Confusion, p.1Stefan Zweig
STEFAN ZWEIG (1881–1942), novelist, biographer, poet, and translator, was born in Vienna into a wealthy Austrian Jewish family. During the 1930s, he was one of the best-selling writers in Europe and was among the most translated German-language writers before the Wecond World War. with the rise of Nazism, he moved from Salzburg to London (taking British citizenship), to new York, and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his wife. New York Review Books has published Zweig’s novels The Post-Office Girl and Beware of Pity as well as the novellas Chess Story and Journey Into the Past.
ANTHEA BELL is the recipient of the 2009 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for her translation of Zweig’s Burning Secret. in 2002 she won the Independent foreign fiction Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for her translation of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
GEORGE PROCHNIK is the author of Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology and In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. he has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Playboy, and Cabinet, among other publications.
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A photograph of Stefan Zweig taken in 1928, not long after the publication of Confusion, shows him a little paunchy in an open-necked white shirt and knickerbockers, seated in an elegant garden chair before the old archbishop’s hunting lodge where he’d made his home atop a formidable hill overlooking Salzburg. He leans forward; his right hand clamped firmly to the back of his beloved water spaniel, Kaspar; his left, obscured, appears to clutch for the dog’s collar. Zweig appears the epitome of the rooted country squire, until you notice the fretful, perhaps resentful, anyway off-kilter smile playing over his long, elegant countenance, the deep lines around his mouth—and the famously dark eyes. Then abruptly the picture cries, “Get me out of this damn costume.”
Zweig was in his middle forties and at the height of his career when he wrote Confusion. Throughout the 1920s, he reeled off biographies (studies of Casanova, Stendhal, Tolstoy, and the sinister french police chief Joseph Fouché among them), plays, reviews, articles, essays on everything from the works of Otto Weininger and Ben Jonson to the increasing homogenization of world culture—and one novella after another. Confusion was published in 1926 in a volume that included two other fictions destined to be among his most popular, 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman and Beware of Pity.
When Zweig wasn’t at home writing, he made frequent appearances at the lectern and behind the radio microphone. He addressed large audiences across Europe on literary topics and as an advocate of the pacifist cause to which he’d come rather belatedly to subscribe during the first world war. Travel always enlivened his spirits—though accolade discomfited him as much as it flattered. He worried that easy popularity might induce a kind of sclerosis of the passions on which his creativity relied. During one lecture tour through Germany undertaken while he was working on Confusion, he wrote home that his talks had been going for the most part “swimmingly”—and his books sold “very well,” adding that the Germans were extraordinary in their respect for literature and art, “everyone down to the hotel porter knows who you are.” one friend likened the experience of Zweig’s company in those years to the “quiet but explosive whirring of a high-speed engine.”
Back at the grand lodge on the Kapuzinerberg where he lived with his first wife, the indomitable friderike Maria von Winternitz, and her two adolescent daughters from a previous marriage, Zweig entertained a steady stream of cultural luminaries and received countless uninvited admirers who made the pilgrimage up the zigzag hill path carrying dog-eared copies of his books past shrines to the stations of the cross erected by brethren of a neighboring monastery. Assisted by a series of punctilious secretaries, he perfected a methodology of bookkeeping to track the copious editions of his works in print. He was on the verge of becoming the world’s most widely translated author. Friderike was a game, competent hostess. The servants were devoted and diligent. The dogs were idolized.
Zweig enjoyed all the trappings of international literary celebrity and a somewhat imperious domestic carte blanche—yet he yearned for nothing so acutely as the collapse of this Austrian idyll. All the laurels and kowtowing were no substitute for the crackle of an inner bonfire that he felt certain age was steadily, irreversibly smothering. In 1925, when he was forty-four, he succumbed to one of his periodic depressions. In a letter to Friderike he explained it as “a crisis growing out of advancing years, tied up with uncompromising clarity of insight . . . I am not fooling myself with dreams of immortality, know how relative all literature is, don’t have any faith in mankind, derive enjoyment from too few things . . . I expect nothing from the future; it’s a matter of indifference to me whether I sell 10,000 or 150,000 copies. The important thing would be to make a new beginning with something new, a different way of life, to have different ambitions, to have a different relationship to being, to emigrate but not merely in the physical sense of the word.” two years later he wrote, “I feel as if the screws are coming loose in the machine: the best thing would be to switch it off completely in its fiftieth year and make another attempt to experience the world again instead of describing it.” when the dreaded fiftieth came round, Zweig avoided the formal public homage that would have been conventional on the occasion and slipped away to a fusty Jewish restaurant in Munich for a meal of blue carp and schnapps with his younger friend Carl Zuckmayer. “The only direction the future can hold is down,” he declared to Zuckmayer, who later wrote that he had never seen the fear of aging “so intense in another person, not even in women.”
This profoundly troubled state of mind is what Zweig puts on display in Confusion, a novel in which a range of characters struggle with the question of what it means, as Zweig remarked to zuckmayer on another occasion, to “live on as one’s own shadow,” reduced to being “only ghosts—or memories.”
Confusion is centered on an older man’s memories of the young man he once was and of that young man’s relationship to an older man he believed, for a time, he wanted to become. The narrator of the story is an esteemed professor of the humanities whose career and accomplishments have just been honored in a ceremony much like the one Zweig himself went out of his way to avoid on his fiftieth birthday. But the version of his career that has been commemorated on this occasion, the narrator knows, has nothing to do with the private passion that made it possible. Gazing back, the narrator pays homage to his long-dead, forgotten teacher and unveils the truth of how he found his calling. In doing so, he exposes confusions that range from embarrassing (there are even elements of slapstick comedy) to poignant to excruciatingly painful.
Roland, the narrator, cared nothing for the life of the mind when he was young. His enthusiasms were all physical, and sent to university in Berlin, he lazed away his days and plucked up stray girls from dance halls at night. Wrenched out of this life by his indignant father (who—a first instance of confusion—pays him a visit and surprises him in bed with a girl), Roland goes to a provincial university where he stumbles into a lecture being delivered by an aged professor of English languages and literature. The professor is in a state of furious exaltation. The audience is spellbound. Roland himself is filled with “what Latin scholars call a raptus, when one is taken right out of oneself.” there are passions, he realizes, of the mind as well as the
The professor becomes Roland’s mentor and Roland grows steadily more obsessed with him, even moving into his apartment building. He learns that the professor had begun a two-volume masterwork, The Globe Theatre: History, Productions, Poets, twenty years earlier, but abandoned the project. The professor declares, “that’s over now—only the young make such bold plans. I have no stamina these days.” Roland volunteers to become his teacher’s amanuensis if he will consent to resume the project. Their experiment in dictation flourishes. The professor’s powers of composition are restored and Roland’s literary enthusiasms wax ever brighter, and yet—something is not quite right. Something in particular is wrong with the professor’s marriage to a younger woman who hovers persistently in the background as an “alarmingly enigmatic” impediment to the student-teacher relationship—a distraction to whom Roland finds himself growing increasingly attached. This triangular relationship moves toward a climactic revelation that is powerful precisely because—as in some classic suspense film—we track every creaking step of its advance to the garish moment of truth. One way or another, we discover, everyone in the story is not only leading a hidden life but hiding from life, though Roland of course will emerge from this crucible of shame and denial to don the garb of the elder eminence who serves as the reader’s Virgil.
Throughout the tale, passions of the mind and passions of the body oscillate—they are confused. The desire for knowledge proves to be riddled with all sorts of unacknowledged desires: sadism and masochism, voyeurism and exhibitionism, among others.
Zweig’s novella is finally less about confusion as such than it is about metastasizing confusions. This is what gives the story its true weird power. (Indeed, the book’s German title, Verwirrung der Gefühle, might be better translated as “emotional Maelstrom.”) in Confusion, people are befuddled about their feelings, their work, their duties, and their drives. Events spin round and round in a mad dance of discombobulation. Zweig brilliantly evokes the way that confusion can function as a pathogen—taking over the life of one person who then spreads that misapprehension willy-nilly among his intimates and on down through generations.
One of the ways this process is dramatized is through the characters’ obsessive eavesdropping. They are always listening in, trying to find out about or channel somebody else’s desires and creative force. Roland speaks of how, when his teacher came near to him, “it was never close enough ... his nature was never entirely revealed,” while the professor argues that Shakespeare’s inspiration came from his bodily proximity to the blood sport formerly staged in the buildings that became Elizabethan theaters—along with the violent wanderlust of the young English nation still audibly lapping at those boards. Sensing something awry in the professor’s home life, Roland develops an “auditory system that caught every give-away tone.” and at the critical moment when the professor has completed the first part of his work and wishes to celebrate this victory over two decades of writer’s block, Roland exits the dim study where they work to fetch a corkscrew and collides with the professor’s wife, who’s been eavesdropping at the door.
And yet the characters never hear quite what they want or need to hear, and the reader is never quite sure that they really want to solve the mysteries anyway. This is a story in which secrets operate as engines of ecstasy. There’s a wonderful, farcical, torturous scene in which Roland and the professor’s wife goad each other into a frenzy that encapsulates the savage game of revelation and evasion that all Zweig’s hyper-civilized characters are caught up in. Clad in tight bathing suits, Roland and the young woman (described as a boyish ephebe) engage in horseplay when he refuses to join her in a swimming race. She breaks off a branch to serve as a switch and strikes him, playfully but accidentally too hard. She draws blood; then, when he continues to defy her will, she gives him a burning blow. At this point, as the two begin wrestling for possession of the switch—“our half-naked bodies came close”—she twists back to evade him, and there’s “a sudden snapping sound—the buckle holding the shoulder strap of her swimming costume had come apart, the left cup fell from her bare breast, and its erect red nipple met my eye. I could not help looking, just for a second, but I was cast into a state of confusion—trembling and ashamed.”
The distinguished scholar who tells this story of scrambled exhibitionism is still trembling, ashamed— and fascinated, as he revisits his past, wondering, we might surmise, if in gaining his place in the world he has not sacrificed his true passion as much as the neglected mentor who put him on the path to doing so. Here, in any case, the narrator is aching for a youth he can never possess.
Perhaps Confusion is not, after all, the tale of a young man acquiring the insight that turns him into an adult but the reverse: a surreptitious effort to conjure back to life the narrator’s benighted student days, in which the pursuit of knowledge was polymorphous, when every intimacy quivered with possibility and peril.
In September 1930, the Nazis stunned the world by winning almost 6,500,000 votes—up from 810,000 two years earlier. Zweig justified Hitler’s victory as “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics.’” Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s son, felt driven to write an open letter refuting Zweig’s muzzy response to the vote: “not everything youth does and thinks is a priori good and pregnant with future,” Mann declared. “It may seem paradoxical that i should remind you of this; for i am young myself. However, many of my contemporaries—let alone the even younger ones!—are now engaged in propagating retrogression and barbarism with all that élan and determination that ought to be reserved for finer purposes. The revolt of youth can be in the service and interest of noble and ignoble forces.”
Zweig’s misguided hurrah was one in a series of last-ditch bids to stave off superannuation by actions as forceful as they were erratic. “I seem to myself like a hunter who is actually a vegetarian and can take no pleasure in the game he must shoot,” he wrote a friend two months before the vote, adding that only flight remained for him. Soon, he acted on his prognosis, fleeing the Nazis and domesticity both. His marriage disintegrated. In 1934, he hired a new secretary, Lotte Altmann, who at twenty-six was almost exactly half his age; the two became lovers and eventually married. Exiled from Austria, Zweig traveled to Brazil, falling in love with its natural, passionate beauty and racial tolerance, while also writing dismissively about the country’s absence of higher culture. Back in Europe, he moved for a time to Bath, saluting England’s even-keeled rationalism, but he could not acclimate to the chill of its emotional reserve and felt humiliated by having to register as an enemy alien. He then moved to Manhattan, from Manhattan to new haven, from new haven to Manhattan, then from there up the Hudson to Ossining where, perched in a humble bungalow a mile up the hill from sing sing prison, he wrote much of his autobiography, The World of Yesterday. Once again, however, he pined for Rio’s colorful embrace, to which he and lotte soon returned. In September 1941, as the Brazilian summer heat intensified, he moved upland to the tiny hamlet of Petropolis, where at first he was happy to be so far removed from the storm of world events. But then the distance from Europe began to make him feel guilty. Moreover, the fact that he could not get the books he wanted weighed on him, and the isolation which had first been so calming began to grow oppressive.
In one of his final letters to friderike, written just after seeing Rio’s carnival, he declared, “all i have been able to give was thanks to a certain interior élan; i could seize the imagination because i was seized myself and that produced a warmth that could communicate. Without faith, without enthusiasm, reduced to the sole power of my brain, i walk as though on crutches.” in February 1942 he and Lotte took a lethal dose of Veronal.
For years, Zweig had been haunted and sustained by memories (and fantasies) of an intellectually vibrant youth. Now, with his books legally forbidden to the German-Austrian public for whom they’d been composed, Zweig’s epic
Ultimately, Zweig’s gifts as a writer were bound up with his self-tormenting, and this misery, in turn, was fueled by a conviction that the secret of creation itself glimmered palpably before him, yet beyond his reach—at a distance that yawned ever wider with the passage of years. The accusations of inauthenticity that have been leveled against Zweig since the first publications of his work and continue to crop up to this day fail to register the potency of this unfeigned anguish—or the ways that Zweig’s anguish made him acutely sensitive to the craving for self-transcendence in others. Confusion captures this dilemma. If we can see past both Zweig’s successes and his failures to the struggling figure at their heart, we discover a writer who deserves to be admired for the ardent, unflagging compassion he felt toward human weakness in all its guises. Empathetic confusion suffuses his work. In this sense, he knew himself, and us, very well.
For J. A. R.
They meant well, my students and colleagues in the Faculty: there it lies, solemnly presented and expensively bound, the first copy of the Festschrift dedicated to me by the members of the Department of Languages and Literature on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday and to mark my thirty years of academic teaching. It is nothing short of a complete biographical record: no minor essay of mine has been overlooked, no ceremonial address, no trifling review in the annual volume of some learned journal or other has failed to be exhumed from its papery grave by bibliographical industry—my entire career up to the present day is set out with impeccable clarity, step by step like a well-swept staircase—it would be truly ungrateful of me to take no pleasure in this touching diligence. What I myself had thought lost, spent and gone, returns to me united and well-ordered in the form presented here: no, I cannot deny that as an old man I now scan these pages with the same pride as did the schoolboy whose report from his teachers first indicated that he had the requisite ability and strength of mind for an academic career.
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