The Book as Entrance to the World

Das Buch als Eingang zur Welt” is a small essay by Stefan Zweig (Ger., Eng.), first published in the Pester Lloyd (Ger., Eng.) from 15th of August 1931. It describes how Zweig meets on a ship from Italy to Algier (Ger., Eng.) a young sailor and befriends with him. In Neapel (Ger., Eng.) the young man receives a letter and asks Zweig to read it to him. It takes a little time until the author realizes that his young friend is an Analphabet, an illiterate.
This starts a trail of thoughts for Zweig and he tries to understand how a life without reading, a life without books must be, what a life without books would mean to himself. Thinking for example of “Algier” the fact that Cervantes (Ger., Eng.)  was wounded while he took part in the assault on the city under emperor Charles the Fifth flashes up – “two thousands years of connections and relations hustled from my brain, all that read from my childhood days onwards enriched this single word”. Let alone the imaginary worlds, the adventures in strange and distant worlds created by an author’s phantasy, the emotions stirred by poetry – remembering situations, feelings, insights, they all are connected in some way or another with a book.

Stefan Zweig is a child of the enlightened Jewish bourgeoisie of the late 19th century and so absolutely “k.u.k österreichisch” as it seemingly possibly can be. This is not the place to explain in detail what “k.u.k.” encloses and means. I will only give a rough scetch of his life.
He had a privileged upcoming and childhood and most part of his life was free from economical worries. He started to write early and his family did not object his idea of becoming a kind of literate; his father only wanted him to finish his studies, what he did truely. He was a “man of the world”, well travelled, well connected. Herzl – yes, Theodor (Ger., Eng.) – was Redacteur of the times’ leading Austrian newspaper Neue Freie Presse (Ger., Eng.) and accepted young Zweig’s collaboration  – I think it ended only 1938.
At the beginning of WWI for a brief time span Zweig kind of followed the national drunkness, but only very short. He served voluntarily in the “Kriegsarchiv“, what was part of the “Kriegspressequartier” – a kind of early propaganda service, Austrian edition. Here writers like Ginzkey, Csokor, Paul Stefan, Polgar, Ehrenstein, Trebitsch served, later joined by a certain Rilke. In the end they had to tell lies and to produce two patriotical journals (“Österreich-Ungarn in Waffen” and “Donauland“) and hated it. Zweig was sent on a journey through Galizien  (Ger., Eng.) where he collected firsthand impressions of the heroic murder. He reacted in a typical way, writing his drama Jeremias*, a profound denomination towards pacifism, humanism and enlightenment.
After war and revolution Zweig settled in Salzburg and a very productive and successful time started for him. He became a best selling author, specialized in biographical narrations (Lebensbilder). 1934 saw fightings in Wien between leftwing and rightwing militias, Zweig’s house became searched through for weapons – maybe because militant pacifists hoard machine guns. This incident and the worsening general political situation bring Zweig to the decision to take permanent residence in London. 1936 he travels for the first time to southern America, Brasilien. He keeps on travelling, giving lectures and 1941 he settles for the last time in a new house, in Petropolis in Brasilia. Here, together with his second wife Lotte, he kills himself by Veronal on the 22nd of February 1942. She seemingly waited until he had passed away and used Morphium to follow him.

After the first worldwar Zweig – and others like the great Ernst Robert Curtius (Ger., Eng.) for example –  nurtured the idea that a kind of “Geisteselite” or “Geistesaristokratie” should take over, should seek gubernance and responsibility, after the old way of politics had miserably failed. It followed an idea that Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (Ger., Eng.) (1724-1803) already had formulated in his utopy of a “Gelehrtenrepublik” (Ger., Eng.). It is – at least in the German variant – mostly based on Goethes humanism and describes a position and countenance free from dogmata, a kind of spiritual and educated federalism. Goethe’s idea of “Weltliteratur“, “world literature” is fundamental for all this. It describes not the summary of the world’s literature, or a kind of canonical list of “must reads”, it is the process of a border transgressing communication and understanding (völkerübergreifende Verständigung). As Robert Faesi put it 1947 (!) : “Weltliteratur ist für Goethe der geistige Raum, in welchem die Völker mit der Stimme ihrer Dichter und Schriftsteller nicht mehr nur zu sich selbst oder von sich selbst, sondern zu einander sprechen; ein Gespräch zwischen den Nationen, ein Austausch der geistigen Güter.“ “World literature for Goethe is a spiritual space, in which the nations raise their own voices through their poets and writers – not to speak about themselves and talk to themselves, but to talk to each other: a communication between nations, an echange of spiritual goods.”

Zweig was optimistic until 1914, the old would go, a new generation formed by peace and progress would take over. He understood very early that things would change dramatically. A new Europe had to emerge. The optimism stayed with him through the 1920s and started to fade in the 1930s. 1942 the brown Reich was storming from victory to victory; all he despised – the brutality, the stupidity, the sheer perversion of all human – was seemingly unstoppable marching on and on. And his strength was gone. His religion, his belief in the human, was gone. Veronal seemed to be the only way out.

* Bodmer, Thomas: Jeremias. Ein Bekenntnis zu Pazifismus, Humanismus und Weltbürgertum. In: „Das Buch als Eingang zur Welt“, herausgegeben von Joachim Brügge, Internationale Stefan Zweig-Gesellschaft Salzburg (Schriftenreihe des Stefan Zweig Centre Salzburg, 1), Würzburg 2009

11 thoughts on “The Book as Entrance to the World

  1. “Die Augen des ewigen Bruders” ist eine parabelhafte Legende, describing the premises and consequences of his pacifism – so its not one of the typical “Novellen” but more of a philosophical reflection.

    “Angst” is published 1920, written 1913. As Kindler tells me, “handelt diese Novelle von der befreienden, einer Katharsis gleichkommenden Wirkung des Geständnisses, der offenen Rede, wodurch allein das aus allen Ordnungen geratene Leben wieder zu sich findet.”
    I have no idea, whether these texts for you as a writer could be of interest. I would spend my time with his autobiography “Die Welt von gestern. Erinnerungen eines Europäers”, simply because I am more of a Kulturhistoriker.

    But what one should have read from S.Zweig is the “Schachnovelle”, 1942 – there he is.

  2. Savannah
    When I re-arranged my furniture – actually I just cleaned my rooms – I found a volume with essays of Zweig, I did actually not know that I possess it. Started reading and did some search, a very interesting person.
    I wonder who else was working in this “Kriegsarchiv” in Vienna.

    The “Schulpflicht”, compulsory education, was introduced in the German states through the 18th century – mostly, Bavaria was late and had it only 1802. I think for the whole Germany sometimes between 1871 and 1900 a regulation was found. Looking back in my family, they could all read and write. Even my mother who had only four or five years of schooling.

    Yes, what a life.

  3. Exactly, Scarlet: That’s why all the ideas of the death of the book are nonsense, that’s why there is no “society of the illiterate” coming up: Reading (and writing) is a primary cultural technique and in the modern society it is nearly impossible to avoid it. even if the teenagers do not care for what they are meant to read for school, they can read their goosebumps-twilight-pulp.
    And I seriously can not imagine that one electronical “reader” device should replace a library.

  4. A lot of smart, awesome folks killed themselves because of WWII…

    It’s easy to shake one’s head at this if one has not experienced the horror.

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