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The Worm Turns

What’s got into Michael Hofmann (LRB, 28 January)? To whom or what are his accusatory remarks addressed? Stefan Zweig’s shade, quivering in heaven or hell as he awaits a scrap of praise or ducks another blow from his superiors? An imaginary stage on which poor old Zweig is arraigned in front of an audience of apparently abused readers? A little balance and a lot more common sense are needed in judging Zweig’s merits and flaws.

My own reading of Zweig in translation is limited to Beware of Pity (a decent novel with an intriguing psychological theme buried in its period-piece paraphernalia of army officers with their code of honour and their boring garrison life à la Roth, remote country estates inhabited by Jews ennobled through commercial achievements, and the confusions occasioned by the period’s erotic and romantic-love fixations and illusions) and his memoir, The World of Yesterday, passages of which seem to incite Hofmann to parricidal thoughts. As with any memoir, the reader’s response depends on what he or she might be looking for: a self-portrait of a celebrated figure or a portrait of the times and places in which it is set, i.e. a piece of social history. In either case Zweig’s memoir is a more than adequate portrait of a certain kind of person in late Habsburg Vienna. That ‘representative person’ is both the artist and his middle-class audience of obsessive art lovers and hangers-on. I assume Hofmann will grant, irrespective of whether Zweig’s work is overrated or contemptible, that he was a ‘major player’ in this milieu, so that his observations are useful and worthy of examination. In short, they have psychological and historical interest.

The World of Yesterday also captures the ominous anxiety of the years that preceded the outbreak of the First World War in a way that has been explicated by historians interested in the relations between politics and culture and by popular historians of late Habsburg Vienna. Schorske and Janik and Toulmin argue that the Viennese preoccupation with art as a sort of substitute religion was a response to the failure of an earlier generation’s political liberalism that concentrated its efforts almost exclusively on securing gains for the empire’s middle-class denizens, which included many Jews, those very people who later turned to art when palatable (‘rational’) politics was replaced by parties with agendas built on ideals that were unacceptable to liberal humanists (e.g. Zweig). Some of these movements seem benign or worthy to us today, others deservedly not. You can find a lot of this in Zweig’s memoir, though you might be better served by reading Schnitzler’s Der Weg ins Freie (The Road into the Open), an excellent novel which handles all aspects of Austrian anti-semitism and the accompanying Austrian-Jewish identity crisis in a smooth, compact way.

Which brings us to more invidious comparisons. Sticking to German-language literature, it’s certainly correct to say that Zweig isn’t half (pick your own fraction here) the writer that his contemporaries Roth, Musil, Kafka and Broch were. Why not just leave it at that without kicking the corpse? That leaves the disparaging remarks of Hesse, Mann and Kraus, which are neither surprising nor compelling in the agonistic context of professional writing, adduced by Hofmann as some kind of evidence in a notional literary court of honour (Hofmann’s further introducing of the two talented skunks, Brecht and Canetti, as character witnesses against anyone, much less Zweig, is risible). Hesse himself was a writer who often expended his ingenuity on insipid adolescent fixations, while the prickly Mann couldn’t bear the notion of not being first in place among his peers and competitors, both as writer and central inheritor of the old German ideal of Bildung. As for Kraus, he seldom met a man he didn’t disdain, extending his pervasive negativism to anyone who dared to admire him. He was a great aphorist without a sense of humour, a lack Hofmann holds against Zweig, and a basket-case rolled up in one.

Where does this leave us? In a realm of subjective evaluations fraught with rhetorical thunderbolts that is the realm of Hofmann’s summary judgments, the oddity of which can be noted in his passing remark about Gustav Klimt’s paintings as ‘kitsch’. The fact that Klimt’s work was viewed by many of his contemporaries as either indigestible, opaque or offensive gainsays the kitsch accusation. Perhaps Hofmann needs a new critical vocabulary that doesn’t mislead him into senseless mischief by investing too much in the labels that he affixes to dead writers and old battles. The worm turns. A little perspective, man!

Terrence O’Keeffe
Pearl River, New York

After reading Hofmann, I need a bit of Zweig to regain my equilibrium.

James Plenn
New York

If Zweig was really as dithery, duplicitous, weak, cowardly, humourless, snobbish, conceited, dull, putrid (select word to taste), and as universally despised by his contemporaries as Hofmann makes out, then why did the LRB think it worth devoting a lengthy review to his republished autobiography?

Gillian Tindall
London NW5

The adjective ‘putrid’ is not undeserved.

Santiago Romero
Vienna

Mr Hofmann does not grasp at all the essence of Klimt’s art. The LRB should think twice before publishing unjustified and unexplained attacks on one of the greatest painters ever.

Gabriel Sabbagh
Paris

One is tempted to ask why Hofmann chooses to dish the dirt so prolifically when a simple sentence of hatred would have sufficed.

Geoffrey Godbert
Milverton Somerset


Britten on Tap

Frank Kermode’s review of Benjamin Britten’s diaries contains many illuminating things, but his observation that the composer ‘took an interest in records, but died before they achieved their more serviceable modern forms’, while true as far as it goes, obscures the nature and extent of Britten’s involvement with technology (LRB, 28 January). He was frequently busy in the studio (from the 1950s onwards Decca recorded almost all of his major works as they appeared) yet, at the same time, he looked askance at the increasing prevalence of domestic hi-fi equipment. His worry – expressed in a lecture given on receiving the first Aspen Award in 1963 – was that great music, available on tap, would become increasingly undervalued; the example he gives is of a cocktail party where an LP of the St Matthew Passion is playing in the background. An iPod capable of holding multiple copies of the Ring is something he would have seen as even more of a mixed blessing.

Oliver Rivers
London N19


Alan Bennett Wonders

John Brennan traces Alan Bennett’s phrase ‘habit of art’ to Dante (Letters, 28 January). As ever, Dante seems both to include the whole of his source when he borrows a familiar phrase and to transcend it. For centuries before and after his time, ‘every schoolboy’ would know almost by heart Cicero’s primer on rhetoric, at least as far as the first book. ‘Habitum … virtutis aut artis’ (a ‘habit either of virtue or of art’) is what we call the continual and thoroughgoing pursuit of perfection in any area of human achievement. Its results are by no means ‘a gift of nature, but born of application and hard work’ (De Inventione Rhetorica, 1.25). So, ‘habit of art’ is a typically Roman, rather than Roman Catholic, phrase. Dante could be sure of Aquinas’s familiarity with it; but he draws on his own response to Cicero, and to Aquinas himself, to create a new fusion, through which his originals are visible. This is what used to be called a ‘cultural tradition’, or a ‘habit of art’.

Malcolm Hardman
London W1


Abstract Perfume

While it was a pleasure to see Bee Wilson refer to Chanel No. 5 as the work of art that it is, the essay repeats the common error that No. 5 was ‘the first abstract perfume’ (LRB, 7 January). To Wilson’s pile of corrections to Chanel’s legend, please add one more: Houbigant’s famous Fougère Royale (1882), with its overdose of synthetic coumarin, was first.

Tania Sanchez
Boston, Massachusetts


In the Phone Booth

The phone booths in Kingston-upon-Hull are white to emphasise the independence from the GPO they achieved in 1912 (LRB, 28 January). David Trotter should visit.

Richard Marriott
Boynton, Yorkshire

I was surprised that David Trotter could find no place in his piece on the phone booth for Antonio Mercero’s classic 1972 short shocker, La Cabina, a film about a man stuck in a phone booth.

Charles Turner
Leamington Spa


Hare-Brained? Sure?

While Geoffrey Wheatcroft concedes the points made by Jacob Ecclestone, he can’t resist accusing him of being ‘not an entirely detached witness’ – who said he was? – and then exhuming a slur on Ecclestone from the not-entirely-detached official history of the Times (Letters, 29 January 2009). Wheatcroft is the prisoner of his prejudices. For him an industrial dispute must be caused by an antagonistic and manipulative leader who can bend the minds and the will of several hundred leading journalists. Did those journalists not meet, debate, vote and then act on their decision? Did the company not threaten them with the sack, only to withdraw the threat when their bluff was called? Were the journalists’ ‘real interests … incompatible with those of the print unions’ or did they suspect that once the printers had been seen off they would be the next victims of an incompetent and bullying management? Was it so odd that they followed the settled policy of the National Union of Journalists, that changes in production methods should be negotiated and agreed with all the unions affected? In what way was it ‘surprising’ that Ecclestone was elected to lead the chapel?

Not all the consequences of the lock-out were bitter – the year-long disappearance of the Times Literary Supplement led directly to the establishment of the London Review of Books.

Bernie Corbett, Former NUJ National Organiser
London EC1


Saving Ulster

Anne Enright recalls Ian Paisley in 1977 showing his objection to the possibility of what she calls ‘the liberalising laws of Westminster’ being extended to Northern Ireland by walking round wearing a placard that said ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ (LRB, 28 January). Paisley’s campaign against sodomy started in response to the government’s extension of those laws to Scotland, as a result of which he was concerned that the province would be next. I was a junior civil servant at the time but I recall being assured by a Home Office colleague that so seriously was Paisley’s campaign being taken that the relevant HO department had opened a file entitled ‘Homosexuality in Scotland: The Irish Position.’

Paul Hatt
Surbiton


Darwiniana

‘It has been history’s biggest birthday party,’ Steven Shapin writes (LRB, 7 January). ‘On or around 12 February 2009 alone – the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, “Darwin Day” – there were more than 750 commemorative events in at least 45 countries.’

Has he never heard of Christmas?

John Fletcher
Pilton, Somerset