Thanks to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest film, Stefan Zweig, novelist and biographer (1881-1942) is finally getting some overdue publicity. Yet his work, in all honesty, should never have fallen out of fashion.
Zweig brought to his biographies the temperament of both the novelist and the scholar: in his written portraits, which were praised for historical accuracy, he sought especially to understand the mind of each of his chosen subjects – and to champion the continued relevance of their story.
In The Right to Heresy – his finest biographical work – he paints a study in contrasts: Sebastian Castellio, a learned Protestant monk who preached religious tolerance, and John Calvin, who preached the opposite. Zweig’s ‘psychological’ method ensures that both hero (Castellio) and villain (Calvin) emerge as living, thinking beings; no biographer before or since can force readers to scrutinise their own convictions as Zweig does.
His stories are mostly in the ‘novella’ form. Each story started as a long one, before Zweig compressed it as much as he could, so that each was left only what was necessary to it. Many begin with a narrator coming across the protagonist who is in obvious mental distress, and the story proper begins with the protagonist confessing to the narrator the reasons why.
This framework allows us readers to feel both privileged and guilty: as we are drawn into the story, it is hard to shake off the feeling that we shouldn’t really be hearing it. The stories always feel intense, and it is only when we finish one that we realise the intensity comes from being allowed access to someone else’s thoughts. Reflecting his interest in psychology – a relatively new discipline in his day – Zweig’s stories are tribute to the complexity of the human mind.