Stefan Zweig

The Neverending Bowie Thread will return with …hours, probably the album I’ve listened to the least (except for the dismal 80s records, whose existence I’ve tried to forget altogether, mostly successfully). In the meantime, I want to write a little about what I’ve been reading, for the simple reason that it’s the only way I remember any of it.

I’ve been on a Stefan Zweig kick for a while now. After learning that The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by Zweig’s work, I ordered a beautiful hardcover edition of his collected short stories, which sat around the house for a few years looking pretty and intimidatingly thick. When I finally dug into it, I was fairly blown away. Zweig’s world is far away in time and space, yet his characters are immediately recognizable and sympathetic. There is something fundamentally — for lack of a better word — human about it that transcends such petty limitations.

Most recently I tackled his memoir The World of Yesterday. To be honest I probably enjoyed it least of anything of his I’ve read, but it is not really meant to be enjoyed; it is a requiem for the lost world of pre-WWII Europe, written shortly before Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942. Beach reading it isn’t, but the craft is impeccable, the sentiments lofty, and the tragedy palpable.

Looking back I see that I flagged two passages, both of which are in the realm of advice for writers. The first is aimed more at those writing history or biography, and thus perhaps of limited use, but quite pithy:

It is a thousand times easier to reconstruct the facts of what happened at a certain time than its intellectual atmosphere. That atmosphere is reflected not in official events but, most conspicuously, in small, personal episodes.

The second has to do with editing. Zweig was known as a ruthless cutter of his own prose; this is why he only published one novel. Many of his works began as novels and ended up as novellas or stories by the time he was done with them.

In the end I find myself enjoying a kind of hunt for another sentence, or just a word, which can be cut without affecting my precise meaning and at the same time might speed up the tempo. I really get my greatest satisfaction in my work from leaving things out. I remember that once, when I rose from my desk feeling pleased with what I had done, my wife said I seemed to be in a cheerful mood today. “Yes,” I replied proudly, “I’ve managed to cut a whole paragraph and make the action move faster.”

This is something I admire and have never been very good at. So in Stefan’s honor, I’m going to stop right there.