- The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig, translated by B.W. Huebsch
Pushkin, 79 pp, £8.00, April 2001, ISBN 1 901285 11 1
On 15 August 1941, Stefan Zweig and his wife set sail for Brazil, where they planned to settle after seven years of exile in England and America. At first he seems to have found the change of scene rejuvenating: he continued work on a biography of Balzac, started a new novel and a critical study of Montaigne, and finished his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which starts in the late 19th century and romps through the interwar years, with vivid and comic descriptions of Toscanini, Freud and many other artists and intellectuals. Then he began yet another book: Schachnovelle (‘Chess Novella’), which was published two years after his death, and now appears as The Royal Game. After he had edited the final draft, his wife typed up the manuscript and sent it to New York with a letter to his publisher. Shortly afterwards they were found dead, a double suicide.
The manner in which Zweig orchestrated both his death and the publication of his last work reflects his lifelong – and ultimately unsuccessful – struggle to remain disengaged even as the world crashed down around him. Born in Vienna to bourgeois Jewish parents in 1881, he published his first book of poetry when he was 20. His criticism, plays and novels were eventually translated into 30 languages, and he knew everyone from Richard Strauss to Walther Rathenau. He even persuaded Mussolini to reduce a friend’s prison sentence. But though he courted the famous and the powerful, he insisted on his own indifference to politics. The account in his autobiography of his experiences during and after World War One is repeatedly interrupted by assertions that he was an observer, not an actor. ‘Each one of us . . . has been shaken in the depths of his being by the almost unceasing volcanic eruptions of our European earth,’ he wrote. ‘I know of no pre-eminence that I can claim, in the midst of the multitude, except this: that as an Austrian, a Jew, an author, a humanist and a pacifist, I have always stood at the exact point where these earthquakes were the most violent.’
Zweig’s unerring instinct for placing himself where the view was best belied his professions of disinterestedness. In his twenties, living in Paris, he befriended Rilke and visited Rodin’s studio. After the war, on his way back from Switzerland, he crossed the Austrian border just as the Emperor and Empress were fleeing. He moved to Salzburg in time to witness Austria’s crippling inflation, and to see the town transform itself into a cultural capital with the inauguration of its annual summer music and theatre festival. Salzburg was directly across the border from Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, and Zweig seems to have understood Hitler’s intentions sooner than most. He left Austria at the first intrusion of the Government into his private life. Early in 1934, his apartment was searched on the pretext that he was hiding arms for the Republican Schutzbund, which even the police officers carrying out the search did not pretend to believe. Zweig could no longer maintain his detachment: he would watch the unfolding events from afar.