aspect of his humility that's actually very appealing. He felt it was important to make room for the next generation.

But the reality, in terms of the almost complete disappearance of Stefan Zweig in this country, the reality is that it's surprisingly specific to the Anglo world that his disappearance was so complete. He does not present the kind of stories that Americans gravitate to, in terms of sticking with it and succeeding at all costs; more or less the opposite.

SIEGEL: For listeners who might be interested in reading a piece of Zweig's fiction, I've read "Chess" and a collection of short stories, called "Amok," and other stories; and his novella, "Confusion," for which you wrote the foreword. Any other Zweig that you would recommend a first-time reader, if you had one story to urge them to read?

PROCHNICK: I would push readers to his one completed novel, "Beware of Pity, a novel that almost reads as Dostoevsky-ian, at times, about a young military officer who through a series of bungled steps, finds himself involved with the disabled daughter of a very rich family. And the whole novel is explicitly oriented around the question of how we can pity people in productive ways.

Zweig says that there are two kinds of pity. There's this sort of pity that people indulge in basically to exonerate themselves from having to have anything to do with the objects of their pity. And then there's a pity that involves absolute kind of identification, which ultimately might doom the person expressing that pity but which Zweig makes clear is what he feels we're ultimately called upon to express. So that one novel really probes that calling to the depth, and it's - ultimately, doesn't end well. But it still forces us to reckon with our common humanity.

SIEGEL: And the title, again, of the one full-length, completed novel?

PROCHNICK: "Beware of Pity."

SIEGEL: "Beware of Pity." And I should tell people, your book, which is about to come out in May, is called " The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World." George Prochnik, thank you very much for talking with us.

PROCHNICK: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.